This time around in Professor Layton and the Unwound Future--the franchise's third North American release--Layton returns in another off-the-wall adventure, filled with challenging puzzles and strange characters.
Although I won't spoil any of the new or returning personalities, it's obvious the core cast remains. Puzzle-solving maven Professor Layton and his boy-wonder Luke are back and are quickly, and mysteriously, thrust into an adventure that could hold the key to the future of London. The adventure here is the same formula you're used to: explore the world, meet its cast of characters, and handle puzzles as they are lightly peppered in your direction. When Layton first boarded an old-timey boat to American stores, the mix of adventure and puzzle-solving was a welcome departure from other typical puzzle games on Nintendo's handheld. Now, it feels like the good Professor and his young lad are stagnating.
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is still a charming adventure and the franchise's upbeat and adorable attitude is still a solid palette cleanser versus other games I'm liable to play on my consoles. The issue I had here was that it took too long for me to re-connect with the characters and the story told. In the beginning, Layton's patented puzzle interjections became tiresome. As soon as some of the story was unfolding in the first hour, the game would sidetrack for the sake of throwing a random puzzle at the player. This is typical of the series, yes, but I found myself wishing the game would really get the ball rolling itself rather than ask me to step away from it.
These pacing issues can be easily ignored in the beginning but after a few hours the game completely stalls. The plot freezes in place and puzzles become repetitive. Although I pushed through the game's midpoint because I'm a big fan of the franchise--and out of obvious employment obligation--I can see casual fans of the series putting Unwound Future back on their shelf with promises they will one day solve the game's big mystery.
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The good news is the ball does start to get rolling again, eventually. From a puzzle-solving standpoint, don't expect too many changes from previous games in the series. The game still relies heavily on phrasing tricks, for example, but some of the challenges are memorable and still brought a big smile to my face when I "figured it out." Developer Level-5 has revamped Layton's memo system, giving playing a wider breath of options, such as the ability to finally delete specific notes rather than everything.
If you can get past the game's midpoint of repetitive puzzles and "this is going nowhere" story, Layton can be a rewarding game. The entire experience is more uneven than previous entries but Unwound Future offers players a good ending to the current trilogy, rife with some new revelations--namely, Layton has finally solved the puzzle to unlock his heart.
In Japan, Layton's new trilogy is already in full swing, as the second game in the series will launch in 2011. When the game makes its way to North American shores, my hope is that the pacing will entice me to always want to solve more mysteries, not make me question whether my time would be better spent without the two gentlemanly sleuths by my side.
This review is based on a retail copy of Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, provided by Nintendo.