Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask Review
A fun yet troubled puzzling adventure.
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For those unfamiliar with the good gentleman Hershel Layton, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is a point-and-click adventure game revolving around puzzle-solving. Lots and lots of puzzle solving. Layton and his assistants travel to a tourist city in the desert where they must solve an intriguing yet supernatural mystery – a common occurrence in the series. The twist this time is that Layton remembers (and you play out) his high school adventures with his old friends, who have now coincidentally shown up in the present day.
Miracle Mask may revolve around a young schoolboy Layton, but he’s starting to show his age. Don’t get us wrong – the individual pieces of the game all work extremely well. The new three-dimensional art style looks great in stereoscopic 3D. The puzzles are fun and the mini-games are interesting. It’s just the thread that holds them together – the story – that lacks in this title.
If there’s one thing Professor Layton knows best, it’s his favorite brand of Earl Grey. …That or puzzles. Lots of puzzles. One hundred and seventy, to be precise. Puzzles come in many shapes and forms, from block puzzles to complex number-crunchers. It’s your job to hunt them down and solve ‘em, and you’ll have a lot of fun along the way.
Not all 170 puzzles are unique experiences. A good deal of them are parts of a series of puzzles that grow more difficult as the game goes on. For example, four colored blocks need to be pushed into specific spots. You’ll see those blocks in a few puzzles, but each new level requires more complex thinking. Miracle Mask does a good job at spacing these out throughout the story. Instead of getting annoyed, we felt a sense of accomplishment and progression as we solved these harder puzzles.
Looking back, we found the first half of the game to be pretty easy. Assuming we’re of average intelligence, most players won’t run into a real unsolvable challenge until the fourth or fifth chapter. Not to say that’s a bad thing…just be sure to save your hint coins for later!
Exploring the City
Layton knows how to beat feet, but he’s depending on you to point him in the right direction. Using the wonderfully redesigned map screen (more on that in a bit), the professor can move around to several different spots in his environment. From there the game devolves into a tap-fest: Basically any object could contain a bonus item or secret puzzle, so why not tap every possible inch of screen?
As far as point-and-click adventure games go, this is standard fare. Talk to people by tapping them, find clues by tapping them, move to different areas by tapping on them. Miracle Mask makes the process quick and easy, and avoids cluttering the beautiful artwork with a simple UI.
We mentioned that Layton encounters a puzzle series or two, but that’s nothing compared to the full puzzle mini-games. These games are completely optional and for good reason: they’re downright tough! These games are a nice distraction from the storyline, and are meant to be mulled over and contemplated rather than met and dealt with like the main 170 puzzles.
There’s a shopkeeping game where you place products of matching shape and color in a confined shelf space. Another game has you training a rabbit to become…a circus star? The final game stars a little wind-up robot that needs specific directions to navigate obstacles.
Both the robot and the shelf game are great fun. They’re challenging yet fair, and often there are multiple solutions, opening up more options for strategy and exploration. These puzzles were some of our favorites in Miracle Mask. We wished there were a few more of them!
On the other hand, the rabbit mini-game is strange and awful. You have to pet the rabbit to teach it new tricks, but there aren’t many hints on what exactly triggers a new trick. That, or we just could not decipher the point. Therefore, we were reducing to blindly guessing – not something you want players to do in a puzzle game. By the time we had unlocked enough tricks to actually solve one of the puzzles, we were over that dumb little rabbit. Just because we got a chance to name him doesn’t mean we have to love him.
The often-clumsy map screens from Layton games past have been scrapped and replaced with a simpler, more organic experience. Miracle Mask ditches the static backgrounds and puts in the extra effort for larger, layered artwork that made our 3DS feel like a window into Layton’s world. Moving around and interacting in this world by dragging and zooming in feels light-years ahead of the usual tap-fests we’re used to (though there is still a fair amount of tapping). These revamped map screens ended up being our favorite innovation of Layton’s first 3DS bout, even above the 3D graphics.
