Sunday, March 09, 2008

Every Puzzle Has an Answer!

If Hayuo Miyazuki, the creator of Anime classics like My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away, created a story based on Tintin, after watching Les Triplettes de Belleville it would be a lot like the world of Professor Layton.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village, for the Nintendo DS, is a wonderfully absorbing game, which I gorged my way through in several days whilst in San Francisco for GDC (yes - I have a lot of draft posts backed up).

It's an adventure game, in which the eponymous Professor and his plucky assistant Luke explore the village of Mystere for clues surrounding a case involving a lost treasure bequeathed in the will of a rich baron.

But the primary game mechanic isn't the traditional fare of point and click adventures, which usually involves locating objects in various locations and combining them in unpredictable ways to progress. Instead, this game uses brain teasers, which the residents of Mystere require Layton and Luke to solve in return for assisting with the investigation.

The puzzles are far richer than in a game like Dr Kawashima's Brain Training, which provides a limited number of puzzle types (like mental arithmetic) and has the player repeat variations of these over and over. Instead, the Curious Village contains 150 hand crafted puzzles - the kind you might get in a broadsheet newspaper. So you get riddles, math, matchstick or chess problems. Some involve physics or mazes or sliding blocks - there's a lot of variety, which is one reason why this game is so compelling - it makes you think hard, but continually changes the *way* you have to think so as to provide exercise for all your mental muscles - a bit like swimming in that sense.

Level 5 have done a terrific job of building on the core game mechanic with a number of design decisions which are right on the nail. There's a friendly and forgiving hint system (the writing in this game is strong throughout) in which 3 levels of hint can be provided for any puzzle by spending 'hint coins', hidden throughout the village. There are hidden puzzles too - interesting asides provided as a reward for exploratory clicking.

There are also a number of metagame sideshows: a number of the puzzles reward the player with various objects - gizmos which come together to form a useful tool, painting scraps which must be put together like a jigsaw, and furniture for Layton and Luke's lodgings - initially bare - which the player must share between the two to maximise their happiness.

The difficulty level is pitched just right - until the very end, you're not forced to complete any puzzle that's really hard, though there's a good chance that you won't be able rest until you've solved them all.

The music and the art (with its limited palette and art style which evokes Belleville) paint a wonderful picture of that fantasy Europe that the Japanese seem to have in their collective consciousness, and the cut scenes are of the quality of a 'proper' Anime film.

In addition to everything else, what makes this game especially noteable is the plot, which is genuinely surprising and delightful, and about which I shan't say anything further, except for..

Game of the year so far.

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