While gamers in Japan are eagerly awaiting the final part of the Professor Layton prequel trilogy, those of us in the West are relieved to finally get our hands on what was a Japanese 3DS launch title, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask — originally known as Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle in Japan. After four critically acclaimed and immensely popular DS titles, this 3DS debut for the series carries on the over-arching story which first began in Professor Layton and the Last Specter, taking it to a new level of narrative while giving fans of the series everything they could possibly expect. It's a slight variation on a well-known formula but that ultimately matters little, as the challenge of solving the game's puzzles is rewarding enough.
If you're unfamiliar with Professor Layton — it's astonishing if you are — then you should know that at its core it's a collection of 150+ clever, challenging puzzles for you to figure out and solve. The fact that the majority are immaculately constructed helps, but what sets the series apart is its characterisation and story-telling. This time around Professor Hershel Layton, his assistant Emmy Altava and plucky young apprentice Luke Triton travel to Monte d’Or, an exceptionally wealthy and glamorous city in the middle of the desert, to help an old childhood friend. Throw in a mythological ancient civilisation and it may sound like a rather routine affair, but it's important not to think that this is an unimaginative re-tread of well-known tales.
The story that unfolds has its share of faintly ludicrous moments, though that's hardly a first for the series; we are playing as a Professor of Archaeology who solves life-threatening dangers with a tricky puzzle, after all. Like previous entries though, it's a storyline that accurately captures much of what makes the series so loved by its fans: it's full of humanity, charm and occasionally tragedy, giving genuine insight into Layton's beginnings as a lover of puzzles and mysteries. It's an immensely personal story this time around that shows us more of the Professor's late teens, during which we see his home town, parents and some of his dearest old friends. The beautifully animated cut-scenes are a highlight as always — despite the occasionally noticeable artefacts from the video compression process — that do much of the major storytelling, but modest enhancements courtesy of the capabilities of the 3DS system add a little more verve to the visuals and, by extension, the tale they tell.
We say modest, as the lasting impression won't prompt a wow factor, but what Level-5 has actually done is completely overhaul the game's engine, from almost-static 2D screens to fully-realised 3D models. In dialogue sections — of which there are plenty — as well as the occasional engine-based cut-scene, the new visuals and animations are extremely effective at bringing the characters to life in a way that's likely to charm all but the coldest cynics. You'll be looking at character models with exceptionally chunky polygons and almost devoid of any texture, but it fits the fantasy of Layton's world rather well. You'll even see the new art style influence the occasional puzzle, though most could easily be replicated on a DS predecessor. The stereoscopic 3D plays its part in adding to the visual style, though it's disposable and shows the odd-sign of being one of the system's first titles — Layton's pointing finger does come out of the screen nicely, for example, but with a bit of ghosting on the highest setting.
These are relatively minor enhancements, however, as Level-5 has no need to make broad changes to its well-tuned series. One major and important adjustment — in our opinion for the better — is that the majority of the action now takes place on the top screen, as was necessary to make use of the auto-stereoscopic feature of 3DS. Therefore the familiar practice of relentlessly tapping the touch screen to find puzzles and those vitally important hint coins is no more, with a new Investigation system brought into play. The bottom screen normally serves as a map, but tapping on a magnifying glass brings the icon onto the top screen, at which point you slide the stylus to manoeuvre around the scene: coins, hidden items, puzzles and characters eager for a chat make the icon turn orange, while areas suitable for a closer look prompt a blue indicator. Simply sliding the stylus and tapping when prompted is preferable to tapping every square millimetre on every screen, and it's a welcome new standard for the series.
Beyond that major change in controls, the developer has added a few diversions from the established pattern that will keep long term fans on their toes, such as a brief action-based horse-riding section — later revived as an extra attraction to play — and a longer dungeon exploration section late in the game. Fans of 2D RPG dungeon-crawlers will recognise the well-worn habits of pushing boulders and finding items in this section, and while it's undoubtedly simplistic it nevertheless remains relevant to the story and provides a respite from the standard Layton routine of dialogue to puzzle to more dialogue.
Outside of the main action, Professor Layton's trunk has the usual delights that include extra snippets of story, details of the mysteries at hand and a few mini-games. While the shop shelf-stacking mini-game falls a little flat, helping a toy robot through mazes and training a circus rabbit are enjoyable diversions, with the latter capable of sucking up a fair bit of time on its own. As expected you'll also need to work hard to clear a lot of puzzles — and earn plenty of Picarats — to unlock bonus content; daily puzzles are a welcome extra from launch day onwards, another norm for the series, but this wasn't activated at the time of review.
This title, as you've probably picked up, gets a great deal right and makes subtle but notable improvements on the terrific DS entries. The only reason we haven't deliberated on the puzzles in detail is because they carry on where the series predecessors left off, with any imaginable discipline — be it logic, mathematics, visualisation techniques and many more — being skilfully deployed. Some are exceptionally difficult, others both devious and simplistic at once, with the occasional example that doesn't necessarily make sense even with an explanation.
It's another strong hand of puzzles, then, and practically our only complaint with this release is that occasionally the gameplay balance is lost. At some points you'll be in story-heavy areas with little puzzle solving of any kind, while in other areas there can be a long stretch of puzzles and back-tracking while the story takes a back seat. In the 15-20 hours to complete the story — many more hours will come in working through the extras outlined above — this complaint only surfaces on a couple of occasions, and it's not a significant enough issue to distract from compulsively pushing on through the adventure.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask achieves its goal of making a successful franchise transition to 3DS, retaining the charm of its predecessors and making subtle changes to improve the series standards. While solving wonderfully engineered puzzles is the meat of the gaming experience, moments of variety and a few new ideas ensure that the franchise maintains its freshness. Its greatest strength, that takes it from a top-notch puzzle collection to something more, is its story-telling. The broad range of characters, the emotional tone of the storyline and the teasing promise of more makes for an utterly engrossing experience. The question is whether this is worth your money; if you enjoy puzzles and charming tales of adventure, then you should already know the answer.