By this point, most of our readers already know if they will like a Professor Layton game long before it's actually released. This is due to the fact that while the specifics of Layton's investigations change, the gameplay remains largely the same.
With games such as these, however, that's not a bad thing. The Professor Layton series hit the ground running, with its wit, cleverness and puzzle design winning players over from the start. The latest title, Professor Layton and the Last Specter, offers very little in the way of evolution. And yet, when the game is so charming, gripping and fun, we doubt that will upset his fans at all.
For those who aren't familiar with the series, The Last Specter may actually be the best place to start. It's a prequel, meaning Layton encounters for the first time some of the characters that he'll work closely with in the other games. It's as much an origin story as anything else, and it's a darned fine one at that.
The game begins with Layton — who at this point in his career works alone, though that won't last long — receiving a letter from an old friend. The letter requests his help, as a giant phantom periodically appears to destroy the town of Misthallery, and the residents can't hold out much longer. Needless to say Layton is quick to investigate, but even a bizarre story like that is more complicated than it originally appears, as Layton's friend turns out to be the mayor of that town, and he also doesn't seem to remember having written that letter in the first place...
Saying more would spoil at least one — and probably more — of the fun twists and turns that the story takes, suffice it to say that the mystery is both satisfying and effectively creepy to experience. Cheery character art and quirky companions keep the atmosphere from ever getting too dark, but — as in the previous games — it's difficult to avoid getting swept away by the story.
The game is played by tapping the stylus anywhere you'd like to explore. Sometimes you'll elicit a comment from Layton and his team, sometimes you'll uncover a hint coin — more on those later — and sometimes you'll discover a puzzle.
As you might guess, the puzzles are the backbone of the game, and we can certainly vouch for their difficulty. Some puzzles are required to move the story forward, but many of them are optional. That doesn't mean you'll want to overlook them, though. Whether they're based on logic, maths, trial and error, matching, memory, observation or lateral thinking, nearly all of them will drive you crazy until you arrive at their often hilariously obvious solutions. (An early puzzle involves getting Layton's young charge Luke to come out of his room, and it's easily one of the best-designed puzzles yet.)
If you have difficulty with a puzzle, you can redeem hint coins for some guidance. The hints always fall short of providing the answer, but they certainly can help you zero in on what, exactly, the puzzle expects you to do in order to solve it, and that's quite helpful.
As usual, the game is packed full of brilliant animated sequences and exceptional voice acting. At various points in the story it did seem like we were forced to wait quite a long time between puzzles, but that's a small gripe, and one alleviated somewhat by the enjoyability of the sequences standing in our way.
One other important inclusion is Professor Layton's London Life, an additional game that seems like an afterthought on the packaging and in the instruction manual, but it's actually a full-fledged retro-style life sim / RPG in its own right, and quite worthy of being played entirely separate from the main story.
London Life allows you to create an avatar of your own and, well, basically live out life in Professor Layton's version of London. It's adorable, engrossing, and shockingly bawdy. You can also exchange items and visit your friends' towns via Wi-Fi, but there's more than enough to keep you busy here without ever having to leave.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter is another top-quality game in a truly brilliant series. It challenges your mind in a way very few games seriously attempt to do, and the feeling you get when you solve a particularly difficult puzzle is less one of relief than it is a desire to leap ahead in the game and find the next one. Playing this game is its own reward, and we'd have it no other way.