Beating the game or clearing any mini-game in full unlocks a set of bonus puzzles. These are skull-smashingly hard, and will break your spirit faster than how Professor Layton beat the spirit in Professor Layton and the Last Specter. If you crave a true test of mental agility, then you’ll get it here.
Success in puzzle solving is measured through picarats, which are totally made up currency unique to the Layton universe. Tougher puzzles net you more picarats, while getting wrong answers costs you. Picarats can be used to unlock bonus content, though that content isn’t what we’d call a “bonus”. Rather, it’s just a cutscene viewer, audio clips of the game’s voice acting, and some character profiles. Would it have hurt to include pages and pages of gorgeous concept artwork?
If the mediocre reward wasn’t enough, the method to earn more picarats is sure to disappoint anyone. Once picarats are lost, they are gone forever. If you want to unlock everything, you’ll need to start a brand new file and complete the game perfectly. This really bugged completionists like us.
Nintendo is offering a new puzzle every day for a year online for free. That’s more than double the amount of puzzles on the cartridge! It’s a mixed bag between total duds and utter enigmas, which is always true of the main game’s puzzle selection. We’re glad the developers went to lengths to extend the title’s life, but who’s got time to get a new puzzle every day?
Pacing & Flow
Layton leads a dual life in Miracle Mask: Both solving the problems of the present day and adventuring in his high school years. Yes, even a proper English gentleman is entitled to a few flashbacks now and again. After returning from a full chapter of solving mysteries in real time, Layton and co. return to their hotel room while Layton reminisces on a chapter’s worth of his past.
Young Layton’s chapters wrap earlier than Present Day Layton’s, obviously putting more of an emphasis on the story of the present day (and its ties with Young Layton’s story). The final chapter of Young Layton’s adventure feels out of place. First of all, it turns into a bizarre dungeon crawling experience, putting a tiny 3D Layton in a maze full of boulder-pushing puzzles. Second, it’s extremely long. There are about ten floors, each with several of these boulder puzzles. To finish things off, each floor of boulder puzzles contains a few normal puzzles to solve as well, making the whole chapter an hour longer than it needed to be.
Unless the next title is called Layton’s Preschool Days, we don’t think there will be any more delving into the man’s past. We were able to push past the obvious fan service and enjoyed the split storyline, other than the dreadfully long dungeon.
Layton games are never afraid to use plot devices like fountains of youth or time machines. The story of the Miracle Mask, while quaint and enjoyable for a few hours, took advantage of our expectations. Plot twists revolving around convenient bouts of amnesia should be left to Full House, not Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask.
Oh dear. Up until the big reveal, the story of Layton and the man with the Miracle Mask is quite enjoyable. Layton and his two assistants Luke and Emmy travel to a tourist city in the middle of the desert. They find out that a masked man is terrorizing the city with devious magic tricks, turning villagers to stone and walking on thin air. Layton’s high school friends-turned-couple Henry and Angela now own most of the city, and beg Layton to solve the mystery of the masked man and bring peace once again.
The story progresses quickly, with Layton investigating clues and trying to stop/solve each “miracle” the masked man throws out. We’d compare this hero-villain dynamic with classic Batman and The Joker stories. Backing up the mysteries that arise from the masked man are stories from Layton’s past, revealing tidbits about certain characters that may or may not be the masked man with a bout of amnesia.
Honestly, the ending really bugged us. To say that one character is evil because he had amnesia, and then to have everything wrapped up neatly by the end is a bit of a cop out. We’re trying to avoid being too spoiler heavy, but the first words out of our mouths were “Oh, come on.” It cheapens the entire experience of working towards beating the masked man, only to have him become BFFs with Layton and the rest of his childhood friends again. We’ll buy the coincidence that a gang of friends is reunited after years of solitude, but not that they can just rekindle and fix everything in less than five minutes.
