"Solving puzzles will always be entertaining, particularly within the old Layton trappings."
Video games can
make you smarter. If I played a Professor Layton title every six months until the end of my days, I would think more clearly, solve practical problems more easily, and generally be less of a burden as an elderly gentleman. Who needs Brain Age when you have Layton? Even though Professor Layton and the Last Specter begins to show the limitations of the formula, I would still play Layton titles at the frequency of two per year until my death. If only I could.
The Last Specter begins a new trilogy in a time long before the Professor ever came to that curious little village that now rests in the annals of Layton lore. A Lukeless Layton answers a letter from an old friend by dropping his scholarly duties and paying his friend a visit. Layton's trip coincides with Dean Delmona's decision to appoint him an assistant to lift the burden of a busy professor. Enter Emmy Altava, a smart, pretty, and tenacious girl with intimidating martial skill. Hesitant at first, Layton eventually welcomes the help like a proper gentleman and drives the Laytonmobile to the town of Misthallery for an evening of cracking conundrums.
An addition to the Luke-Layton duo might easily have been unwelcome, but Emmy proves a competent and likable companion to the Professor, and I won't mind seeing her in future games. Clever and strong, Emmy acts not only as an intellectual assistant but a bodyguard as well, and I imagine her garnering some interest among feminist gamers. Lovers of Luke have no cause for worry either; he's present and in his largest role yet. The Last Specter sees a somber, lonely Luke slowly growing into the excitable apprentice we adore. Whereas The Unwound Future focused on the Professor himself, The Last Specter gives other characters room to develop. The Layton mythos is stronger than ever.
Although the characters are always more indelible than the plots, I love a good Layton mystery. They unfold nicely with twists and red herrings, and they always keep the Layton sense of whimsy. They may be predictable and incredible, but their silliness keeps them loveable. That said, The Last Specter features one of the weaker mysteries thus far in the series. I found one of the major characters amusing, but a tad too silly, even for Layton's wacky England. Being the first in a prequel trilogy, The Last Specter also has the task of introducing a new villain while leaving his identity and purpose a mystery for later games. Regardless, I loved guessing and conjecturing up until the big reveal, and when my theories proved right, I couldn't help exclaiming aloud in excitement.
If you've played a Layton game before, you know what to expect. If you haven't, you have no business starting here; go get The Curious Village! Layton and company stroll about a quaint, beautifully illustrated setting interviewing a cast of eccentrics and solving puzzles at every turn. The refinements from The Unwound Future return in addition to a few new ones, including fast-travel and optional cutscenes that illuminate events that occur offscreen in the main narrative. Tapping on objects allows all three protagonists to voice their opinions, making this the most character-focused adventure yet. The graphics are impressive as usual, and The Last Specter features one of the best soundtracks in the series.
Solving puzzles will always be entertaining, particularly within the old Layton trappings. I can't count the number that made me smile upon completion. Most puzzle types are used only once in The Last Specter, and they show surprising variation given that this is the fourth Layton game. With the experience of previous titles, the puzzles are getting easier for me. I've learned to look for certain clues in the wording and use tactics that proved effective in the past. Knowing that, I still couldn't help but notice that the well of fair, balanced puzzles seems to be drying up. Poorly worded puzzles provide a false challenge, and more than half of the puzzles are just too easy. Many can be completed in mere seconds. The developers seem to rely on sliding block puzzles for difficulty now, and although they are almost the chocobos of the series, I never want to see another again. The final puzzle in the game (part of the optional Layton's Challenges) is almost impossible without a guide. I never thought a Layton puzzle could feel so mercilessly unfair.
The trio of mini-games also takes a small hit in quality. They all closely mirror those found in The Unwound Future. Again, the developers seem to be running out of fresh ideas. The mini-games retain their adorable innocence and addictive qualities, but one of the three is a complete dud, requiring almost no thought. Thankfully, it's dangerously cute. To make up for it, there's a fourth (cute) mini-game, accessible outside the main menu. And then there's Layton's London Life.
Advertised as a 100 hour RPG, Layton's London Life is more like an elaborate mini-game. Developed by Brownie Brown, LLL celebrates the Layton series with a miniature version of London, complete with classic characters from the games. The tiny sprite versions of Stachenscarfen and Granny Riddleton, the music, the dialogue, and everything in between feels Laytonesque, as Emmy Altava might say. The developers are clearly lovestruck fans of the series.
Players create a unique little Londoner with the purpose of amassing Happiness and/or Wealth, purchasing clothes, furniture, decor, and recipes, and... well, I don't know. I'm not sure there is a greater purpose. Completing fetch quests and collecting garbage for townsfolk and slowly building a character might be enough for some, but I need some combat or narrative. I found LLL charming, but too slow-paced for extended play. Of course, it's free, so can I really complain?
I love this series, and even if they developed a Layton title comprised entirely of sliding block puzzles, I would still play. Such thoughtlessness is only fantasy, of course, because Level-5 pours their heart into this series. Regardless of how much heart they muster, however, the Layton formula just doesn't have infinite vitality, and with The Last Specter, a bit of wear is finally starting to show. The beginning of a new trilogy nonetheless excites me and begs questions with potentially dire answers. After all, something must have happened to Emmy to prevent her from stepping foot in the Curious Village. I can't wait to find out just what.