We've seen the rise in popularity of a few new or previously underappreciated genres within the current generation, among them rhythm-based games, brain training titles and life simulators. Another is the puzzle- and brain teaser-centric adventure, which rose to popularity with Level-5's Professor Layton series. Unfortunately, its contemporaries have largely failed to innovate on and flesh out the formula further.
That's not a huge problem, as the good professor's exploits have proven successful time after time, but with such forgettable efforts as James Noir's Hollywood Crimes and Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights remaining their only competition, one worries if any student will surpass the master before planet Earth has completely lost interest. These aren't bad games; they simply feel too derivative, too formulaic and, most of all, imperfect in comparison to the original paradigm.
One title that well encompasses these shortcomings is May's Mystery: Forbidden Memories. A simple look at the box art and you know that the development team has no qualms about taking cues from the master – just compare the European packaging with the European cover art of Professor Layton and Pandora's Box. The similarities continue throughout – it looks and plays like a Layton game. It's just not as good.
But like its classmates in the lecture hall of Layton, it's not a bad game (though it may win the contest for the least stylistic originality). It includes over 270 puzzles, including brainteasers, maths exercises and other tests of your logic bone, the vast majority of which will look very familiar to you if you've studied under the professor. Their abundance is May's greatest asset; compare that number to Professor Layton and the Last Specter's count of around 170.
The puzzles are largely challenging enough and often prove not quite as complicated as they appear, the realisation of which – usually after you've spent far too long over-thinking it – is an important part of keeping things exciting. Just don't expect any of them to wow you with their originality or creativity. 230 activities fall under this category; the rest are music-based games or hidden object puzzles. The former require you to repeat notes in a song by tapping and swiping the stylus, and the latter don't disappoint with cleverly secreted images on hand-drawn canvases.
The story follows the bright and bushy-tailed May Stery (pause for laughter) as she searches for her lost brother in the dystopian town of Dragonville, which is bizarrely dragonless. You'll ally with the deposed mayor and a sneaky boy as you search for your missing sibling, getting closer to the secrets of the apparent despot who rules the town, sending any children to go to the mysterious Crypto-Zoo where they're never heard from again. An intriguing Island of Dr. Moreau-reminiscent tale unfolds, but it's over just as it begins to get interesting and ends with a gauntlet of headache-inducing exercises. Beyond the main two, just about every citizen of town serves as little more than a conduit for another puzzle. The steady rhythm of "How do I get past here?" or "I'll tell you if you help me figure this thing out," gets predictable and stale before long.
May's Mystery features a host of other flaws, but most are small enough to not detract much from the experience. You'll navigate Dragonville screen by screen, clicking a compass icon before you make any move; doing so causes arrows to appear over doors, people and objects, which you can then tap to proceed. It may not seem like much, but the mystifying inclusion of that extra step becomes grating and makes everything feel a bit dull. Many puzzle instructions are imperfectly worded, and one or two we simply could not understand from the direction given; not knowing what you're supposed to do to even begin a puzzle is about the worst feeling you can have in a game like this, but luckily it surfaces rarely. The music-based activities don't build enough on their foundation to remain interesting after you've played a few, some of the puzzle controls feel stiff or unintuitive, easy activities can follow tough ones and vice versa, and if you fail an exercise you've got to re-read every line of the sometimes lengthy dialogue leading up to it.
The graphics and sound fit well with the rest of the game – none of it is unpleasant, but neither will it captivate or terribly impress you. They get the job done, a sense that pervades May's Mystery and ultimately is its greatest shortcoming.
May's Mystery is a good game, with a host of 270+ quality puzzles, though beyond the inclusion of rhythm and seek-and-find activities, there's little here you won't find in Layton. It just doesn't have the same life as that series of which it's so shamelessly derivative, from the gameplay right down to the presentational style. The story is interesting but never develops enough; the characters are amusing, but their predictability as little more than conduits for puzzles grows tiresome. It's entertaining and can keep you coming back for more, but its pervasive slight missteps are enough to make it pretty non-compelling beyond the pull of the relatively abundant brain-teasers. This is one for the puzzle junkies alone, for those people that need a stopgap until the professor comes off sabbatical – but in the meantime, he can rest assured that his tenure will remain unthreatened by the likes of May Stery.