Sequels are ubiquitous. As soon as developers discover a selling formula they spend every effort (and I use the word lightly) and moment (usually too few of these) replicating that formula in sequel upon sequel upon sequel. They stick gamers with near-facsimiles – exemplified by the Harvest Moon series. Or quantity over quality games like this year's surprise disappointment Valkyria Chronicles II that are so overweight with repetitive gameplay mechanics that they sink to the dregs of the industry. Despite developers' efforts to (sometimes) disguise their lazy ploys and the tremendous sales these pseudo-sequels tend to yield, I find them almost wholly unpalatable. Ours is a world built on exceptions, however, and not rules.
The denouement of the current Professor Layton trilogy continues the selling formula Level 5 magically created in 2007, but not once did it occur to me that the series has grown stale and hollow as so many others have. Professor Layton and The Unwound Future dips into the stream of time and the characters and places therein will never be the same again. This brief swim in chronology may not attract any new players to the series, but for veterans it ensures that the good professor and his apprentice have an indelible place in our hearts.
The gameplay and presentation of Unwound Future differ only marginally from its two predecessors. Players should be familiar with the sights, sounds, and framework of the curious world that Layton inhabits. The London where disputes are settled with puzzles, combat is waged in puzzles, and everyone has puzzles on their minds is a fantastic and enchanting place to be. If only real-world wars could be fought in puzzles. The most intelligent rather than the strongest would win, and the body count would be considerably lower (contingent, of course, upon the number of sliding block puzzles used).
Miraculously, Unwound Future features over 150 puzzles with almost no duplicates. There are two or three puzzles with multiple sequels, but if players struggle with one type of puzzle, the game will likely never present that type again. A new fourth hint added to this iteration also makes puzzle solving easier, but only if so desired. Be warned, however: the super hints practically give away the answer. Use them only when absolutely stumped! The Memo function has also been updated with multiple colored pens and the option of partial erasure instead of ditching it all at once, both useful additions. A Notepad is added to the main menu as well, but I found that less helpful even if it's a nice thought.
Despite the variety or possibly because of it, I found the puzzles slightly easier in Unwound Future when compared to the previous two installments. Perhaps having played the previous games I knew what to look for and knew the kinds of tricks Layton is likely to come across. I'm becoming less of an apprentice with each passing Professor Layton title. Or it could be that there were less mathematical puzzles and more clever visual ones, and that's the kind of thinker I am. Those that relish the thought of a math puzzle, however, might be disappointed to learn of this turn. Regardless I was slightly surprised how quickly I solved most puzzles, although it made the game no less addictive.
True to the formula, Unwound Future brings three new mini-games to players, which are arguably the best yet. In the first, Luke receives a toy car and must create custom tracks to collect objects and reach the destination simultaneously. The second features a cute (what else? – everything in these games is adorable) parrot that Luke must train to deliver objects in a platforming-type challenge. Finally, the third is comprised of three separate picture books with stickers to place in them according to their respective stories. Of these the parrot mini-game is by far the most difficult and offers some of the most challenging and frustrating puzzles in the entire game while the toy car mini-game is probably the most fun. Needless to say, they're all rewarding in their own ways.
Once again beautiful visuals, quirky and atmospheric music, and great voice acting combine with addictive gameplay for a fantastic package with a singular vision. Compared to previous entries in the series, Unwound Future only offers more artwork, more animated scenes, and more voice work. There's nothing innately wrong here, although a bit more variety in the soundtrack would be appreciated. The old puzzle-solving theme may annoy some, but I find it comforting and oddly stimulating. I can't seem to solve a puzzle with the volume turned down.
Unwound Future tells the greatest story yet in the franchise. Its merit doesn't come from the intricacies of the plot – which are numerous and occasionally predictable and silly – but the quality of the characters. Not to say that the plot doesn't entertain and surprise on its own; it does that quite well. But Layton, Luke, Flora, and all the recurring and new characters show much more development than previously. An entourage frequently accompanies Layton throughout London, allowing for more character interaction and emotion. Best of all, the secrets of Layton's past come out of hiding, and players learn there's more to him than tact, intellect, and a jolly top hat. Ultimately the trilogy ends on a heartbreaking note. Two of them to be exact, in a pair of oddly affecting cutscenes before the credits roll. I had tears in my eyes and they had barely begun to dry when they came again.
Professor Layton's impeccable intuition must be catching because I have an exciting hunch that Unwound Future isn't the last we'll see of the puzzle-solving master and apprentice. And some truly ghastly puzzles involving balls and blocks and sliding and broken things around the house. With each installment of the franchise, I grow to adore Professor Layton and Luke and their delightful world all the more. All while sharpening my intellect. In the (hopefully wound) future, I doubt Level 5 will modify the formula any more heavily than they already have, and for once, that's fine by me.