|Release: October 28, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: N/A||Cartoon Violence|
by Becky Cunningham
On the Nintendo DS, the Professor Layton series stands out amongst the crowd of puzzle games for producing consistently high-quality entries that appeal to a wide demographic. With the puzzle-loving, consummate English gentleman moving onto the 3DS with Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, that reputation for quality has been upheld. The Miracle Mask contains just the right number of refreshes to the Layton formula, without giving into the temptation to dazzle players with endless 3D gimmicks.
Miracle Mask is the second in a trilogy of prequel games, following last year's Professor Layton and the Last Specter. As such, Layton and his apprentice Luke are again accompanied by Layton's assistant, the indomitable Emmy Altava. She provides needed doses of sarcastic commentary and physical prowess to the otherwise mild-mannered team. Emmy's no slacker in the intellect department, either, and overall is one of the most appealing female characters in the stable of Nintendo-published titles. The three main characters form a great balanced team, and I hope Emmy is able to stay on after this prequel trilogy is over.
Beyond appearances by a few side characters from Last Specter, such as Grosky of the Yard and his stalker/fan club president Hannah, Miracle Mask's mystery and the characters it involves are entirely new. Summoned as usual by a mysterious letter, the Layton team is investigating a series of disasters in a desert resort town called Monte d'Or. A character known as the Masked Gentleman has promised doom for the town, and has panicked tourists and locals by performing terrible acts that seem to be magical in nature.
Before you ask, yes, Monte d'Or is still located in Layton's alternate version of England, which appears to hold not only a desert, but the ruins of an Aztec-like civilization. Though all of this begins to stretch the believability of the series to the breaking point, it's true that there's only so much that can be done with the stereotypical English countryside setting. Monte d'Or has given the Layton artists a chance to evoke the exotic while keeping the eccentric English personalities that make up the games' casts. Plus, the somewhat illogical nature of the setting is redeemed by the game's central mystery, which draws the player in quite nicely.
One of the things that makes Miracle Mask's story particularly compelling is that it links to the professor's friends from his teenage years, and portions of the game are actually played as the teenage Layton as he relates his story to Luke and Emmy. The teenage Layton was actually rather uninterested in archaeology and puzzles, unsure of his ability to solve the brain-bending conundrums placed before him. It was instead his best friend Randall who was the budding archaeologist and puzzle-solver, and a tragic expedition during which Randall disappeared set Layton on his current path. It's nice to see Layton's character expanded in this way, making him seem much more human by peering behind his mask of settled gentlemanly manners.
The game's setting and story are well-supported by the graphics available on the 3DS. The artists did a great job translating the series' distinct graphical style into 3D, creating scenes that look like they're made of paper cutouts. Searching areas for hint coins, treasures, and puzzles is more fun with the 3D turned on, and for once on the system, the graphical quality doesn't seem to suffer in 3D mode. Even the unique character art has been deepened fairly well so that it works with the 3D graphics, though of course the characters still look best in the occasional anime cut-scenes.
Despite the excellent use of 3D graphics in Layton's world, the puzzles remain fairly traditional. Only a few actually take maximum advantage of the system's capabilities; my favorite of which is a set of mazes set on a rotating corn cob. Though it might have been nice to see a few more 3D-based puzzles, the series probably made a wise choice in sticking largely to the quality 2D puzzles for which it's known.
While the puzzles in Last Specter could be accused of being almost too easy until the end of the game, the difficulty ramp-up is more even in Miracle Mask. Starting off rather easy, they become more time-consuming and difficult by the middle of the game rather than saving all the difficulty for the late-game and post-game puzzles. The mandatory story puzzles are still fairly forgiving, ensuring that players won't reach frustrating roadblocks—especially with the ever-helpful hint system available.