Professor Layton

Last Rant on Videogames: Riddle Me This

I talked recently about the Phoenix Wright series and how amazing it was.  Additionally, I was left in some state of awe as to how few people had actually played it.  I realize there are a lot of people who won't touch Nintendo products with a 10 foot pole, but there are, contrary to popular opinion, some pretty good third party games on their systems.  As part of advocating awareness of such games, let's talk about puzzles!


If you don't know what I'm going to be talking about after that, congratulations!  You're my target audience today.  Professor Layton is a wonderful little game series for the DS and 3DS.  The premise is thus: you take on the role of the professor as he and his companions, usually Layton's ward, Luke, as he sets about unraveling massive conspiracies and the causes of apparently supernatural events.  The professor, tenured at Gressenheller University teaching archaeology and helping the befuddled dean exist on a daily basis, is a man after my own heart.  With the mindset that no puzzle is without an answer, he thwarts all adversaries and obstacles by sheer logic and a bit of trickery.  Really, he's the Doctor without a second heart.  I'm pretty sure he regenerates, too.

The plot is generally incredibly grandiose, though rather short.  The only reason the games last a reasonable amount of time is because Layton has a serious problem.  You see, our poor boy here has a serious puzzle addiction.  Unfortunately, everyone he meets is an enabler, throwing puzzles at him for little to no reason, and without provocation.  You chased a cat?  That reminded this old man of a puzzle!  You wear a hat?  Puzzle time!  Now, when I mentioned this to Zach, he seemed rather nonplussed at the idea.  I should point out that this game uses the word "puzzle" quite loosely.  Really, it's taken to mean any logic problem possible.  Some are, in fact, jigsaw puzzles.  More often than not, they're riddles.  A number of them are word problems, some are MindTrapian in nature, and some give you copious opportunities to try solutions until you find the correct one.

The game gives incentive for a thoughtful and thorough approach rather than brute force.  Every time you get a wrong answer, you lose a portion of the Picarats a puzzle is worth.  Picarats are the imaginary currency of the game, used to unlock more stuff after the main game has been conquered.  For the completionists out there, it's definitely a motivation to get it right the first time.

If you're stuck on a puzzle, you can expend a hint coin to help you out.  In later games, you can have up to 4 hints, usually in increasing order of helpfulness.  The first three cost one coin and the last costs two, but will generally give the answer away.  Most of the games have a cap of 200 coins.  Collecting coins is similar to navigation and interaction with NPCs.  In the style of old point n' click games, you navigate colorful scenes and memorable caricatures of people by tapping the lower screen with the stylus.  You can move from scene to scene by tapping arrows around the scene, and talk to people by poking them.  There aren't really dialogue trees, so if you're out puzzle hunting, you're likely to hear the same comments multiple times.  Hint coins are found by prodding interesting features of the environment.  At one point, the developers lampshade this by having one of the professor's companions ask him why he always taps light fixtures upon entering a room.  Additional puzzles and some niftiness associated with each individual game can be found in this manner as well.

The stories follow the same general route, though the scenery varies dramatically.  Layton receives some call to action and sets out, followed closely by at least one of the companions he'll pick up that game.  The plot thickens as strange events occur, and Layton quickly finds himself entangled in a web of intrigue.  More often than not, the current catastrophe is paranormal, and Layton, while not immediately disbelieving the evidence, is skeptical of the true nature of events.  In all the games I've played so far, there's nothing more supernatural than Luke's oddly specific affinity for animals, a near empathic bond used as a plot device for no real reason other than to have some more side games.  Oh, yeah.  There are quite a few side games, usually 3 different ones per title.

In the end, the events are totally explainable and founded in the real world.  
However, feasibility is not really an issue, as the explanations have ranged from hallucinogenic dust to building a steampunk replica of London under the Thames that's also a giant spider robot.
 Super realistic, guys.  Layton proves, at the end of the day, that logic triumphs and archaeologists are awesome.  The games are so ridiculous, it's amusing.  While there's always a bit of peril, it's obviously intended to be camp, and it comes across wonderfully.  Full of quirky humor and mind boggling puzzles, these games are great fun.  Additionally, they have such a simple formula that it's hard to see it ending.

While the now 6 games in the series might not be enough to run out and get a 3DS, 4 of them are on the DS and prices on that are coming down.  If you really like logic puzzles and would like a story for them to be framed in, it might be enough to make you get the console.  The newer games are still $40, but the entire series can be found on the Amazons for under $100.  Given that each game is probably about a 10 hour endeavor, I'd say that's a pretty good use of your money.

Last Rant on Videogames: Blatant Cashins on Others' Success

I don't believe I've mentioned on the show before a particular tidbit.  I'm a huge fan of the Professor Layton series.  Silly contrivances for making the player solve puzzles aside, the games have a wonderful art style, decent plot, and a colorful world.  The music is relaxing, the puzzles usually challenging, and the characters, while more accurately caricature, are all unique and memorable.  I'm waiting in great anticipation of the North American release of the Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright game.  Surprising very few, I also glean a certain amount of enjoyment from Phoenix Wright as well.

Today, I'm rambling a bit about a game that was probably vastly overlooked and, I think, unfairly treated by those who actually picked it up.  The title is Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights.  I think that if you're familiar with the Layton games, you might see how this relates to the title of the post.  Herein lies the problem this game makes for itself.

Before I delve into what this game is and what I think of it, I must say that it seemeddoomed to perceived mediocrity simply due to its title.  It's obviously trying to mirror the Layton style in this regard, and I'm under the impression that no small number of those who picked it up were expecting a rather patent abuse of that game's style.  I wonder, then, why they bothered to pick it up in the first place.  I, for one, was goaded, though only slightly, by Alex to grab it as a way to tide us over until the next Layton release.  What we got, however, was something entirely different.

