I fancy myself as a natural gamer - I can pick and play pretty much anything going and be cruising after five minutes. Work out how to get that coin on the mountain? No problem. How to get in, grab the key, shoot everybody moving and escape alive? You insult my intelligence. Move just one matchstick to make four blocks into one? Er ...
I have a logic deficiency. I am the anti-Data. My history with any game that involves brain power is a sorry one: My theme parks went bust, my football managers were sacked mid-season, my sim cities made Robocop's Old Detroit look like some distant utopia and it was not so much command and conquer as command and court-martial.
I like to make up for this, like talentless football managers, by saying I have "passion." But enough is enough. I decided it was time for some logic training with Level 5's first DS game, Professor Layton and the Mysterious Village.
Japan, the country that cursed the world with Sudoku, is a land dense with puzzles, and with the advent of the touchscreen, the DS has become swamped with puzzle titles of varying quality.
This one takes a different tack: The game box promises "puzzle-solving x story," and although it's really only the second part of that equation that pays off, it's an interesting experiment. Interesting, that is, for someone with less passion than I (read: half a brain).
Since their PlayStation 2 debut Dark Cloud had Zelda fans doing double-takes in 2000, Level 5 has carved out quite the reputation for themselves. With White Knight Story causing jaw-shaped dents on floors around the world and Level 5 continuing to develop the Dragon Quest series on DS, the Fukuoka-based producer is now one of the most powerful independent producers in Japan.
And in the midst of this success, Level 5 found time to dash out a quick title that looks set to be one of the surprise hits of the year, despite their lack of a publisher outside of Japan. Professor Layton and the Mysterious Village is the first in a trilogy of titles efficiently combining the Japanese love of puzzles, high-class animation and B-list celebrity voiceovers.
Puzzle games may be 10-a-yen in Japan these days, but Level 5 wisely chose to enlist the help of professionals. And with old professors currently all the rage in Japanese gaming circles, who better than Akira Tago, author of the Atama no Taiso [Head Gymnastics] series of books, which contains over 2,000 different puzzles.
It's actually these puzzles that the game, and the story, is built around. The story is simplistic: Professor Layton shows up with his ward [thanks, Batman] Luke in a rather oddball village where everyone loves puzzles. The villagers like to test the famous Professor Layton with a puzzle at every opportunity, even in the midst of a murder case.
Wisely, given how tedious the actual story is, the game rarely goes more than a few minutes without serving up another puzzle. The game and story clearly serve just to lead you from one puzzle to the next, and while it is a nice attempt, it is in no way the birth of a new genre, despite Level 5's claims. I found myself wishing more than once that they would just shut up about the goddamn missing cat and let me have a go at another puzzle.
And the puzzles are, in theory, good fun. Many of them are old favorites given a twist, like the "transporting wolves across a river" trick that has been knocking around for years, or old matchstick-moving puzzles given a new lease of life. Unless you've already read all 23 of Professor Tago's books, most of the puzzles in here will be new to you.
But it wasn't the puzzles but the game's quirky animation that caught the eye of the gaming press. And indeed, the opening cut scenes are beautiful - with every mention of this game legally obliged to mention its similarity to a Ghibli film - and the quaint charm is a nice step away from Japan's, and Level 5's, usual anime style. The game's lively accordion tunes nest in your brain and resist all attempts at extermination, but after the opening, it's mostly an animation-free world of pointing and clicking in static environments.
All sounds good, right? Well, no. Here we face the reviewer's dilemma - while this is a very well made, entertaining game, I'm just extraordinarily bad at it and found it no fun whatsoever.
It's impossible to describe how little I enjoyed my time with Professor Layton without making myself out as some sort of simpleton. Suffice it to say that after yet another intrigue-annoyance-frustration-irritation-at-my-own-stupidity cycle, culminating in my slamming closed the DS hard enough to create a draft, it was everything I could do to keep professional distance and avoid stamping up and down while screaming "this game is the suX0rs FTW!!!!" as it became clear how I had totally missed the answer to another very simple puzzle.
Other annoyances: loading times just that slight bit longer than we're really used to on the DS, presumably as the compressed graphics are processed; the five-second animation after every guess to tell you whether you're right or wrong is annoying; and the random touch-everywhere hunt for "hint medals" to give you clues when you're running low on inspiration.
If you do like puzzles and read Japanese, you'll probably love Layton, and with the Wi-Fi connection delivering a new puzzle every week for the next year, it's good value for money, too.
Instead of self-improvement, Layton has only succeeded in reminding me that I am weak, impatient and stupid. Which is, frankly, not really what I'm looking for in a game right now.
Screens courtesy of GameSpy.