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Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask review: a puzzling new start

by Steve Watts, Oct 30, 2012 12:00pm PDT

Professor Layton had three titles to his name on the DS, and the final game of the trilogy -- Professor Layton and the Unwound Future -- felt like a fine bookend. It told the best story of the lot, and exhausted many of the puzzle concepts. At that point, I would have felt perfectly happy remembering my adventures with the scholarly gentleman as a great concept that ran its natural course. But even at the time, I knew that another game was already announced for the 3DS and would likely lead to more games to follow. I wondered if I would feel overfull by getting another helping after the meal already seemed satisfying and complete.

With one very notable exception, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is a leap forward in presentation, style, and usability. And best of all, I found that I'm not quite done puzzling my way through Layton's Sherlock Holmes-styled mysteries just yet.

This prequel to the prior trilogy has Layton and his band of puzzle-loving misfits entering the colorful city of Monte d'Or. The area has been terrorized by a mysterious Masked Gentleman, who performs flamboyant public stunts (aka "miracles") like turning the townsfolk to horses or stone. He claims his power comes from the Mask of Chaos, an artifact tied to Layton's teenage years before he even had an interest in archeology. The story is more focused on Layton himself this time around, and how much of his personality was shaped by his former relationships and personal tragedy.

Level-5 takes advantage of the 3DS's raw horsepower, with fully rendered models instead of 2D art. The cutscenes stand out thanks to the system's 3D capabilities, and the new characters look especially fantastic in the new art style. The game's presentation has gotten a spit-shine from top to bottom, including a handier search function that reduces the need to tap mindlessly all over the screen. Instead, a magnifying glass tool lights up when it slides over any kind of point of interest, be it a hidden puzzle, conversation, or hidden Hint Coin. This both increases the amount of thought and care put into searching, and reduces tedium. The same tool can be used, on occasion, to zoom into bits of scenery for a closer look.

Brain-teasers have always served as the backbone of Layton games, and Miracle Mask better integrates them into the action. You'll still often run into residents of Monte d'Or who arbitrarily demand you solve a puzzle for a bit of information. But when it actually matters to the plot, the puzzles fit thematically. I also found myself lost less often than ever before in Miracle Mask, as the game always gave me a point in the right direction. Gone are the days of wandering from place to place, talking to everyone. On the whole, the puzzles were more varied, more understandable, and more integrated than they ever have been, and the game flows nicely from one puzzle to the next.

The one exception comes just after the halfway point, during an extended sequence that slows the game to a crawl. Miracle Mask attempts to vary the interaction with a dungeon-exploration chapter. Both this chapter, and a brief action-chase sequence earlier, were vast departures from the series' point-and-click norm. But the lengthy dungeon only consisted of various iterations on two puzzle types: escaping hostile enemies, and pushing boulders. At an hour or two of game time (depending on your puzzle prowess), this area overstays its welcome. The Professor Layton games thrive on variety, and completing a dozen of the same puzzle type in a row felt exhausting.

Taken as a whole, the game shows an amazing attention to detail, and a real knack for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the series concepts. Miracle Mask makes a variety of minor tweaks, resulting in a smoother experience than ever before -- except for that one, very glaring chapter. How the same team made so many smart improvements to the game, then severely miscalculated the pacing for such a large portion of it, is a riddle that might even stump Professor Layton himself.

If not for that segment, this may have replaced Unwound Future as my favorite game in the Professor Layton series. As it is, Miracle Mask is a game that has taken several small steps forward for the series, and one large, bizarre step back. Miracle Mask was enough to convince me that the series has life in it yet. I just hope that any future games have the confidence to be themselves.


This Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask review was based on a retail version of the game provided by the publisher.





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