The vast majority of reviews I've read for this game panned it for not being what we expected: a terrible Layton clone.  This seems something odd to fault it for, considering that it would have been faulted for being just that.  While the title is similar, the eponymous doctor hardly bares any resemblance to Layton himself.  i almost wonder whether it was a coincidence that the games ended up with similar English translations.

At any rate, I was pleasantly surprised by what I got.  The title is for the 3DS, though it makes scant use of that system's notable features.  It does, however, open with an amusing and fairly well-rendered 3D cutscene.  Doctor Lautrec is a misanthropic archaeologist driven to collect a set of living treasures occupied by spirit guardians while accompanied by an assistant who is around for the apparently sole purpose of telling him whether a treasure is guarded.  He combs the sewers of Paris looking for these dangerous baubles in competition with a failing entrepreneur and self-proclaimed rival.  His leads come from a mysterious and beautiful bar keep, and is aided by the bar's most devoted patron, a layabout millionaire.

Lautrec eventually finds himself allied with a mysterious waif who ends up being quasi-royalty and must defend her against a vague criminal syndicate.  Also, there's a group of knights living underground in a vaguely futuristic tunnel system ostensible powered by the living treasures.

Really, the premise of the game is amazing, though the implementation is a bit lacking.  While the stories are fairly well presented, they aren't told sequentially since you can select quests in fairly arbitrary orders.  This isn't much of a problem, but occasionally you're presented with a story in which the characters act as if they don't have the information revealed in the previous quest.

The biggest problem here lies within the quests themselves.  Each one follows a painfully formulaic pattern.  You begin by receiving a quest from the bar keep, Milady, in the form of a cryptic clue.  Lautrec and his assistant, Sophie set out to solve the puzzle.  Unfortunately, the puzzles either require an inordinate amount of knowledge about French history, or moon logic.  Alternatively, they're not puzzles at all.  Most of these puzzles are solved by the duo tossing out possible locations which you, the player, must run to and examine.  After you visit the right one, you either get more to run to, or you're told to find the entrance to the sewer.

Looking for the entrance is mildly amusing, especially with the 3D effect on.  You get a pre-rendered area of the game's envisioning of Paris to visually scour for a symbol.  Once you find it and zoom in on it, you get to enter the labyrinth, which proceeds to give you another round of formulaic dungeoneering.  The mazes consist of some occasionally, though not usually, clever puzzles that mostly involve moving blocks and evading guards.  Along the way, you can collect treasures to bolster your stash.  This is important to do for reasons I'll explore in a moment.  Aside from the physical conundrums, you're occasionally given more traditional style puzzles to solve.

For a game ostensibly about solving puzzles, this is where I feel it falls short the most.  I was already enjoying the game fairly thoroughly until I found out that there are only four types of puzzles to solve.  You get the inventive "spot the difference" puzzles, a game vaguely resembling Minesweeper, a crossword where you just have to place the words in the right spots, and an ordeal wherein blocks of various shapes must be arranged within a confined space.  None of these are terribly original, nor are they challenging.  The further you progress, the more complicated each type becomes, but it never really changes.  As I've talked about before, you're rewarded for progression with changes in depth rather than changes in scope, which makes it hard to maintain interest.

The most exciting part of the game comes when you collect either the secondary or primary Treasure Animatus, the living treasures.  The system seems daunting at first, but due to some unexplained mechanics that you quickly discover, it's actually quite simple.  Since the treasures try to fight off would-be explorers, you must first subdue them.  To do this, you must place treasures you posses, along with special gems that pass as weak treasures, on pedestals around the center one upon which your target sits.  Every time you place a treasure, your treasure and the prize trade blows.  There's something of a 5-way rock-paper-scissors going on, so you can plan your placement accordingly.  Placing your treasures near other ones they're weak to or strong against affects the damage you deal to the center one.  The pedestals can also have certain effects and limitations, though none are terribly exciting.  The true challenge here is figuring out how to do enough damage to subdue the hostile treasure without killing it.  Barring special circumstances, once a treasure takes enough damage, it dies and becomes an ordinary item without a guardian spirit.  There are a couple different models for each element of treasure, and the attacks are mildly interesting to watch.

The problem with all of this is that it never changes.  It's exciting and even - dare I say it? - fun for the first couple hours or so.  The overarching plot and the discovery of the other characters' backstories kept me playing well past this point.  However, my fatigue with essentially performing the same task ad nauseum led to the actual nausea that phrase implies.  I got too bored with running around the same locations, tackling minorly different dungeons, and solving the same damned puzzles that I just gave up.

It's sad, too, because I feel a fair amount of polish went into this game.  The visuals are pretty nice, almost every scene has pretty good voice acting, including your rival with the best French accent in a videogame I've heard for a long time, and the plot's not bad, if a little hackneyed.  The eventual mundanity of what starts as a fantastical premise kills whatever interest I may have had in the game.

I maintain, however, that this game was never really trying to be a Layton ripoff.  Nothing about this game plays remotely similar, and the only resemblance I can see is in the titles.  However, Layton is much better executed, even if the premise of Lautrec is more immediately interesting.  I suppose this is a case study in the power of a simple story told well over an amazing story told poorly.  If you've considered picking this game up, I recommend giving it a pass.  There's not enough there to warrant the more than 40 hours it will consume to reach completion.

However, as a friendly suggestion, you could play Layton instead.  Puzzling!