The arrival of a new game starring Nintendo's mild-mannered, conundrum-loving Professor Layton makes me just as keyed up as a fresh Mario or Zelda adventure. His gentleman's demeanour is always a refreshing detour in a medium known for its muscle-bound meatheads, and his penchant for solving problems is infectious. He may not be as colourful or exciting as other gaming icons, but he's at least as loveable.
After exploring time yet to come in Professor Layton and the Unwound Future , our top-hatted doctor of dilemmas steps back in time in Professor Layton and the Last Specter. A prequel to the first three games in the series, it sees the professor working with a different assistant, the charming Emmy, who adds a welcome dose of femininity to the franchise (which counts among its many fans a sizable contingent of female gamers). She hooks up with Dr. Layton just as he's about to head out of town to visit an old friend who has requested his help to solve a mystery involving an enormous apparition terrorizing a small village.
However, the professor's previous helper, young Luke, still plays a prominent role. The blue-clad boy turns out to be the son of an old college chum of Layton's named Clark Triton, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is in possession of some special knowledge concerning the game's titular wraith. He joins Layton and Emmy early on, setting the stage for the three problem solvers to unravel the game's primary mystery, plus scores of smaller ones.
The Last Specter plays almost identically to previous entries in the series. Presented with motionless, hand-drawn scenes, players use the DS stylus to tap around the environment to find puzzles and move off in new directions. The professor's trunk still stores notes on the story, descriptions of riddles currently under investigation, a list of puzzles solved and unsolved, and a couple of mini-games, including one in which players strategically lay track for a model train to run smoothly through obstacle-laden environments.
The puzzles, too, will be familiar to Layton fans. Expect spatial dilemmas, logical conundrums, wordplay riddles, twisty mazes, and more. Some are significantly simpler than others, but there are several good brain breakers in the mix. As usual, hint coins can be spent to reveal a series of useful clues, ensuring that no answer remains permanently out of reach for younger players. Regardless of age, It's a good bit of intellectual callisthenics.
However, there is one curious addition in the form of London Life, an Animal Crossing-style role-playing game that sees players walking around London, meeting up with famous characters from the Laytonverse while running countless little fetch quests. It's surprisingly expansive, but also rudimentary and tedious. I found it of little interest. Still, it hardly detracts from the main story. It's simply a bonus mode that might add a bit of value for a small niche.
The rest of us can sit back and enjoy another lovely Layton mystery while putting our grey matter to the test via more than 100 fresh brainteasers. If there's a better reason to be a DS gamer in 2011, I'm not aware of it.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter
Platform: Nintendo DS
ESRB: Everyone 10+