Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

Hey, Matt here. Just briefly, my goal in 2014 (and starting before it I guess) is to write about any and all games I play. These aren’t going to be formalized reviews, per se, but more just what impressions I’m left with. 

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

The fifth Layton game moves the series into 3DS and really almost totally ruins it in the process. It’s actually a fine game writing and puzzle wise, even if I think the puzzles are too easy and the twists and turns shockingly predictable compared to prior entries (nothing will ever top the 2nd Layton game where the answer was EVERYONE WAS TRIPPING ON SHROOMS THE ENTIRE TIME). But the very nature of the 3DS versus the DS changes the fundamental mechanics of how you interact with the game, with unfortunate results. 

In the first through fourth Layton games, the narrative thrust of the game is that you explore a world by going through static screens and tapping on people and locations to discover puzzles, hint coins, and talk to the various people in the world. It’s very classic point and click stuff, part adventure game and photo hunt, but because of how everything is tidily laid out on the bottom screen you interface quickly and easily with the world. 

The 3DS version, meanwhile, moves the environments up to the top screen. This makes sense on paper. The top screen is where the 3D is, but also the screen itself is wider and thus weighted to be the ‘main screen’ so that the most visually important stuff often gets put there. Which is fine for most games, but the problem is that the top screen is not a touch screen, and Professor Layton is at its heart a touch-centric series of games. 

The clumsy solution is to allow you to create a virtual touch pad on the bottom screen over the top of your menu and map by pressing a magnifying glass icon. Not only is this an extra step that isn’t necessary, it changes the game from a one-to-one touch game to a mouse-style game where your movement is mirrored on a different display. This seems like a small thing, but it creates just enough distance and abstraction that it totally disrupts the flow of play. Every time you get into a new area and have to bring down the exploration interface and then every time you have to close it to move to the next area and do it again, it feels like two steps too many and one degree removed from the intimacy of the prior games. 

It’s not a deal breaker, but this kind of design fundamentally changes what kind of game Layton is, making it less approachable and dispelling a lot of the immediate and tiny charm of the prior games. The consideration is made for form, to get the visuals onto the bigger and shinier screen, but the gameplay flow suffers incredibly as a result, and the whole thing ends up feeling more like work and less like exploration than any prior Layton game. It’s not surprising, given how perfectly Layton seemed to fit on the DS, that moving to new hardware is a bumpy ride. But it’s still a shame to see it stumble after four really solid prior entries.

Then there’s this:

Late in the game there’s an entire chapter that takes place as a teenaged Layton and his friend explore a mysterious dungeon. The game abandons its prior structure and becomes a 3D top down grid based dungeon crawl, complete with sokoban-style pushing puzzles (pictured here) and weird stealth sections where you’re dodging mechanical mummies that roam the halls.

Now, I am okay (if unenthused) about the move to 3D character models for the 3DS installments of DS franchises. I get that producing those is likely easier and cheaper than high quality 2D art. That said, this entire sequence reeks of ‘doing it because we can’. There’s nothing gained by including this sequence, other than creating an entirely different one-off game play mechanic you can advertise but that totally goes against most of the spirit of the rest of the games. This whole chapter is dire, removing all of the wrapping that makes Layton a delightfully low-key series and instead turning it into a third rate puzzle rogue-like. This is not progress.

I don’t hate Layton 5, but it seems to be trying to change things mostly for the sake of changing them, and I’m pretty sure all of it is to the greater harm of the product. Those games work because the formula was elegant and mostly unchanged, a warm hug from an old friend you could dive into every year or 18 months or so and enjoy just like you enjoyed the rest of them. There’s a place in the world for games like that, and seeing it try to stretch to be something it’s not is frustrating. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the upcoming 6th title is supposedly the last of them. Layton had its run, and is great, but maybe its time has come?

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