The lights are on
It's not often that you find yourself actually playing a puzzle game for its story. Even less often when your platform of choice is the Nintendo DS, a handheld device. However, as has become so clearly noticeable, every rule has an exception. In 2008, that exception was Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Level-5's puzzle/adventure hybrid appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on U.S. soil in February of last year. By then, its success as a franchise in Japan was astronomical, and due to the games near perfect pacing and obsessive puzzle solving fun, meeting the same success here was inevitable. And indeed, the huge anticipation surrounding the game's sequel, 'Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box', indicates just how far this clever puzzle game has come. Diabolical Box is fantastic. Building upon every positive aspect of the first game (nearly the entire title), while polishing up the few rough parts, this excellent sequel will not disappoint any who enjoyed the first game.
'Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box' takes place some undisclosed time after Curious Village, with Layton and his assistant/ self proclaimed apprentice Luke back at the professor's office in London. As in the first game, Layton receives a letter requesting his help. This time, the plea comes from Layton's old mentor and friend, Dr. Schrader. Apparently, Schrader has come into possession of the Elysian Box, an artifact said to bring death to any who open it. Though excited about the secrets the box may hide, Schrader beseeches Layton to finish what he started, should anything happen to him. Worried about the wording of the letter, Layton races to the doctor's office. There, he finds the lifeless body of the man who taught him everything he knows, and several questions are left unanswered. Thus begins your journey; one with a decidedly darker tone than the previous installment.
As it happens, the more serious turn of this sequel actually benefits the game greatly. Now, you feel as if the subject's you're dealing with actually matter, as opposed to the sort of casual, rustic charm of the first game. In the early going, the story progresses just as you would expect. For the first few hours, you may think you have a re-skined Village on your hands. However, at a certain point (Which I cannot say, as it is critical to the pacing of the story), the game changes. The atmosphere evolves, to become unlike anything you've seen thus far. It really is much more involving, and because of this will surely make the series much more viable as a serious, triple A entity.
Key to any puzzle game, obviously, are its puzzles. On this front, Diabolical Box takes a slightly different approach than its predecessor. In the first game, you often found yourself exploring the village in search of hidden puzzles, hint coins, and new locales. Though this might have been fun for completionists, some less obsessive fans were left struggling along, hoping to find enough puzzles to keep the plot moving. To remedy this, the team opted for cutting down the exploration in the first half of the game, in favor of letting the story itself introduce the puzzles. Because of this, you will find less seemingly random "Cross the Wolves and the Chicks across the river" puzzles, and instead will be given riddles relevant to the situation at hand. Fear not, the exploration is kept intact, but is saved for the latter half of the game, so as to give those not so quick to pick up the games tricks a chance to get acquainted with the story. In that sense, I suppose, the game is much more accessible than Curious VIllage.
A largely under-appreciated part of Curious Village was the music. I can honestly say that at no point did I ever get sick of any of the tracks playing, even though they were consistently the same for certain situations. The music added an entirely new layer to the experience, one that really brought St. Mystere to life, and enhanced that very Western European flavor that makes the game so very unique. Needless to say, the music in Diabolical Box is nothing short of spectacular. As I said before, the first half of the game feels very familiar, in nearly all aspects. But once that second part gets going, it's difficult not to be sucked in by the game. Level-5 clearly knows how to pace a story, and saves the true brilliance for the game's second act, thereby guaranteeing that players leave with an extreme sense of satisfaction. The haunting melodies conjured up in the game are beautiful, and one of the titles many highlights.
One aspect of the game that has not gone under-appreciated, and deservedly so, is the art style. Professor Layton games, particularly during the cut scenes, have some of the most wonderful and creative art in a game today. The truly memorable and unique design of each and every character, the giggle-inducing puzzle art, the animation. All work admirably, and so it was with great delight that I noticed something in the press release that was sent with my copy, which stated - "The new game includes a significantly greater amount of voice work and animated movie scenes compared to the original." That alone should be sufficient reason for any Layton fan to go out and purchase this game right now. In fact, the art and animation of this title have become so popular, an animated movie, entitled 'Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva', will arrive in Japanese theaters on December 19th, and it is no stretch of the imagination to say that it will appear in the States soon after. With all this talk of the film, it's only fair that we touch upon the voice acting in the series.
I'm going to say it outright. When I first heard Hershel Layton speak, I was a bit creeped out. His deep, almost raspy tone gives off a rather intimidating first impression. However, as the game progressed, I came to love the voice acting of all the characters in the game. Yes, even Luke, who by now has had some gamers screaming in utter disgust and annoyance. Truth be told, the voice acting is what makes Layton such a strong and likable character. This carries over nicely into Diabolical Box, as not only are cutscenes voiced, but some text conversations are as well. It all serves to build an atmosphere; one that holds you until the very last screen.
However, the atmosphere painstakingly established in this sequel is all for nought if the gameplay doesn't live up to the first. And it is moving on to the gameplay that we arrive at my only real annoyance with the title. As I said, the act of running around town in Village, collecting hint coins and solving puzzles, became a formula many players couldn't get enough of. It almost gave a sense of level grinding, in a way, and nearly as obsessive a task. However, with the sequel, things have become a bit too cluttered. In their quest to create an immersive environment for you to play in, the developers have gone a bit over board.
Many objects and views have descriptions attached to them, which indicate what they are or some casual observation by one of the characters. This may seem like a nice addition, but when you're constantly tapping everything in an effort to find some much needed hint coins, having the same summary pop up multiple times can get annoying, to say the least. This trend holds steady throughout the game, and unfortunately, served to slightly pull me out of the experience. Which is a *** shame, given how pretty the environments are.
On a more positive note, Diabolical Box does bring something new to the gameplay formula, in the form of the Memo Pad. What this Pad does is allow you to scribble all over the puzzle at hand, and erase it with one touch of a button. This makes it easier to solve puzzles, again making this game much more accessible.
Other than that, the game brings back the Trunk mini-games, this time with the Hamster, Tea-Set, and Camera puzzles. The Hamster game is a puzzle in which you use various objects collected during your travels, to try and make an overweight hamster get in to shape. It's light-hearted, it's fun, and it's unobtrusive. The Tea-Set, which you collect in the second half of the game, allows you to use different ingredients to brew different types of teas. As you collect more successful recipes, you can brew these beverages to give to distressed townsfolk, and in turn, possibly receive new objects or information. Finally, there is the Camera mini-game, which is very much like the Gizmo mini-game from Curious Village, made harder by the fact that you need to find the correct placement of the objects you collect.
All in all, 'Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box' is a huge step forward for the franchise. While the over-descriptive environments can wear on your patience, it does very little to take away from the beautiful world and cast that Level-5 has crafted. With new gameplay elements like the Memo Pad, more mini-games, exquisite art and music, top notch voice acting, and over 150 new puzzles to solve, this is surely a title that merits your interest. In fact, I would have no problem in saying that this is the best handheld entry of the year, and certainly one that I will play through to 100% completion. If you don't go out and buy this game, you're truly depriving yourself of a wonderful experience. Consider this puzzle solved!
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