The Professor Layton series of games has established itself quite well on the DS, with its charming animation, whimsical storytelling and brain-bending puzzles. But how does it fare when it makes the leap into the third dimension? Does Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask on the Nintendo 3DS maintain the status quo, succeed beyond expectations or fall flat on its face? Turns out a little of each...
As with all the Layton games, the professor and his assistants Emmy and Luke are summoned to a place where there is a mystery to solve. This time, they journey to the city of Monte d'Or, a lavish resort full of hotels and casinos that is under siege by a mysterious masked man. Layton's past comes into play as the story alternates between the present adventure and flashbacks to how this mystery began many years ago. This is part of the prequel trilogy, and contains mentions of not only Last Specter but also the movie, Eternal Diva. I will say that without spoiling anything, the ending of Miracle Mask was somewhat more predictable than usual, and somewhat anti-climactic. Though it does actually end with a bit of a cliffhanger and a literal "to be continued," so perhaps the lack of a more definitive ending was purposeful.
Gameplay remains mostly the same, tapping away with your stylus through the static environments to talk to the characters and find hidden hint coins, objects and puzzles. The main difference is that now that the 3D screen is used for the visuals, you're not tapping directly on the image anymore. Instead, you slide the stylus around the touch screen, which moves a magnifying glass around the 3D screen that lights up when you can tap to activate something. It only takes a little while to adjust to this, though. There's a slightly awkward arcade-style horse racing game that pops up early on that threw me. And when you later unlock the horse racing mini-game, I admit I only played a little bit of it. I didn't care for it. And towards the end, the game shifts to a top-down isometric view as you explore an area (sorry, trying to avoid spoilers), and the controls become more direct as you move Layton around the screen and directly interact with what's in front of you. This was slightly off-putting at first, but there are still puzzles to solve in this section. I wouldn't want to play a whole game in this style, though.
The graphics make the move into 3D quite well. The cut scenes are awkward, with 3D effects being added to 2D cell animation, but it's acceptable because without that gorgeous animation, it wouldn't feel like a Layton game. During conversations, 3D models of the characters are used, and although the initial switching from 2D to 3D is awkward, you soon get used to it. The 3D models look great, but I'm not sure I'd want them to be used for all the cutscenes. Those need to be traditionally animated or like I said, it wouldn't feel right. The puzzles don't really take advantage of the 3D as much as I'd hoped. A handful have some cool effects, and one even uses the gyroscope.
In addition to the story, there are mini-games that you unlock as you progress. My favorite was the shop, where you have to arrange merchandise on the shelves in a particular order to inspire a shopper to buy everything. The one where you train a rabbit to perform tricks to tell a story is like the puppet theater one from the last one, and it's okay. The rabbit is cute. But the robot one is like the train one where you set a path for it to follow in order to satisfy various conditions, and I barely played it at all. Never a big fan of that one. Also, Nintendo and Level-5 have promised that every single day for 365 days, there will be a downloadable puzzle available as free DLC. So far, they're keeping up admirably, although it would appear that there are actually going to be a limited number of puzzles, and as time passes, you'll just get harder and harder versions of the same task. Still, on top of the 100+ puzzles included in the story, the mini-games and bonus puzzles that you can unlock, that's a hell of a lot of content for one game.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is a terrific entry in the series. It makes the shift into 3D nicely, and even the slight detours into different styles of gameplay aren't jarring enough to derail things completely. The story, in keeping with the series, is lovely and hits all the right emotional beats, although the solution to the mystery was a little predictable. And with all the bonus content and 365 downloadable puzzles, there will be more than enough to keep you occupied until the "to be continued" is resolved and the second trilogy of games is concluded!