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3 Reviews

Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call

A gentleman never leaves a puzzle unsolved

Of all the game series that have risen to prominence in the last few years, Professor Layton must be the unlikeliest candidate for global stardom.

When the first instalment was revealed, we had it pegged as a revival of the dreaded '80s 'edutainment' concept - albeit with a rather wonderful half-European, half-Japanese art style - which once misguidedly attempted to teach impressionable youths how to spell or add up.

The fact that it appeared at the right time to ride the Brain Training wave was surely not a coincidence, and we hastily assumed that Kawashima's niche was the kind of market it would be pitched at. But this was before we'd heard of Level-5, and we hadn't the slightest inkling of the kind of production values they'd bring to the project. What was ostensibly a collection of simple logic puzzles became the backdrop for an object lesson in the importance of storytelling and character design.

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We wouldn't be surprised if the animated cutscenes and charming hand-painted scenery cost more to develop than the entire rest of the game combined, but the beauty of the Layton games is that no part of them ever feels superfluous.

While much of it is window dressing, and stripping away the surface veneer reveals gameplay that's scarcely more complex than a pencil-and-paper puzzle book, the whole forms something magical. Transcending all the normal demographics of age, gender and, most importantly, the divide between gamers and non-gamers, Professor Layton is the epitome of gaming for all.

MASS EFFECT

With Layton now equally at home in Waterstones as it is in GameStation, it can't be easy for Level-5 to maintain the momentum that has propelled the series so far. The usual gaming sequel tenets of 'bigger, better, more' can't easily be applied without the risk of alienating a large casual userbase, yet gamers expect each new title to build upon the foundations of the last. Level-5's strategy focuses entirely on the characters and the plot, and consequently those are the only parts of Spectre's Call that Layton fans won't have seen before.

The game is mechanically identical to its predecessors. Many of the puzzles are recognisable variations on older themes, and some are all but indistinguishable from their predecessors in earlier games. Remember the one where you have to ferry a bunch of animals across a river, making sure not to let the wolves eat the cats or the cats eat the chickens? That old chestnut crops up early in Spectre's Call, albeit with a different art style than previous iterations.

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For some reason - call it Level-5's secret ingredient - the obvious repetition matters less in Layton than in any other game series we can think of. The puzzles are the glue that binds the game together, rather than the be-all and end-all of it. Layton himself is the man who can't go more than two minutes without being reminded of a conundrum involving matchsticks, boxes or three siblings whose ages add up to 13 and multiply to 36.

There's the familiar, super satisfying 'eureka moment' upon solving a puzzle, and the congratulatory comments from characters who think Layton's way with a sliding-block picture makes him quite the genius. It's thoroughly charming, and we can't help but fall for every word the cast utters, from the enthusiastic Inspector Grosky to the sadly subdued Luke Triton.

NEW BEGINNINGS

Being a prequel to the previous games, the story deals with how Layton and Luke - later employed as his able apprentice - came to meet. Answering a letter from his old friend Clark Triton, Layton heads for the town of Misthallery - a place known both for its foggy climate and for the spectre that appears on particularly gloomy nights and knocks down somebody's house. Clark is the mayor of this unfortunate town and Luke his depressed, introverted son, able to predict the phantom's appearances and convinced the world is about to end.

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