My gaming appetite is diverse. I'll happily consume story driven epics of grandiose proportions alongside my daily zombie killing escapades. That being said, some of my favorite games have been quiet additions to my normal routine. Games that I will never talk about, for whatever reason, routinely surprise me with how engaging they are, despite being no innovative cup of tea. Sometimes, as Michael Abbott of the Brainy Gamer laments, "critical discourse surrounding games gravitates to and celebrates the new while overlooking the familiar."
There is one particular DS game that I owe more than a cursory glance. The newest addition to a franchise that accomplishes nothing extravagant, but everything skillfully, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is one of my favorite gaming experiences of this year. Developed and published by Level-5 (the creators of a Dark Cloud, an old RPG favorite of mine), the creators have earned every ounce of praise for their subtle success.
For those new to the series, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, along with its sequel recently released in the U.S., Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, follows the adventure of the titular academic and his young apprentice Luke as the traipse around towns and trains solving riddles. Each game features a longer narrative broken up into segments. While the Professor pursues answers to a larger puzzle, townsfolk offer up an assortment of riddles.
I found this particular story driven point-and-click adventure late. By the time I got my hands on the Curious Village, the game was already highly regarded by a seemingly vocal fan base. My response, happily given to those would listen, is that Professor Layton had no right to be this good. Not only is the Layton series a success, but at a glance, it does nothing extraordinary to deserve it.
Many of the puzzles in Diabolical Box are variations on those found in Curious Village, and are themselves variations on any puzzle you might find in a book on brain teasers. They often test the player's spacial reasoning, logic, or ability to move object around for one reason or another. The story, in any other context, would seem muddled with frequent interruption. The number of times a total strange demands an answer to a riddle is almost ridiculous, even when a serious circumstance would make such inquiries entirely inappropriate. Coupled with mini-games and mini-mysteries, Professor Layton should be no more than a collection of distractions for your weekly commute.
However, Professor Layton (and I include both U.S. released titles in this statement) is far more than a patchwork puzzler. Although both games include excellent animation and voice acting, with an engaging story carrying the entire piece forward, it is the imbued sense of mystery that makes this game shine. Each normal puzzle makes up the game's basic interaction. In the Diabolical Box, alongside these puzzles is a hamster mini-game, a camera mini-game and a tea-brewing mini-game, which help the player along the way and add optional teasers to the game's vast collection. There are also small mysteries Layton and Luke solve during their journey, which each play in part in solving the over-arching mystery.
Professor Layton is submerged in puzzles. The game doesn't bend genre as much is it bathes in it. The art and story design, put together with loving care, is in service to the idea of mystery. Until the very end, the player is always immersed in puzzles, from the moving match sticks, to revealing a person's identity, to solving murders. The entire game is an ode to riddles. Layton is the most charming detective since Angela Lansbury, and his devotion to puzzle solving is infectious.
From the beginning, with its dialogue and fluid hint system, Professor Layton is welcoming. When each game wraps up, when Luke and Layton solve the mystery of the week, the satisfaction of finding a single solution is magnified. The game becomes a conglomeration of riddles and eased frustrations. Professor Layton, without flare or vanity, is more than a collection of puzzles, it is a solvable and inviting piece of art devoted to the magnificence of curiosity.