One. Five. Two. Four. Six. That is not a string of numbers that need to be deciphered in a puzzle in a Professor Layton game. It is the order in which I've played the games in the Layton series that has concluded -- for now -- with the newest and possible best of the bunch.
From Professor Layton and the Curious Village to the new Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, the Layton games have been coming out on a nearly annual basis since 2007 in Japan and since 2008 in North America. Each is a portable adventure starring Hershel Layton a smart tea-loving top-hatted British man who solves mysteries in a world where every conundrum is a brain-teasing puzzle and where every person would be happy to share what they know if only the good professor would solve a puzzle first.
There have been so many Layton games that I can hardly keep up, hence my playing many of them recently in a scramble, out of order, as I raced to fill my gaps in the lore and in my understanding of how the series has evolved.
An annual release pace isn't good for many gaming series. See Guitar Hero or Tony Hawk, for example. In Azran Legacy, however, we have one of the best examples of a game benefiting from yearly sequels that I've ever played. The game shows that, despite the cynicism engendered by yearly Call of Dutys or Need for Speeds, make-one-every-year is a dictate that can produce a great game.
From year to year, certain fundamentals of the Layton series never change. The professor is always aided by a boy named Luke Triton who serves as his apprentice. They always have somewhere north of 100 puzzles to figure out to solve the game's eight or so main mysteries and save the day. The professor can always access a trio of distinct mini-games in each adventure: weird stuff like helping a hamster lose weight, teaching a rabbit to act or arranging items in a shop to exploit the worst nature of impulse buyers. All of the games have massive casts of characters. And most of the games even include codes that unlock content in the games in the series that precede and/or succeed them.
In Star Wars terms, Azran Legacy is the Layton series' Revenge of the Sith, sixth in the release calendar but third in the chronology. It finishes up a prequel trilogy, concluding with events that lead into the first instalment ever released in the series, in this case, 2007/8's Professor Layton and the Curious Village.
While older movies may routinely outclass their sequels and prequels, the design of newer video games often benefit from iteration. Gaming sequels generally can trump their predecessors as the blueprints of the early game are built upon in the new ones. That happens entirely for the better, year by year, with the Layton series. The oldest games, for example, didn't yet have nearly as refined a hint system and a note-taking interface as Azran Legacy's. The older Layton games slowly added more and more bonuses outside of the main campaign, introducing free weekly downloadable post-release puzzles, an offering that turned into free daily puzzles for one year in the fifth game and even more rolling out in the year now following the release of Azran Legacy, the sixth.
There's been more quality content in the games each year and steady technical improvements. As the series moved from the Nintendo DS for its first four games to the Nintendo 3DS for the most recent two, the graphics have improved, as have the numerous hand-drawn animated sequences peppered throughout each Layton adventure.
Azran Legacy could have merely been a beneficiary of the Layton series' incremental improvements, but it turns out to be something closer to a rethinking of how the series works, a surprise late-in-the-franchise transformation that recalls the loosening of old formula seen in last year's surprisingly bold The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. As with that Zelda game, what had come to feel like a constricted, linear series of games opens back up with the new one. In the case of Layton, the game has nearly gone open-world, inviting players to go through Azran Legacy's extraordinarily large adventure out of sequence, exploring and re-exploring corners of its globe-wide adventure to uncover ever more puzzles, hidden areas and a surprising amount of additional, optional bits of story.
This new game is so sprawling that it might as well be compared to another favourite series of mine, Assassin's Creed, an annual serving of games that also feeds the appetites of those of us who want both a main course and a gargantuan spread of side dishes. The Assassin's Creed comparison suits Azran Legacy particularly well, as the latter game, like the entire Creed series, turns what initially appears to be a period piece into a quest to rediscover the immense power of a hidden, ancient precursor civilisation. In both, the fate of the planet is at stake. Maybe "Azran" is short for "Assassin"? Happily, Professor Layton doesn't stab anybody with a wristblade during his adventure. He's too much the gentleman for that. He saves the world by solving puzzles.
Azran Legacy is initially linear and at first glance seems to be the same thing we've more or less played through in the five Layton adventures before it. We start this one in the snowy town of Froenborg with Layton, Luke and Emmy Altava, Layton's assistant in the prequel trilogy, in tow. All the games start like this, usually in some strange town where, as mentioned, everyone's got a puzzle for the professor or his pals to solve.