If the ending of the masked man wasn’t bad enough, the big reveal is even less satisfying. In the final hour of the game, a new villain is introduced in a one-minute scene, though he doesn’t appear again. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the villain from the last game also shows up to pointlessly taunt Layton. Finally, after credits roll and everything is wrapped up, you’re “treated” to a teaser cutscene where the supposed villain from the next game fights the villain from the previous game, which is all well and good if you’re familiar with the franchise. Other than that, prepare to be utterly confused and disappointed!
The dialog between characters works extremely well, if not a little formal (though that’s expected from a gentleman). Conversations between Young Layton and his friends are cute, and the evil masked man’s speeches are pretty devious. The localization team did a great job of translating dialog, especially the cute comments that Layton and Co. make on scenery pieces. These little snippets help to develop the characters more than the main story itself.
Layton’s “trusty” assistant Emmy basically third-wheels Layton and Luke’s adventures. She’s supposed to add something as a main character, but she rarely does anything other than add some meaningless comments to the story. Even Luke feels under-utilized, making anyone who’s not Layton or his childhood friends feel out of place. Yes, we know it’s a Professor Layton game, but why add more characters if they’re not going to pull their weight?
Not every character speaks, but the ones that do speak well. The main cast of characters have gotten into their groove, making Layton and Luke seem as real as any English gentlemen. The secondary characters are your stereotypical British archetypes: the short-tempered gruff Brit, the kindhearted butler, and the proper English lady. The voice cast makes the city feel like a wonderful English town, even if it is in the desert somehow.
Though Miracle Mask has evolved from two to three D’s, the game’s cutscenes are still in 2D. They remain action-packed and absolutely beautiful, but there’s a definite disconnect between the “old” Layton style on the DS and the “new” 3DS Layton. If the series is going to transition to full 3D, Level-5 should put serious effort into crafting full CG cutscenes.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
While the Pokémon games have clung to 2D pixels like Pikachu clings to Ash, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask dives headfirst into a new art style that is a three-dimensional homage to its 2D predecessors.
Every character has gotten a full 3D makeover for the 3DS, and boy do they look like gross potato people. What looks charming in the two-dimensional cutscenes quickly becomes nightmare fuel, especially when you’re staring down the barrel of a large, gentlemanly top hat. Most secondary characters translate well into 3D, but the main characters just look downright odd. Seriously, Layton’s giant top hat couple with two beady eyes does not a gentleman make.
The tourist city that Layton visits is a realized tourist trap, with a giant circus tent, race track, and casino. Each section of the city has characters that resonate with that section, meaning you’re going to see a lot of clowns, security guards, and snappily-dressed businessmen. Though each section of the city is very pretty, you don’t spend a whole lot of time in each section. Instead of feeling like you’re in the city, we only got a short tour of what it had to offer.
3D is implemented best in Miracle Mask’s puzzles. While you solve the puzzle through the touchscreen, the top screen plays out the results of the puzzle. For example, one puzzle requires cats to jump over each other Chinese checkers-style. While you move the static images of cats with the stylus, the top screen shows cute little cats jumping over each other. This is a definite improvement over simple static images from previous Layton titles.
The use of accordions and strings instruments already made Professor Layton music sound like a forgotten carnival’s theme, and it fits well with the circus-dominated city. Sadder piano tracks play up the emotions when characters are at their breaking points, and the game’s end theme is sure to bring a tear to your eye.
Though it sounds cliche, our biggest complaint with Miracle Mask‘s soundtrack is that there wasn’t enough of it. One song plays in most areas of the city, and while it is pretty, we were ready to hear a new song after thirty repeats. When moving into quieter parts of the city, we would have liked to have heard the same melody but a quieter instrument set. Think Banjo-Kazooie’s music system, but with accordions.
For a game so dependent on story, it’s a shame that the story is what holds Miracle Mask back. If you’re going in cold, you’ll certainly have a great time fighting the masked man and thinking through hours of puzzles. Veteran fans of the series should take the story arc with a grain of salt, and hope the next title will not only have great puzzles but a killer story as well.