Professor Layton and the Curious Village (2008) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
15Jan/160

Professor Layton and the Curious Village (2008)

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

The duoWelcome back!  Seth's family obligations over the holidays and my wedding in October combined with a low spot of health put our Why Video Games series on a temporary hiatus.  With health restored and things quieting back down we're ready to tackle 2016 with fresh insight.

That's why I'm pleased as punch we're going to be talking about a strong front-runner for my favorite video game - Professor Layton and the Curious Village.  For the longest time I didn't associate charming European villages with video games.  The only kind of village was the sort I'd pick up equipment upgrades and maybe new party members in whatever RPG I happened to be playing.

But The Curious Village lured me in with its Hergé-styled art and character designs.  Everyone is soft and welcoming but distinct, something we see immediately with Layton's top hat, button eyes, and smile contrasted with Luke's suspenders, cap, and slightly confused enthusiasm.  As you solve the first puzzle and like an elegant old movie the credits roll with that wonderful theme.

I'm focusing a lot on aesthetics now and less the gameplay because I want to emphasize just how thoroughly charmed I was before tapping my way through the village of St. Mystere.  Did you get sucked into St. Mystere, or did something make you keep your distance?Mysterious enemyI think it's both, for me. My experience of the aesthetic and the gameplay were rather divided on this one. St. Mystere was, as you say, absolutely charming. The animation and character designs are lovely. There is whimsy throughout. You mention the theme, which to me recalls the unforgettable opening to Agatha Christie's Poirot television series, a personal favorite among television mystery shows. There is a touch of the Sherlock archetype in Professor Layton's design and speech, but he's considerably softened, without any known vices, and a champion of chivalry. "One must always put a lady's needs first. That's what a gentleman does." On these points, I'm all in, charmed, and engaged when a new cut scene plays to set up the next chapter of play. When I ask myself what experience this game is presenting and approximating, I really don't think we have to dig too deep on this one. I believe it's intending to present the same flowing, slow-drip of information we get in an engaging mystery story (of any medium), and in a surprising twist it's crafted in an interactive package accessible to a wide range of ages.

In the context of St. Mystere the adults act according to the culture of the place. So nothing is dumbed down for children to be able to play it. They've chosen a setting and style that'll work without the necessity of specifically adult themes or situations (at least the hot-button capital-A Adult issues). There are still dark family secrets, disappearances and suspicion of murder. But the focus of our protagonists is on observation and reason, which keeps the tone very calm. I think that's pretty impressive. I will also admit here that I never really considered playing the Professor Layton series games. And even though it has a lot to offer me, I had mentally written it off as a kids game. I expected it to talk down to me as a player. But it did not. That's noteworthy in any genre these days.Oh a lovely puzzleCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThat's a delightful comparison I hadn't really considered.  The quizzical soundtrack, colorful eccentrics, and low-boil sense of danger keep the world with one foot firmly planted in the more adult-oriented Christie style while the "gee whiz" attitude and general positivity in an Encyclopedia Brown mindset.  When you bring in the European-styled graphic novel visuals the charming package wraps itself up beautifully before you set foot in St. Mystere.

Once inside and the travel really begins we form a relationship with the stylus which, for my money, is the best the Nintendo DS offered.  Small things like tapping for conversation or to open your briefcase to reach the various menus make the game simple to follow for child and adult alike as you mentioned.  But the addition of small gameplay alterations keep the curiosity building.

Tap here for a hint coin or tap there for a bonus puzzle.  The instructions direct this early on but after one example of each you're left to your own devices to find the rest of the coins and puzzles at your leisure.  It's a fun way of drawing you into St. Mystere and making the player as curious about the alleyways and seemingly innocuous items because they could be hiding another coin or puzzle.  What really delighted me was the way that almost all the interact-able items cued different lines of dialogue from Professor Layton and Luke if they didn't hide a prize.  Considering how charming the dialogue is, for the most part, I was just as happy to poke around to see what they had to say as much as I was to find what the village hid.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenThat dialog is really well crafted. It might be easy to ignore the beauty of the voice talent in this game. And I think if a person were to do that, it would be because it's a "kids" game, and not an overtly dramatic violent game for mature audiences where people expect there to be hi-caliber performances. But if one evaluates the vast amount of dialog written, performed, recorded, and integrated into this game, it's staggering. I don't remember there being any missed beats in delivery. It's just downright impressive on scale, particularly when you consider the minutia and clutter in the background that are afforded voiced commentary.