In Froenborg, we're looking for a Professor Sycamore who has made a discovery related to the lost Azran civilisation. The existence of the Azran was referenced relatively lightly in each of the two previous Layton games. Details seeded in those sprout in this game which, as the title suggests, is all about those ancient people.
The gameplay in this new adventure is familiar. Layton game worlds are a series of fairly static scenes: 2D drawings in the DS games and impressive 3D dioramas in the 3DS games, made all the most spectacular when viewed with the system's stereoscopic 3D effect turned on. Each scene is a slice of the world: a city street with a few people to talk to, a path needing to be crossed, the inside of a cave needing to be explored. With a stylus, the player taps around, patting people to talk to them, tapping on curious parts of the scenery to find coins and artifacts, probing anyone and everything to try to poke out the next puzzle that will advance the story.
It's like that in Froenborg, where, swiftly, Layton and the player must solve one puzzle after another: a puzzle about illuminating crisscrossing streets with limited coloured lanterns, spotting the differences in snowflakes, figuring out a pattern in some embroidery, sliding turtles around on squares of ice and more.
The second puzzle in the game, which involves removing something from a block of ice, is a trick question. Trick questions have been a Layton staple for some time, teaching the player to read each puzzle's unique instructions carefully and to be prepared to find in, say, a puzzle that appears to have three possible multiple choice answers, a hidden fourth option. This second puzzle of the game set the tone that Azran Legacy's creators are, as before, winking at you as they try to tease your brain.
Going back a little further, Azran Legacy's first puzzle is even more important in setting the tone of this sixth Layton game. That puzzle, which involves trying to deduce where an airship flew to, is surprisingly tough and will likely send players to the note-taking interface to scribble out a possible answer. It will likely also tempt players to use the game's hint system which has always meshed well with the series' treatment of wrong answers to its puzzles. Solving a puzzle wins the player points. You get the most points for being right the first time and get fewer if you make a mistake and have gotten it right only in a subsequent try. You can get assistance for tricky puzzles. Players can spend coins found in the game world to unlock up to four hints, the last of which pretty much gives the solution away. These systems give you some options and enable what amounts to a smartly-designed method for enabling player-determined difficulty.
That series' approach to challenge has been nicely refined across the six games and meshes well with Azran Legacy's apparent step up in puzzle difficulty that is signaled by the first puzzle. You can shun the hints and just attempt the puzzles without help, not minding the price of inputting a wrong answer. Or you can preciously pursue the maximum point total (which leads to better post-credits unlockables) and use hints to help you along.
I played previous Layton games somewhat recklessly. I played Azran Legacy conservatively, thinking through each puzzle carefully and using hint coins when I wasn't sure, resulting in me answering every puzzle correctly for maximum points, while spending 79 of the 237 hint coins I found in the game, across some 145 solved puzzles.
Professor Layton games have as many of their roots in crosswords and brain teasers as they do in classic adventure games. There isn't much inventory management, but there's a lot of chatting with characters and an energetic woodpecker's worth of tapping at the scenery. You tap, as mentioned, to talk to people and learn story, to get coins or find collectibles, but in this new game, you also tap to a new class of object called treasures: anything from a snowman to a spider to a golden ocarina. There are dozens of treasures in Azran Legacy's world and also dozens of treasure hunts -- quests to find three specific items located anywhere in this massive game in order to get rewards. Players can even craft their own three-item treasure hunts and emit the challenge via the 3DS' short-range wireless StreetPass.
The treasure hunts are new for this Layton game and feed back into the main adventure well, finally turning all of the pecking at the scenery that it inherited from classic adventure games into something of a game itself. Now all that poking turns into a combo of hidden-picture item-finding and a game-wide meta memory challenge (where did I see that toaster oven again?).
In a sign of just how well-thought-out and intricately-designed these games have become, Azran Legacy's designers use the treasure hunt system to unlock a small section of the new game that connects it to the stories of the games in the original Layton trilogy, which, remember, occur after this sixth game.
A few hours after Azran Legacy reintroduces old, refined elements of Layton gameplay and just beyond the introduction of small new things like the treasure hunts, this new game reveals itself to be radically different than any Layton game before it. Our professor gets himself an airship and, with that, the game becomes more or less open-world, welcoming the player to start exploring the world in the order of their choosing.
