Monday, September 21, 2009

Professor Layton

Professor Layton and the Curious Village and Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box are two games created by the developer Level 5 that Nintendo has published for the Nintendo DS. They are puzzle games with a bit of adventure gaming thrown in for good measure, and there really isn’t anything else quite like them for Nintendo’s hand-held juggernaut.

There is something alluring about mind games. Whether it is turning a puzzle over and over in the hazy recesses of one’s brain or just making an educated guess, there is a feeling of reward in having successfully worked out a solution. This is one of the many reasons I will not recommend either of the Professor Layton games to anyone.

While that feeling is there, and you will experience it multiple times, some of the puzzles just seemed so obstinate that it at certain points it seems like the game designers didn’t put ample time into their game, and this is especially irritating when one gets penalized for not getting the solution on the first try simply because of a failure to anticipate a reasonable variance of the solution. I will give examples, but lets get right to it:

STORY: Without spoiling anything, first game follows the adventures of famed archaeologist Professor Herschel Layton and his assistant Luke as they try to find the famed hidden treasure of a deceased Baron. They travel to an unusual village in the remote English countryside with a rather tall and frightening tower in the middle.

I have to say, right off the bat that intrigue was lost on me. The detective part of the story plays out without player input, and despite the numerous red herrings I theorized just how the plot would be resolved early on, and I wasn’t proven wrong by the end… It played out exactly as I thought it would, which is a crushing disappointment when you consider I spent most of that time telling myself that “it couldn’t possibly be that stupid.”

The sequel, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box starts with the Professor and Luke visiting an old friend who has come into the possession of a box purported to kill anyone that opens it. Our heroes find the old man dead in his apartment with all of the doors locked from the inside and the box missing… but was the curse? In order to find out they follow the clues to a mysterious train and its unusual stops.

The second game’s resolution threw me, mostly because the plot is so riddled with holes, leaps of logic, and piss-poor storytelling that it makes Professor Layton and the Curious Village’s storyline look like a Sherlock Holmes novel. This is the kind of storytelling that I’ve come to expect from the Japanese.

GRAPHICS: As any of my friends will tell you, I have an unreasonable hatred of manga, anime, and various other Japanese art styles. This is simply not the case – it is entirely reasonable. What I hate about it is the general lack of variety. Often times, it is merely a brightly colored (but well rendered) background populated by angular androgynous stick figures with no real expression or substantial animation. This lack of quality is also the reason that the people who make this garbage are able to churn it out so quickly. Having said that, it would surprise you to learn that I don’t hate the art in this Japanese-developed game.

While it does retain the low level of animation and certain characters are represented in the most clichéd of anime clichés (yes it’s redundant, but so is anime), the artists at least attempted an early twentieth century European style, and the result is more in line with the works of Georges Remi and less like Masamitsu Hidaka’s directorial excrement.

While the characters and puzzles are either static or visualized with minimum animation there are segments with fully animated video for the more action packed parts of the story. In the context of an adventure game, it works quite well.

SOUND: The sound in this game is a nearly complete failure. While the voice acting is passable, both games lack a variety of music. All of the Puzzles (some of which you will spend around half an hour on if you don’t cheat) have the same thirty second music loop playing in the background, with no option to turn it off other than to turn the sound off entirely. While this in itself is annoying, when you factor in that they use the same thirty second music clip between two (and soon to be three, probably) games the puzzles start to become far more annoying that they would be otherwise. No, not annoying, INFURIATING. I cannot stress how much the lack of music affects the presentation of this game. The music-box-and-ticking-clock melody will HAUNT YOUR DREAMS!

CONTROL: This game suffers the same problem as all Nintendo-branded DS games, in that it forces you to use the stylus for almost all interactions. In a game of this type it makes sense, but there are certain times where I really wish they would just let me use the damn buttons, such as the sliding puzzles. Many people have owned at one point in their life one of those cheap little handheld puzzles where one slides the tiles around until they are arranged into a cohesive picture. I have played many games in the past where these puzzles are very quickly an intuitively played with a standard D-pad. One is very likely to make mistakes in this sort of puzzle and repeatedly dragging the stylus hundreds of times across the screen when you’re already worried about scratches seems like a ploy by Nintendo to ensure that one purchases a new Nintendo DS regularly. To drive this point home, it seems like as much as a third of the games in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box are these type of puzzles, or puzzles that require less active thinking and more trial-and-error, and that doesn’t endear the franchise to me.