As for the stylus, I'll agree there, too. Professor Layton's Trunk contains a number of long-term mini-games that added weight to the sense of progress. There are Chapters, which mark progress in the narrative, but that is a different experience than gaining understanding and self-esteem as a player. I think the puzzles in the Trunk are a catalyst for self-esteem.

A strange mechanical device! We can assemble it as we find the pieces. An old torn painting! We can put its pieces back together and discover an image. The interesting thing about these particular puzzles is that their solution is inevitable, so long as continue solving the other puzzles in the game, we'll find all the pieces. Once we have the last piece of each, the trunk puzzles will make sense and be complete instantly. But even knowing they are inevitable, I found myself playing with the torn bits of the painting every time I found one, even though it's no use putting it together until you have all the pieces. The other interesting thing about those, is that nobody comments on it while it's in progress. For a game that has voiced commentary on everything else... it felt like a private exercise in patience and organization to see those coming together.ClockCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawaySomething you touched on there is an aspect to video games I don't see very often.  The personal, you might say interior look at Layton's perspective, is present in the patient assemblage of the painting puzzle.  Assembling the robot dog is not so much a puzzle but makes me think of someone taking up a hobby to reduce stress.  Tinkering with animals and setting up hotel rooms gives you a glimpse at the interior lives of Professor Layton and Luke.  I rarely think about what video game characters might be up to off-screen like I do with literature or cinema.    These little details just for you and not for anyone else help build that picture.

What you mentioned with the dialogue I can use as a stepping stone into the meat of the gameplay - the puzzles.  There's over 100 of the buggers and they range from simple "follow the line" to the diabolical "figure out this text-based on what parts of this chocolate were consumed".

A brief confession before moving forward - the text / chocolate puzzle is the only puzzle across all seven Professor Layton games I had to look up the solution  to.

But the way the characterization and dialogue blends together with the puzzles is superb.  I love the way Professor Layton and Luke are trying to hurry along as the game reaches the climax but won't leave anyone hanging with an unsolved puzzle.  There were more than a few parodies of the "this puzzle reminds me of a puzzle" when the series was in its prime but I wish more of those parodies remembered how The Curious Village satirizes itself with Professor Layton and Luke's reactions.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenThere are indeed a lot of puzzles. I also enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek way of introducing most of the puzzles in conversation. And, as you mention, they're collectively used as characterization for Layton and Luke. Why do they refuse to leave any the villagers in doubt? It all adds up to a personal code of conduct, which hints at another legacy of the mystery detectives. Poirot had a number peculiarities, not the least of which was his own personal sense of style, but goes further into the care of personal item. I recall seeing Poirot polishing his shoes with Petroleum Jelly or some such, and commenting on how important it is to maintain the shine. Nothing to do with the plot whatsoever. And, indeed, some puzzles in The Curious Village are entirely aside from the plot. Puzzles for the sake of puzzles. But because we get that commentary from Layton and Luke, they're all cushioned in a sense of pride, of intellectual stimulation, and of generosity. And what good would a curious village with a mystery be, after all, without an equally curious detective (and sidekick) to solve it all? I think it's great to play characters with a face and a personality that isn't defined by their tactical role.

As for the puzzle themselves, I'm afraid my enjoyment dropped rather significantly at intervals with regard to what I call the varying quality of the puzzles. As an engineer and a consumer of the English language, about half of the puzzles given were, to me, a semantic nightmare. This is not necessary a failing of the game's creators, as the culture and style of word problems in math, science and intellectual pursuits of all kinds dates further back than Layton. I will say that, probably, all the puzzles were fine on the level of giving just enough information to solve the puzzle, but some of them (even if I solved them easily) contained horrendously ambiguous wording on level of language. It could be argued that each puzzle needs a certain amount of ambiguity to be a puzzle. But my estimate for puzzles that could have been equally puzzling and still have better language choice was about half. I was aggressively aggravated by half the puzzles, just because of the text.

One example, a puzzle display a silhouetted horizon and starry night sky. It asks the player to "connect the give largest objects in space". By this time in the game, the player has been trained to suspect trick questions. So it doesn't take one long to survey the star and see that there are only four large ones shown, and there must be some trick to the fifth. The puzzle concept is clever. The fifth item meant to be the earth itself. If one clicks on a little tree in the silhouetted horizon and connects those to the four largest stars, the solution is accepted and we move on. But that wording: "five largest objects". As an engineer, that is a hornet's nest of a statement. I might be in a minority on whether it matters, but there is no metric by which any of those stars, nor the earth, can be compared in size. No logic by which the earth could be verified as larger than any of the stars, except by the surface area it takes up in the image. And then, due to the implementation of the puzzle, we're not really clicking on the earth, but this one lone tree standing in the center of the horizon, which further confuses the issue. Anyway, that stuff bugs me a LOT, as it turns out. Such instances deteriorated the quality of my experience rapidly.