Riding the airborne Bostonius, Layton can fly to any of five parts of the world, each containing its own multi-hour Professor Layton adventure. Ostensibly, Layton is going to each place to find one of five Azran stones, but what actually seems to be happening is that the player gets to experience five very different short-form Layton mystery quests. We go to a jungle populated by people whose hairstyles are modelled from mushroom tops and whose village chief, to the despair of his compatriots, appears to have forgotten how to laugh. We go to a windy village to discover a culture that sends brides to their death to appease an angry god. We go to a beach town that is bizarrely obsessed with eggs. And so on.
In each of the regions they visit, the player can do the standard Layton stuff, but, freed from the more linear flow of previous games, the overall adventure feels more like taking five vacations at once with a teleporter to let you hop between them. All of the game's locations look distinct. All have memorable characters. And all are displayed with surprisingly lively graphics that take what are usually richly detailed but static Layton scenes and pepper them with pleasant animations of, say, a train crossing through the middle of the scene or an ant colony ferrying leaves in the foreground or, in the background of a scene of a wild west saloon, horses swinging their tails to and fro. Even the game's graphics show the maturation of six years of iterative craft.
One of the Layton games' standbys is the trunk, the figurative luggage that works as the game's pause menu that provides access to previously-attempted puzzles, diary notes that recap the story and whatever the given game's three special unlockable side games are (this edition's offerings include, with typical series bizarreness, a mini-game in which young Luke Triton has to assemble perfect outfits for six female characters, including his mother).
There's something new and excellent in Azran Legacy's trunk: a newspaper called the World Times. Once the game opens up, the Times comes into play, slowly but steadily adding 25 articles about things happening in the game's many, many locations. The Times articles help this Layton world feel more alive and create a feeling you don't often get in this medium, that the game world moves along everywhere even when the main character has left a scene.
Even better, the Times serves as the gentlest of reminders to re-explore areas Layton has already been to. A report of a kidnapping in the jungle or the sighting of a sea monster in Lake Kodh will send the more curious player back to places they have been, and there they will find characters with new things to say, new puzzles to solve and even new areas that unlock for them to explore. Ignore the World Times and players will miss a large chunk of what Azran Legacy has to offer. Read it, however, and players will be using a system that ought to be ripped off by other open-world games. How simple and how inspired: a newspaper that makes it exciting to backtrack.
The puzzle-obsessed worlds of Layton games are absurd, but they are designed to charm. They are populated by remarkably memorable, amusing and even sympathetic characters. You meet these people and talk to them a lot, especially if you explore the game world thoroughly and revisit previously-explored regions. The characters have delightful quirks, strong visual design and, sometimes, even a fun connection to other characters in the series.
Outshining the best bit-players -- the insecure henchmen, the sniffling shepherds the zealous fishermen -- are Layton, Luke, and the prequel trilogy's major supporting characters, all of whom feel like more than just puzzle-solving avatar's by game's end. Their fates matter and the story is told well enough that you'll likely be satisfied to find out what becomes of the likes of Grotsky, Descole, Bronev and Emmy. I finished Azran Legacy wanting to know what will be next for so many of its characters (The Curious Village isn't next for all of them). That the game has the most interesting storytelling of the five games I've played in the series shouldn't be a surprise, I guess. In writing, too, the game has benefitted from iteration.
Beyond the sprawl of Layton's main game are Azran Legacy's 380-something daily post-release puzzles, its unlockables, its bonus story sequences and more. The volume of gaming being offered here is impressive, but moreso is the level of craft and the effort to provide something new and good. Even some of the types of daily puzzles that return from the previous Layton games return with tweaked rules, a sign, yes, that maybe the designers are running out of completely new puzzle ideas but that they are loath to take an older game in the series and copy and paste.
Everywhere you look in the game, you'll find the products of a a surprising amount of effort. Take the artwork used to illustrate the puzzles, which has become fantastically elaborate in this sixth game, often playing with art styles not seen in the rest of the adventure.
One wonder if, somehow, this is the benefit of the annual development cycle: Layton's designers seem inspired to top themselves, to justify that this year's release is bigger and better than last year's. In Azran Legacy, they have made a monument to the benefits of annual game development, leaving only the "drawback" that players like me might have become overwhelmed and played the series out of order.
They made the Laytons faster than I could play them, but play them I did and I'm glad for it. I recommend starting with the first or maybe starting with the fourth. But if you want to start with the sixth, go ahead. You'll understand plenty and have a good time. Me? I've still got the third Layton to play. I hear that it's pretty good.