/ Level-5 & Nintendo / DS

Professor Layton and The Curious Village looks like an old European cartoon and plays like a PC game from the mid-1990s. As it turns out, this is an excellent combination.

The art style is reminiscent of comics like The Adventures of Tintin, and the gameplay is directly in the lineage of first-person PC puzzle adventures such as Myst, The 7th Guest and the Dr. Brain series. Two elements you rarely see in console gaming (and never thus far together), and they make Professor Layton seem like a breath of fresh air in a world otherwise cluttered up with endless sequels, rehashes and anime-themed stupidity.

The story is that Layton and his young apprentice Luke are called to the village of St. Mystere by the widow of a recently-deceased Baron. The guy was unimaginably rich, and he's stipulated in his will that the one who finds his greatest treasure, the "Golden Apple", will inherit his vast sums of cashola.

Upon arrival the duo find that the village is literally obsessed with puzzles; a fortunate coincidence, as so are our heroes. Layton is, in fact, apparently something of a puzzle specialist by trade. The game thus plays something like Myst or The 7th Guest - you move about the village, and there is an ongoing story which is spurred on by seeing certain events and solving certain puzzles, but there's a lot of hidden puzzles and other optional stuff you can take as you care to. The puzzles are of the brain-teaser variety seen in the Entertainment sections of newspapers and on SAT questions. There's very little math involved - nothing beyond simple addition and subtraction, really - but plenty of deductive reasoning and logic are necessary.

The puzzles are a mixed bag - the ones that you are absolutely required to solve to progress the game's narrative are not all that tough, but many of the optional ones may hang up even puzzle fanatics. There are something like 120 puzzles in total, and only a few of those are thrown directly into your path; there are a couple of in-game checkpoints where you must have solved 30 and 70 puzzles respectively to proceed, however, but at those points there are a good 50 and 100 puzzles available to you, so you can shelve a few that are really bugging you and still make headway in the game.

For each puzzle you can get up to three hints, purchased with "hint coins". These are found scattered about St. Mystere by clicking on odd places; certain screens will refresh their coins as the game progresses, or have coins in places where they were not before. All told there are 200 coins available, which is more than enough to get anyone through the game. Hunting for coins can become an irritating pixel-hunt, but about halfway through the game you can build a robot companion who sniffs them out for you.

The main story of the game is surprisingly long and involved, and if you make an effort to track down and do all available puzzles you will probably get about 15 hours of gameplay out of it. Of course, once you've solved a particular puzzle there's little reason to replay it, but there's a lot of unlockable puzzles that give you a fair amount of replay value after the main game is concluded. Nintendo has also been releasing a new puzzle every week since the game was released via their DS wireless download service; this is a bit hinky, however, as it has been revealed that all the puzzles that are "downloadable" are actually on the cartridge already, and the download service merely makes them accessible. Those with Action Replays can find codes that unlock all the puzzles at once, if you don't feel like waiting for Nintendo to drip-feed you content that is already in your possession.

Aside from the refreshing graphical style, the soundtrack is also worthy of note. It is of a style that I can only describe as "French", in my musical ignorance. It's dominated by violin and accordion, has a rather sedate yet cheery tone, and makes one think of strolling down brick boulevards in Paris or something along those lines. Layton could really almost be considered steampunk, as it takes place in apparently modern times yet features technology based around almost entirely mechanical components (the Victorian look of the characters and settings also contributes to that). Anyway, it's a very interesting setting and combination of elements, and one not often seen.

I really think Layton could quite possibly wind up being the best DS game to come out this year. It's one of those rare intelligent gaming experiences yet actually has an endearing story and characters, and is rarer still for being free of trendy cockrub anime garbage. Dare I even hope that this game might inspire some youngsters to go on to become scientists, or mathematicians? .... well, that's probably too much to hope for, but I'm certain it can't hurt the intellectual development of any youngster who grapples with it.

Links :
Every Puzzle Has An Answer!
Great Penny Arcade comic

Videos :
* Gameplay Video
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