On the other side, there were lots of puzzles that engaged the stylus in a mechanic fashion, and those were mostly awesome. The main reason those worked better for me (and I would argue, they are a better design to begin with) is that experimentation is implicit. You don't have to rely on language as the medium of conveyance. There is no requirement put upon the player to guess the mind of the designer. You just have pieces and you get to move them. Several match-stick pattern puzzles followed this model. The game asks you to create a particular solution by only moving a certain number of sticks. That kind of puzzle is setup for success, across the board, I think. Every sort of mind has an equal shot at it, since you get to mess with the pieces.  So I liked all those, and got the intended boost of "yeah, progress, let's go!" from them.

TeapotCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayOne of the things I adore about the Professor Layton series is how they eventually incorporate their fluid (and, yes, with your frustrations I'd also say tenuous) grasp of language into the puzzles.  In the third game there's a couple of puzzles which literally have no solution because of the ambiguity in the language.  There's some sense to this considering the puzzles were first developed for Japan then ported to America.  Yet that knowledge of what the games will be like does little to ease the ambiguity which is an issue in The Curious Village.

That said, the puzzles which weren't of the maze / slide variety and heavily utilized the stylus were my favorite as well.  I loved how Flick, the bar patron, spends the whole game thinking up more complex chess-based puzzles which only require a grasp of what moves a Queen can make instead of reading through or following a line.  It's another bit of lovely personality too since someone of a slightly philosophical bent who hangs out in bars all day will, at some point, create their own amusement.  It suggests Flick spends his days working on his chess game or that's his favorite hobby - another bit of personality-building in what could have been just a routine, "Done with my board?  Ok, back to my beer."

Those puzzles work great for gamers young and old alike as opposed to the more logic-based storytelling puzzles.  Anything that's not getting you to poke around with the stylus and instead just sit, read, and ponder is not as strong as something which keeps you engaged with the screen.  I found myself taking breaks more often than not after one of those or of an algebraic sort than having to draw or arc a figure to solve a problem.  Thankfully, and it's something which grows more intuitive as the games progress, the notepad option is one which should be required for any touch-based puzzle game because that sucker's a lifesaver for some of the more complex visual puzzles.

On a final note, what did you make of the ending?  I loved how we're suddenly introduced to a Snidely Whiplash-styled villain which again suggests life continuing outside St. Mystere.  That life should continue outside the game is an idea which makes Professor Layton and Luke's choices so bittersweet.  We disappear into Professor Layton's personal life with the puzzles in the suitcase, get to know the occupants and learn their quirks, and when the time comes to say goodbye to St. Mystere there's a note of melancholy in that the robots will - in due time - break down much like Professor Layton, Luke, and Flora will.  But so long as we find ways of making others happy and occupying ourselves in the meantime this stab at existence is worthwhile.

Heavy stuff, particularly for a puzzle game with match sticks.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenYes, indeed! My favorite bit about the ending is characterization as well. It's wrapped up in an almost sitcom style, where nothing has really changed for Layton, but wasn't it a curious case? Ah well, let's not tell tales out of school or draw any negative attention a lady. Chivalry unto the end. Let us leave this business behind us. And then, yes! What else of the world outside St. Mystere? We know the series continues. To me, this is also the conceit of great mystery detective (Sherlock, Batman, et cetera). The more cases you solve, the more curious the world and its mysteries become. And where would we, the humble players and readers, be without serialized fiction?

Despite my qualms with the problematic medium of (translated) word and algebra problems, I do think The Curious Village makes good on its promised experience, that of the charming euro-detective mystery story. I'll admit that while in the throes of stress, I thought I'd be damned before I play another Layton game, if this was the experience to be offered. I might also say that the game was actually a touch long, in the number of puzzles and reading to be done, for my tastes. Not a flaw, but a concern. After all, Poirot can solve a mystery in less than an hour, Sherlock in less than two (and his cases the more difficult for the extra time allotted). A video game can't be that short, but If Layton presented the same number of chapters, I might prefer to complete them in less time. If fewer chapters, they could have as many puzzles as they have now. Somewhere in there might be my preferred sweet spot. Either way, I can say that I underestimated the experience offered by these games. Having spent my complaints, the impression left in my mind really is one of the core. The charm. The animation. Those personal moments and fascinating implications about the people. All good stuff.

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Posted by Andrew

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