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.