The world of Professor Layton is one where puzzles form the very backbone of the society. And it’s totally hilarious. You’ve got got men whose days are ruined by being stumped, chefs willing to give you a fine-cooked meal in exchange for your help in tickling their puzzling fancies, and burgling brutes that are perfectly content with not beating your face in, so long as you are able to answer their most devious braintwister. It’s a place where every door has its own unique lock, where every occurrence brings about memories of puzzles of the past, where shrubbery and fountains and car hoods and cobblestones have hidden secrets, all but a mere few taps away. Dastardly villains will grant you access to their bases. They will release you from their traps. They will even give up their lives of crime. Just because you’re smarter than they are. You have the power to topple entire empires, and it’s all as easy as plugging in a few numbers and watching as the professor grins his way to a studly victory.
Professor Layton is absolutely absurd. It’s also diabolically entertaining, in the most humbling manner possible. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more twisted, any more deliberately far-fetched and fantastic, Unwound Future comes along with its silly ploy of time-traveling nonsense and proves that there’s absolutely no ridiculous trope that Level-5 is afraid to tap into. And if there’s one thing to know about Layton, it’s that he’s not one to shy away from his tapping.
Following the events of Diabolical Box, Layton and Luke find themselves back in London, where the two of them stumble upon an oh-so-mysterious letter signed by an author claiming to be the future version of the blue-hatted apprentice. With interests piqued and promises of another puzzling adventure right around the bend, the duo heads off to the clock shop outlined in Future Luke’s letter, expecting insight into a rather implausible claim. But as they creep their way into the backrooms and uncover a wall-mounted clock with more gears and girth than the entirety of the Curious Village, the device erupts into a flurry of steam and envelops the room in a filmy white, sending the well-mannered pair ten years into the future where London has fallen into a bit of recessive chaos. The streets are battered with construction, bus routes have come to a screeching halt. A group of foreboding gangsters in black coats have taken rule over the streets, and a shrouded figure claiming to be Professor Layton himself cackles in the distance. With the help of Future Luke, a talking parrot, and the plethora of plucky townspeople, the mentor and apprentice will puzzle their way through the dilapidated London in search of answers to their most confounding journey yet.
So, time travel. Despite the prior two games having their fair share of fantastical moments and verisimilitude-breakers, never would I have expected to see the series tackling a whackadoodle concept like this. What we ultimately end up getting is a story rife with plot holes, an at times shaky narrative, and more twists, turns, and torsions than the series has ever seen. The wool is held over our eyes for what seems to be ever, and just when you think the biggie plot twist has finally reared its untimely head, another comes gallivanting out of nowhere to spin what you thought to be fact in all sorts of crazy new directions. It’s a game that has so many memorable moments, heartpounding confrontations, and gentlemanly banter, that the resulting stew of it all is the most deliciously satisfying installment to date. It’s also more mature than fans of the series might expect. Guns, knuckle-busting violence, hints of adulterated taboo –it’s all here, and oddly appropriate.
In terms of storytelling, Unwound Future is a big step up from Diabolical Box, a game which managed to shock many with its unexpectedly heartfelt ending. This time around, however, we’re learning about Professor Layton himself, who has previously been little more than a man in a hat with a penchant for puzzles. The time-traveling gimmick proves to be a formidable narrative tool, letting players peep at the professor’s particularly dark past and optimistically dim future. While I always saw Professor Layton as a character (his talk of hats and proper etiquette never ceases to graph me a grin), this is truly the first time where we see how much dimension he actually has. His character is more tragic than I could have ever imagined, and I’m not embarrassed to note that I shed a few watery man-tears by the time the credits rolled. This isn’t a series I come to when in need of a heartstring tug, though in that regard, Unwound Future was a definite surprise. Tinged with expertly subdued maturity, the story here is superb, and wholly entertaining.
Aside from the newfound thematic tweaking, the series is more or less the same as it ever was. The charming and delightful art style remains unaltered. Characters emote far more frequently than the past two games, and the fully-animated cutscenes are more plentiful, lengthy, and dramatic, but from a stylistic standpoint, everything is untouched. With the game taking place in two different Londons, the game sports a great amount of diversity in terms of visitable locales and observable architecture. There’s such an extreme variety to the environments, and it’s a joy to travel from one end to the next, experiencing each district’s unique bits of culture and character. The music, too, is more of the same. If you’re making a return to the series, the surplus of accordions, violins, and organs will be familiar to you. It’s jaunty, atmospheric, and dreadful, in an adventurous sort of way. Poor tunes these certainly are not.
Unwound Future comes packed with an insane amount of content. The story sports a good 150 puzzles, with plenty more unlockable in the Bonus menu following the completion of various in-game conditions. The theme of time travel weighs heavily at the game’s start, with many of puzzles based around numbers, clocks, counting, and scheduling. This thick jumble of time-based puzzles thins out into a more diverse set list as the game crawls onward, though it’s definitely fun to see the puzzle types influenced by the overarching narrative. Players will be tacking numbers back onto clock faces, calculating how long it takes for so-and-so fat guy and so-and-so skinny guy to move boxes into an attic, and figuring out which chicken won the race.
There’s also slider puzzles, which are only thematically appropriate insofar as they take me hours upon hours to complete.
Minigames make their triumphant return as well, and are all a heck of a lot better than the waste-of-time tea-brewing affair we had to muscle through in Diabolical Box. Luke’s pet parrot makes an appearance in a fiendish little delivery game, a toy car scurries across pre-made tracks in an attempt to collect the scattered items, and a tattered picture book needs a bit of an overhaul. As per usual, these fun little diversions, when completed, will net you heaps of satisfaction and additional minigames to burn through once the main game has come to a close.
Perhaps the best additions to the game come in the form of touch screen functionality, which makes the ease of travel through Future London infinitely more bearable. Counting, plotting, scribbling, and general puzzling are all decidedly more fun and doable thanks to the implementation of new pen colors and ink widths within the memo feature. Level-5 has also given players a fourth additional hint to unlock, dubbed the Super Hint, which perhaps makes this the easiest game in the series, pending you don’t get tired tapping around for all those Hint Coins. There is also a nifty little notepad feature accessible from the menu screen that stays inked up and usable throughout the entire game. While it might be a trivial addition since story progression doesn’t exactly rely upon players keeping track of information, I was able to find some use out of it by jotting down the locations of any Hint Coins I became too side-tracked to uncover (three per every in-game area), so I’m digging Level-5’s foresight here. Again, you’re not coming here for the additional features, so while these new toys might be a bit underwhelming, it’s the puzzles that make the journey a worthy one.
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future isn’t remarkable in its progressiveness, but it most certainly deserves credit for providing an addicting experience, twinkling with charm and plump with challenge. It plays exactly as you would expect it to. The puzzles are hair-pullingly aggravating. You’ll yell at the screen when you’re wrong, and then immediately apologize when you see Layton’s frowning face, knowing full well that making a scene in public is something a gentleman would never do. If you’re new to the series, don’t start here. Unwound Future has hidden within it the most unexpectedly warmhearted subplot, stemming from the most unexpected of sources, and it would be a shame to miss it without a proper understanding of what these games and this gent are all about. This is a series worthy of praise, and a character worthy of attention, and if the success of this game is any indicator, the future is most certainly bright for our illustrious top-hatted hero.