Also of note is the insufficient handwriting recognition, something that could have been easily overcome by including an alphanumeric touch pad or by letting the user scroll through letters and numbers with the D-pad, which seems like it would be clunky, but when the game doesn’t recognize a perfectly rendered “A” for the twentieth time one pines for an alternative.

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box also added a scribble overlay to the puzzle screens, making the need for real pen and paper to figure out the puzzles less likely, but given the thickness of the lines I found myself running out of space on some of the trickier puzzles.

GAMEPLAY: As I have previously stated, this franchise is based in puzzles, but unlike an action puzzler in the vein of, say, Tetris, the puzzles in the Professor Layton games are usually more of the riddle-brain teaser variety. The player is granted as many tries as they like to solve the puzzles but are penalized points (called Picarats) the first two times if they don’t get them right. A player can skip puzzles not directly related to the story; however, a certain number of solved puzzles is required to get further into the game. The puzzles themselves vary from math, to geometry, to word puzzles, to riddles, to optical illusions, to the aforementioned sliders, and one can appreciate the variety (except in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, where variety and thinking games are usually eschewed in favor of the more “action-packed” slider games). There is a definite variation in difficulty between puzzles, and only ever one answer for each.

Except that there isn’t always just one answer for each. And sometimes the game tries so hard to trick the player that its answers are THE WRONG ANSWERS. Allow me to demonstrate with two puzzles that had me so stumped that I actually resorted to looking for the answers online:

Curious Village Puzzle No. 66 – “Birthday Girl”: When asked about her birthday, a young woman gives the following information:

“The day after tomorrow, I turn 22, but I was still 19 on New Year’s Day last year.”

When is her birthday?

After thinking that if she was nineteen on New Year’s Day, She must have turned twenty on the second, and she was telling the person asking this on December 31st of the next year (because she would have had two birthdays since then, one on the day after New Year’s when she was nineteen and turned twenty, and one after the New Year’s of the currently ending year when she was twenty turning twenty-one). Therefore, when the game asked for my four-digit answer I input “01/02.” The game then proceeded to give me the “Incorrect!” screen and took away my Picarats. Thinking that perhaps I had made an error in the date, I then guessed “01/01,” “01/03,” “12/31,” and so on until I was amply frustrated. The more I calculated the answer, the more I felt that it was “01/02,” but the game didn’t take it. I looked up the answer online, and was told that it was “January 2nd,” which blew my mind with rabid-foaming anger. I had already entered that date twice! I was right! What the hell? It turns out that the game will accept “ _1/_ 2” (note the blank spaces) but not “01/02.” This is the type of ill-thought dickery that makes these games frustrating – and this isn’t the only time it happened.

The more memorable example in my mind is Curious Village No. 76 “A Tile Square”:

You have at your disposal a large number of tiles like the one shown below.

If you were to take these tiles and try to make a square, what is the fewest number of tiles that you would need?

The puzzle then shows a diagram with the following information:

Now, the popular use of tiles is to cover a surface, so the “real” answer here is 30 (6x10” across, 5x12” deep)

I noticed that the game was also giving a width of half an inch on the tiles, so I knew that factored in somehow. I surmised that you only needed five tiles to make a square: one laying flat, and four on their edge (2” high) stacked on the 12” side making the 10” side 12” wide: a square:

But, the game told me this was incorrect. Knowing how stupid some of the questions were, I guessed that they meant 20 tiles stacked on top of one another.

BUT THIS IS WRONG. I’ll freely admit that my solution is inelegant, but it is more correct than their answer and every bit as impractical. The question just asks to make a simple geometric square (note: it is not asking for a cube) using as few materials as possible. My diagrams prove that I was right. They were modeled in a 3D program using the values that the game gave me. Given the wordplay and the way the game jerks you around the rest of the time, it’s downright unfair to have a wrong answer as the ONLY answer to the question. If they had just programmed a little leeway into the game or even checked their work this might not have riled me so much, but when you’re testing the player’s intelligence MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THE RIGHT ANSWERS.

These irritants might not happen frequently in the game, but just the fact that they happen at all breaks the gameplay.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the last puzzle in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, the eponymous box itself, was a huge letdown. I mean, the game is named after it, and one would expect a worthy puzzle to solve it, but after I got the clue I managed to beat it in less than ten seconds. I AM NOT EXAGGERATING.

OVERALL: After playing a demo copy in the store I was excited about these games, but I have come to see beating them as a sort of an obligation to the stories, and they both fell short on both counts. If you like being frustrated for no reason, do yourself a favor and invest in a cheap book of puzzles and riddles and pass up on the Layton games.