This is Portabliss, a column about downloadable games that can be played on the go.Professor Layton, shaken and stirred into something familiar, but not in an encouraging way. Gone are the prof and his boyish sidekick, in their place Layton's inspector son Alfendi and his tomboyish sidekick Lucy Baker. Framed as a murder mystery whodunnit, each of the game's cases is introduced with possible suspects, and Alfendi tells the player which suspects he thinks is the culprit – often with near absolute certainty, genius that he is. It's then up to players to scan the crime scene, question suspects, remove any remaining doubt and close the case.
Gone is the odd mix of brainteaser puzzles and rustic exploration, now an odd mix of 3D crime scene investigation and more familiar 2D choice-based questioning. Beyond the characters' narrative ties and charming art, it's hard at first to suss out the "Layton" in this iOS adaptation.
It doesn't help that the first two episodes – the only free episodes – are clumsy, and struggle to unearth a rhythm that comes easily to the DS and 3DS games. One minute I'm thoroughly checking out the crime scene, zooming in and out of the 3D environment à la Ace Attorney, the next I'm asking questions. Then suddenly it's back to the crime scene to re-click on clues I've already found. It's as jarring and unconvincing as Luke's accent but, unlike the whippersnapper's vocals, it does get better eventually. Like Lucy's dubious north England twang – at least it's only text – somehow the play grows on me. The mechanics themselves are nothing special, and the lack of necessary creative thinking (or thinking at all really) is a bit disappointing; clues are obvious to find in the 3D crime scenes, and a limited number of choices ensures even the Clouseaus among us can progress. Once Layton Brothers finds its rhythm between investigation and questioning, though, it's comfortable to fall into. It's a bit like a slow drive through the English countryside; not riveting, but certainly pleasant.
More convincing is how it provides the platform for the DNA of Layton to slowly seep into the characters, and more significantly the overarching mystery. It's not immediate – and it's a shame it doesn't really get going until the paid DLC cases – but it's there, cheerfully distilled for iOS.
The line-up of suspects is just as colorful as Layton's supporting characters. There's the young Hispanic tour guide who holds up masks to communicate his emotions, and the suggestively-clad pop star who uses her figure to distract from her appalling singing voice. As might be expected with a murder mystery game, there's more of an adult theme here too. One suspect is a crossdresser who likes to wear five-inch heels. One case's main character is an insurance-claiming multiple widow who comes to the station with a boyfriend who resembles an angry dog – complete with leash and collar.
Engaging with suspects is particularly enjoyable in the climactic Conclusion mode, in which Alfendi and Lucy try to bring about confessions by unleashing their final wave of evidence. The presentation is the winner here, thanks to little arrow-like tags of text flying across the scene during the interrogation. The tags add some unspoken subtext to the dialog, embellishing characters' personalities, and often providing a few laughs too. Whenever Lucy makes an accusation, her tags are aggressive and spunky, things like "Gotcha!" and "Take that!." In contrast, Alfendi's tags are more intellectual and poetic. And then there are the bevy of punny tags, the likes of which I can only doff my top hat to. This punniness of course shows up in suspects' names too, like the aspiring young actress Destiny Knox, or the theater prop assistant Bray Clegg.
Maybe the best thing about Layton Brothers is the overarching story surrounding Alfendi. The mystery encompassing Alfendi's past and present gradually swept over everything before reaching a surprising conclusion. It didn't nearly match the oh-what-are-you-kidding twist of the very first Professor Layton, but this is a bite-sized iOS game, and so it's apt that Layton Brothers felt like a bite-sized version of an enjoyable Layton mystery.
Again, it's unfortunate this feeling doesn't really show up in the first two cases, but it's good that there's a free option to precede purchasing the DLC packs (which total $5, incidentally). Despite Layton Brothers: Mystery Room's initially clumsy rhythm, and even though it doesn't require the creative thinking the series is known for, there's definite potential in this Layton spin-off. Personally, I would hope that a certain hatted professor would show up and interact with his next of kin. Speaking of which, what's up with Layton having a son? That's one mystery I'd like to see solved, pronto.
This review is based on a pre-release download of Layton Brothers: Mystery Room, provided by Level 5. DLC episodes were purchased by Joystiq.