Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is already out in Europe and arrives in North America on 28th February; for some the end is still to come while others have already closed their 3DS lid — or hit a button on the 2DS — with a regretful sigh. Level-5 may have kept the door open for the series to continue, but the likelihood that alternative formats and characters will take the lead in future leaves us contemplating a world where our dashing hero isn't the tea-drinking Professor of Archaeology, who so charmed us with his dapper style and iconic hat.
What's fascinating about the DS / 3DS series, for one example, is its success in merging a fairly simple premise of solving hundreds of barely related puzzles with a sense of adventure and playful storytelling. Its commercial success, particularly in the DS days when the "Touch Generation" was contributing its role to making the portable the best selling handheld of all time, shows that this is a franchise that delivered, with great skill, on multiple fronts.
The main attraction, in terms of gameplay at least, is the extensive range of puzzles, adding up to hundreds in each title. Importantly, the puzzle masters within Level-5 are excellent at what they do, and even as the formulae becomes well-worn in Azran Legacy the puzzles still draw the player on, familiarity not detracting from the fiendish challenge that's presented. All that's needed is a stylus and your wits.
And so it'd be wrong to simply suggest that these puzzles are a gameplay extra that do nothing special, as creating such an extensive range that bear scrutiny is a demonstration of ability that not all developers and puzzle games have at their disposal. Some imitators have come and gone since Level-5 struck a winning formula with the series début on DS, and only Layton has remained on Nintendo systems.
With strong puzzles in the formula, we can consider those extra assets that set the series apart and have helped to build a dedicated fan base. Each title has, for one thing, set a very clear sense of place with detailed locales; from a village in the early days to cross-generational jet-setting in later entries. The visual style and design is key in portraying these world, with Level-5 retaining a sense of distinct style even in the shift from pixel-based visuals to the 3D models on 3DS. Professor Layton and his various companions inhabit a peculiar world of modern technology fused with an idealistic 1960s vibe, or perhaps it goes even further back. The settings are recognisably European — with London being formally visited — yet unlike any actual place due to that fusion of old and new. At once both fantastical and rooted in reality, the world of the Professor is intriguing.
How we engage with that world drives that interaction and sense of exploration. In the first four titles the task was to pore over and tap every area, not just speaking to locals to unlock clues and puzzles but also to find those treasured hint coins and collectibles. The tapping frenzy made way to an excellent system in the latest two 3DS titles of dragging the stylus on the touch screen and looking for colour prompts on the magnifying glass; viewing the top screen for the search and moving on the touch screen is not only intuitive, but less of a bottom screen scratcher than the DS games' approach. Exploring and finding all puzzles is as big a part of the experience as actually solving the brain-teasers themselves.
And then we have the story-telling, which has itself formed its own lore and even delivered a film release, which is a true strong point of the series. At their most primitive yet charming the tales are told through fixed characters with subtle animations that engage in well-written conversation, while there are always plenty of cinematic flourishes through animated cut-scenes. The writing skilfully weaves in various emotions, delivering humour, peculiarity and pathos at different points — even with fantastical storylines packed with supernatural beings and ancient civilisations, there's a grounded reality and honesty to Professor Layton, Luke and other colleagues that shines through. There have been moments that can genuinely prompt a tear, and The Azran Legacy does provide a storyline and quality of writing to match all of its predecessors.
With the Professor Layton series it truly has been about the whole package. Puzzles are of high quality and available in abundance, joined by fun sub-games to steal away the hours, while the compulsive gameplay and excellent storytelling compel the player on further. It's a franchise that hits that magic spot that, for its biggest fans, make it indispensable; for some it may be all about the Professor and his relationship with Luke, the gorgeous sweeping music and cinematic flair, or a mixture of multiple factors. The idea of a gentlemanly Professor and a young sidekick may have looked modest on paper many years ago, but has become iconic.
Unfortunately the reality of development and financial reports — sales trends for the series fell away from its DS heights — have combined with, quite possibly, fatigue for the team. A break for the series is arguably the right move, though the suggestion that Azran Legacy is the last of this particular strain of the franchise — with the well-worn formula and star Professor — is nonetheless sad. It's not the end for the brand as a whole, but the limited reveal of Layton 7 — destined for 3DS, iOS and Android — didn't fill us with confidence. What the brand doesn't need is a bland experience to replace its cultured, unique identity.
We can only hope that the spirit of Professor Layton will carry on in the coming years, whatever form it will take; we can still look forward to Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright in the West, too. Every puzzle has an answer.