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‘Layton’s Mystery Journey’: An Excellent Addition to a Wonderful Series

Layton’s Mystery Journey is a must buy for any puzzle enthusiast or anyone who appreciates world-class animation and true video game artistry.

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After Professor Layton uncovered the secrets of the ancient and mysterious Azran civilisation in 2014, Level-5 revealed the gentleman archaeologist’s adventuring days were behind him.

It was a bittersweet finale.

On the one hand, it was sad to think we might never again have the opportunity to accompany Layton, Luke, and Emmy on another puzzle-fuelled journey through a charming and unique rendition of the early 20th century; on the other, at least we could console ourselves with the knowledge that the series was going out on a high note; a rare occurrence these days.

Then, a year or so ago, in a somewhat surprising turn of events, Level-5 announced it would be returning to the series once more; only this time, Katrielle not Hershel Layton would be the focus.

I must admit, I was initially concerned a Layton game set in a different period without the professor would lack some of the charm that characterizes the rest of the series. However, after little more than 10 minutes of play, it became abundantly clear that, for the most part, Layton’s Mystery Journey is every bit as original, quirky, and beguiling as its forbears.

The story begins in Chancer Lane, a bustling side-street in the heart of London, 20 years after the events of The Lost/Unwound Future – the latest game in the series chronologically – with Professor Layton’s daughter, Katrielle, preparing to undertake her first case as a private detective.

Assisted by her adoring assistant Ernest Greeves and an amnesiac talking dog named Sherl O. C. Kholmes, who has himself solicited Kat’s help in reconstructing his fragmented memory, from here on out, the game follows Kat as she sets about building her reputation as London’s pre-eminent sleuth-for-hire by solving a succession of weird and wonderful, self-contained cases throughout the city.

However, as this description might suggest, unlike previous entries in the Professor Layton series, Layton’s Mystery Journey isn’t held together by a central narrative. Instead, each case is largely separate and unconnected to those that came before and after.

It’s a curious change to the established formula, that, though giving Level-5 ample opportunity to establish and explore each of the game’s new characters, in turn, isn’t particularly effective at maintaining the player’s interest.

With no overarching mystery to provide a focal point, the game feels disjointed and incomplete; something that’s particularly frustrating given that early indications suggest Sherl’s amnesia and/or Professor Layton’s sudden disappearance (two highly intriguing enigmas, we can all agree) will be at the very heart of the adventure, only for it to be revealed that both cases are being reserved for the sequel.

Now, obviously I’m excited by the prospect of a second Layton’s Mystery Journey, however, it’s hard to fully invest in a game that saves its most compelling mysteries for future titles.

Fortunately, the combination of imaginative, quirky cases and its trio of excellent characters just about make up for this narrative shortfall.

Possessing both the professor’s prodigious intellect and instinctive kindness, alloyed with a forthright attitude and light-hearted, playful nature all her own, Katrielle is just as, if not more, engaging than her esteemed father.

Kat’s adoring, love-sick assistant, Ernest, on the other hand, though not quite as dynamic as Luke or Emmy, chiefly because his stereotypical posh Englishman persona is ever so slightly grating, is by no means a bad addition to the series, while Sherl complements his human companions superbly, providing much of the game’s humour. Indeed, my biggest complaint as far as Sherl’s concerned is his name which, compared to the game’s other genuinely amusing puns (Cesar Chance the newspaper editor, Maverick D. Rektor the filmmaker, and, my personal favourite, Grant Sloanes the bank owner) feels a tad on the nose.

Gameplay alterations, meanwhile, are far more modest. In fact, for anyone’s who’s played a Professor Layton game before, it’s pretty much business as usual.

As usual, during the course of her adventure, Kat must solve an array of puzzles – over 150 in the main game alone, though an additional 365 can be downloaded for free from the eShop over the course of the year. Some are directly linked to whatever case Kat’s currently investigating and thus must be completed in order to progress, while the majority are merely optional diversions worthwhile only to those who are interested in accruing the maximum number of Picarats – a type of XP system that essentially measures the player’s skill – possible, or gaining access to/completing the bonus challenges in the main menu.

In terms of difficulty, after a relatively gentle start, the puzzle’s do become gradually more challenging without ever really reaching the hair-pulling, face-clawing levels of impenetrability you’d expect to find in certain sections of The Witness or Portal 2. Especially as there are plenty of hint coins hidden around London with which the player can purchase clues whenever they get stuck on a particularly challenging puzzle. Nevertheless, despite the arguable reduction in overall difficulty, the variety and ingenuity of the puzzles are as impressive as ever, utilizing the 3D’s touchscreen to great effect.

There is, however, one noticeable change that does improve the experience quite substantially; one that is a direct consequence of the game’s segregated narrative structure. Namely, the player can jump back and forth between cases at any point, simply by returning to Kat’s office and check to see if they missed any puzzles or hint coins during their initial explorations of a specific area. It’s a small change, true, but one that eliminates much of the tedious back-tracking that interrupted the flow of the earlier Professor Layton titles.

Rounding things off is another bevy of challenging, enjoyable, and imaginative minigames. ‘Hound in the Pound’ is my personal favourite, primarily because it offers a slightly greater challenge than the other 2, although both ‘Passers Buy’ and ‘Ideal Meals’ provide a nice little distraction from the main game too. None of them are mandatory, of course, but, as the bonus puzzles mentioned above only become available once the player has earned the requisite number of Picarats and completed each stage of all 3 minigames, they’re just as important as anything else Layton’s Mystery Journey has to offer for those looking to master the game.

For me though, what makes Layton’s Mystery Journey and the series as a whole so special, is the truly incredible visuals.

Every beautiful location, environment, and character exudes personality and imagination thanks to Level-5’s inimitable cel-shaded art style. The fully animated cut-scenes, in particular, are a joy to watch, each frame a painstakingly crafted work of art capable of withstanding comparison to 2010’s film adaptation Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva. And, though Layton’s Mystery Journey is set entirely in London and therefore lacks the globe-trotting scope of The Miracle Mask or The Azran Legacy, it still provides one of the most enchanting video game settings I’ve experienced all year.

The game’s typically relaxing, understated soundtrack certainly helps to set the mood. Whether Kat’s exploring the palatial interior of the Thametanic, plumbing the depths of a supposedly haunted mansion, or scouring the rough back-streets of Bowlyn Green, the music is always spot on. Likewise, Level-5’s often overlooked yet no less masterful use of sound is equally important when it comes to creating these evocative locales. Everything from the metallic clink of a newly discovered hint coin and the indescribably pleasing clip-clop of Kat’s feet as she walks the streets of London, to the characterful voice acting and whimsical sound effects that accompany each puzzle, help to distinguish the series’ unique game world from every other.

With so much to love about this game, it’s a real shame Level-5’s experimental new narrative structure doesn’t quite work.

Nevertheless, thanks to the charming characters, delightful setting, and its collection of sometimes frustrating, always entertaining puzzles, Layton’s Mystery Journey is a must buy for any puzzle enthusiast or anyone who appreciates world-class animation and true video game artistry.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

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Game Reviews

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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