Professor Layton and the winter sequel rush make unusual bedfellows. While other yearly iterations bolster stable foundations with shouty new functionality, Layton ambles along at the pace set in his debut. But what once seemed charmingly measured has begun to develop hints of laziness. Last year’s Spectre’s Call in particular felt like a clumsy amalgamation of previous entries, with its chart success speaking more of quaint familiarity than innate quality. Layton’s games have become comfort (brain) food, and this will not do.
His first 3DS outing provides an opportunity for reinvention. On a purely presentational level, the hardware coaxes great work from Level-5’s artists. The series’ illustrations are elegantly realised in 3D, an attractive hybrid of Belleville Rendez-vous’ potato-faced caricatures and Pixar’s smooth mannequins.
Static backgrounds are demolished, too, replaced with dioramas. Presented in stereoscopic 3D, they conjure further depth by tilting and turning as you scan them with Layton’s magnifying glass, giving the impression of a shoebox theatre hiding incidental details in the wings. Adopting the touchscreen as an impromptu trackpad for the magnifying cursor up top is a smart touch, too, reconciling the disparate screens.
While difficulty is clearly subjective where puzzles are concerned, Miracle Mask does seem easier than past entries. Perhaps this is intended to welcome newcomers, or perhaps puzzle master Akira Tago is going soft
If only riddles translated as well into 3D. Many require careful penmanship, whether sliding blocks around a cage or scribbling down notes, which would be impossible on the 3DS’s upper screen. With interaction thus relegated to the screen below, the upper panel has little more to do than display 3D illustrations. Worse, these images take the space occupied in past games by puzzle instructions, asking players to consult a pop-up box when they need to refresh their objective.
Those puzzles that do rely on 3D visuals come across as simplistic; guiding a ladybird along a rotating corncob is hardly Mensa-grade stuff. The general lack of ambition seems particularly odd in the light of a portion of the game that uproots Layton from his point-and-click template and drops him into a 3D labyrinth. Here, puzzles weave organically into the environment as Layton leads mummies into traps and shunts boulders over pits. It’s a burst of innovation that’s over too soon.
Not that the remaining puzzles are lacking by series standards. There’s little repetition from old games, and a generous selection as well. On top of the story’s 150 brain teasers, Level-5 has prepared daily DLC for a year. Fundamentally, it’s hard to bear a grudge against a game with such generosity of spirit and pleasant delivery. But having tangled with mythical sea beasts and alternate Londons, isn’t it time for Layton to solve the greatest mystery of all: where does he go next?