When you think about puzzle games, titles that involve abstract geometrical shapes (like Tetris) are probably the first things that come to mind. Professor Layton, though, is a different breed of puzzle game, one that you might not be used to. This charming title makes you solve actual brainteasers -- the kind that make you want to laugh and cry at the same time.
It's hard to imagine a game being completely devoted to puzzle solving. Usually, games will include puzzle-solving elements, but they won't revolve around the whole concept. Yet, Professor Layton manages to do this in a way that's enticing, entertaining, and addicting, showing us that even the simplest ideas can become the best of games if handled properly.
At the game's start, Professor Layton and his apprentice Luke are on their way to a town aptly called St. Mystere, because it's shrouded in mysteries. The Baron Reinhold recently died and left a puzzle in his will, saying that whoever found the Golden Apple would inherit his fortune. The Baron's wife, Lady Dahlia, hired the Professor to make sense of it all, since he's a renowned puzzle aficionado.
To begin your adventure, you just "point and click" your way through the town with your stylus. When you talk to the townspeople, more times than not they'll have a puzzle to show you. There are also a few scattered about in items across the village. All in all, there are 135 puzzles waiting to be solved in Professor Layton, although twenty are hidden in less obvious places and fifteen must be unlocked by completing some side games.
The secondary "games" in Layton are simple, yet fun, and can give you a nice respite from the main exploration. In order to "play" them, however, you have to find the necessary items. As you solve puzzles around the village, you'll find yourself collecting various gadgets, jigsaw puzzle pieces, and furniture. When pieced together, the gadgets eventually make something that helps you to find hidden items on your quest. Assembling the gadgets isn't actually a game, though, since the thing pretty much assembles itself when you click on the pieces you've found.
The jigsaw puzzle is a nice little addition to Layton, but the furniture game is surprisingly the most compelling. The premise is pretty basic; the inn that Luke and the Professor are staying at is renovating, forcing the two to live in the barren attic. Therefore, you you must use the items you collect around town to make their rooms feel more like home. The simplicity of it all helps make it great, as it's a silly but compelling way to spend your time when you need a break from puzzle solving. Playing interior decorator also adds slightly to the character development, as you come to see what kind of items Layton and Luke like and dislike.
Of course, the brainteasers are the real meat of Professor Layton, so whether or not you enjoy those will determine whether or not you'll enjoy the game. Unless you hate puzzles, though, there's no reason that you wouldn't love the ones found throughout St. Mystere. Yes, there are a couple of duds, but those are few and far between. There's also so much variety that you'll always be on your toes. It won't be long until you're completely addicted to them, hunting the town like a crack addict looking to find his next score. While it may be irritating at first when everyone in the town wants you to solve their puzzles for them, it won't be long until you start craving those brainteasers and begin to despair when they don't ask you anything.
Fortunately, when you're done you're not really done. Besides the puzzles you can unlock, there's also downloadable content to look forward to. A new puzzle is offered every week, which is definitely a nice bonus.
Controls: Layton is all about the stylus. It's not just the point-and-click parts that will have you touching the DS, but even the menus require stylus interaction. I wouldn't have minded some more D-pad integration, but it's really not necessary since the stylus works great with this title. You can also use it to write little notes on your puzzles while you're trying to solve them.
Visuals: The game is absolutely gorgeous, with some Triplets of Belleville-like visuals that add to its charm. The cutscenes also look great, and will immediately blow you away. There's no question that this is definitely one of the best looking games on the DS to date.
Sound: As is the case with the visuals, Level-5 spared no expense for the sound. First off, all the cutscenes utilize voice acting, which is something we don't get treated to often on the DS. With the exception of Luke, who changes his style of British accent throughout the game, the acting is pretty good. The music in the game is also stunning, and only adds to the French style motif.
Story: Mystery lovers will enjoy the plot fueling Profess Layton, since it has a great deal of those. The story is intriguing, and slowly unravels itself as you progress. Most of the game's questions aren't answered until the very end, though, so you have to wait a while for payoff. It's not too difficult to guess what's going on in the town if you really think about it and piece together the clues, but even if you do, it's still fun to go along for the ride
Difficulty: Most of these puzzles are hard. If you're not looking for a challenge, this game isn't for you. Fortunately, you can find hint coins in the village that you can use to buy hints for the really tough ones. Also, the harder they are, the better you feel once you've figured them out.
Final Score: 9.5/10 -- Professor Layton isn't for everybody -- many people simply won't enjoy stretching their mental limits to solve the puzzles in the game. As long as you're willing to make mistakes and learn from them, though, it's almost impossible not to love this gem of a game. Everything that Layton does, it does right. Even aside from its spectacular gameplay, the sound and visuals are great unto themselves. If you haven't played it yet, it's time to dust off the old thinking cap and give Professor Layton a go.