Review: Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy (3DS)

A final puzzle to savour

The arrival of Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is an occasion both exciting and tinged with sadness. For dedicated fans of the franchise across DS and 3DS there's the promise of hundreds of puzzles and a generous dosage of gentlemanly charm, offset by the knowledge that — for now at least — this is the last adventure starring the tea-drinking Professor.

And fans of the series will be immediately comfortable in Azran Legacy, but treated to enough fresh touches to also feel that this is a worthy successor. In terms of storytelling and presentation this is among the best that Level-5 has produced. Although the polygon-based approach first seen in Miracle Mask is simplistic on a technical level, it encapsulates the offbeat and inherently optimistic portrayal of the world. Set in a world both representative of 1960's twee and yet somewhat modern, it's perhaps how many of us would envisage life in its most friendly, easy-going state. This is also a title that sets the bar for the series in terms of delivering detailed environments full of life, while the soundtrack and voice acting are top-notch.

More so than any other entry in the series, Azran Legacy explores a fairly broad variety of locations and environments, moving well beyond the Curious Village début on DS to truly incorporate an adventure around the world. In fact, it's quite possibly the closest to bombast that the series has reached, though it retains its old-school innocence; as a concluding part to the prequel trilogy, this tale of unearthing the Azran secrets is packed with incidents both global in implication and those focused on Layton specifically. Fans of the lore behind this franchise will most definitely enjoy the twists on offer, with moments that are touching and maintain the series' reputation for tackling serious themes through its fantastical settings.

The charm of Layton is often found in the dialogue and extended cast of characters, and in these areas Azran Legacy shines. The script-writing benefits from the central conceit of the adventure, in which you're tasked with retrieving five items vital to unearthing the secrets of the Azran civilisation. This allows scope to travel to eight main locations — and more — and thus lends the greatest diversity yet in a Layton yarn. Each location is packed with sub-stories and characters, and while some may feel that this presents a danger of losing narrative focus, it holds together. Through dealing with different arcs we learn more not just about Layton, but Luke, Emmy and some new characters; at times the writing is borderline edgy, but is portrayed with a refreshingly pure world-view. The handling of what could have been overwrought twists late in the game is exceptional, overriding the standard Layton peculiarity with skill.

Of course, we've barely mentioned the game itself up to this point. That's not because it's irrelevant, but simply the fact that it's the plot and setting that arguably differentiate and define the series. The formula is at its best here, however, and though we were fans of some of the 3DS-specific segments and puzzles incorporated into Miracle Mask, traditionalists that fell in love with the Professor and his friends on the DS will be pleased to note that this new entry returns to the basics. There's no top-down dungeon crawling or even puzzles that attempt to utilise the stereoscopic screen in a meaningful way. This is conventional, straight-and-narrow Layton.

And in a sense that's appropriate for this concluding part, as the control scheme here manages to replicate the simple charm of the DS titles. As before, scanning an environment for puzzles, hidden objects and hint coins is now done by dragging the stylus on the bottom screen while watching for indicators on the magnifying glass above; it's far more intuitive and relaxing than relentlessly tapping over each screen, and enables you to take in the sights of each area on the 3D display.

As for the puzzles themselves, once again there are enough to keep gamers busy for a significant period of time. The core adventure weighs in with around 150 — once again — though it's technically possible to beat the story with around 85 actually completed, of which roughly a dozen will be core to the story and impossible to skip. Unsurprisingly, as this is the sixth entry in the series, there can be a mild sense of déjà vu as you move fuel between two flasks, rearrange beams of light or determine how many strawberries each of four children should receive.

Yet, to be clear, there's no real sense of plagiarism — of itself — going on, as inevitably there are limits and besides, Level-5 is continuing a series. Much like Mario's jump feeling familiar, or Link often picking up a hookshot, retreading puzzle genres and styles is absolutely inevitable. With the occasional slip-up aside, the difficulty of each typically matches the Picarats on offer — the currency that ultimately determines how many bonuses you receive on beating the game — and for puzzle fans, this will be the usual heavenly bombardment of challenges. Some are heavily driven by logic, others rely on visual interpretation, some require a degree of trial and error, and others are head-scratchers to occupy a good deal of time. The provision of Hint Coins to find is fairly generous, but can still quite easily be burned through by those pursuing completion of all puzzles, which in turn unlocks even more extras and brain-teasers.

As is standard for the franchise, there are additional tasks and sub-games to tackle as they're unlocked through the main adventure. This time around they're functional, the best of which is "Nut Roller", in which you push various items onto a top-down grid to ultimately nestle an acorn safely in a hut; these are creative and rather challenging. "Blooms & Shrooms" is similar, in that you try to place grids of flowers onto a decrepit garden to invigorate it back to life; this one focuses on careful placement and strategy, as you seek to trigger a chain reaction. The mode that most suits steady, thorough exploration and completion of all puzzles is "Dress Up", as items unlocked in the adventure are available for a Style Boutique-esque challenge where you take multiple requests from characters to provide an outfit matched to their moods. Without unlocking the full array of accessories these challenges are impossible to beat, so completionists have an extra avenue to explore.

There's even more besides to add to the already extensive replayability on offer, beyond the "Collection" of items to find. Additional snippets of dialogue and story — often rather quirky — are once again included in the "Episodes" area, while there are StreetPass-enabled "Treasure Hunt" options — items of interest scattered around the game can be set in groups of three as challenges to send to others through the service, and can be received in the same way; completion of these hunts provides points for unlockable goodies. Those concerned about their StreetPass hit prospects do have the option of spending Play Coins for challenges from Layton, making it available for all. Throw in "World Times" newspaper snippets that hint at areas to revisit to find even more areas and puzzles, and there's a lot to do.

There is also, of course, the Bonus area. The series tradition of Daily Puzzles will continue, while there's the option to replay puzzles completed or discovered, we have "Layton's Challenges" — which are rather tricky — and, depending on your Picarat total, "Top Secret" options. This is a game that expects you to go well beyond the 15 hours required to blitz the campaign, and the reality is that over a number of months many players will, while those with Miracle Mask also have an opportunity for some cross-game unlocks.

The great strength of Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is that beyond its core mechanic of dishing up hundreds of puzzles, it is imbued with an effortless and delightful charm. In some senses this entry — despite on relatively rare occasions feeling tired in its puzzle variety — captures the best of the four DS and preceding 3DS titles. It has the largest scope yet keeps its focus on a relatively small cast with some humorous, occasional extras. It keeps the gameplay simple, which is sure to please fans of the DS entries, and successfully flits between the silliness of its own universe and serious, heartfelt storytelling.

Ultimately, it's an experience packed with nods and winks to fans — we would suggest playing at least Last Specter and Miracle Mask before jumping in here — and provides a satisfying conclusion. And, of course, it merely concludes the prequel, with a delicacy of touch in its finale to almost tempt us to revisit the Curious Village and replay the latter trilogy. There's so much more to this than simply playing through the story, too, ensuring that potentially dozens of hours could eventually be lost in occasional visits to see the Professor.

Conclusion

If Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy really is the end of an era, it's a fitting sign-off. Hershel Layton and his companions have been wonderful additions to the DS and 3DS systems, bringing gracious simplicity and charm with each release. This concluding entry captures the best of the new and old, and is indispensable to fans of the franchise. Farewell Professor, you truly have been a gentleman and a scholar.