Here's a puzzle. Three games are vying for your weekend. One's an Xbox 360 RPG that enables you to tour a galaxy populated by (presumably) photorealistic-looking aliens over some 80-odd hours. One's a graphically glorious, high body counting PC classic improved en route to PlayStation 3. And one features a cartoon 2D detective and his schoolboy sidekick ferrying wolves and chickens across a river with a stylus.
Which game keeps drawing you back until it's by the side of your bed last thing at night and the first thing you play in the morning?
If the answer isn't obvious, then Professor Layton and the Curious Village might not be for you. But stick with us; this DS puzzler has enough universal appeal to make Brain Training seem about as compelling as squat thrusts with Carol Vorderman.
Your starter for 10: this is a puzzle game with a plot. Drawn to St Mystere by an eccentric aristocrat's legacy, Professor Layton and his 1950s-voiced schoolboy buddy Luke are soon scurrying around the point-and-click village, even as the developer thickens the intrigue with absent cats, weird noises, abductions and even a murder. Add an over-arching mystery and several side-servings of slow-build puzzling (such as 'gizmos' you collect and assemble, a painting ripped and scattered across St Mystere, and the Benthamite balancing of Layton and Luke's thankfully separate lodgings at the Inn) and it's easy to forget you're essentially knocking through a procession of appealing but undeniably generic brainteasers.
You won't forget for long, mind. The puzzles come thick and fast in a town where just getting a cup of coffee or helping the police with their enquiries triggers an impromptu poser. This and the rollicking plot keeps the tempo agreeably up, in contrast to, say, Hotel Dusk's plodding.
The puzzles are as diverse as those pitting them – they include maths challenges, riddles, mazes, sliding blocks, optical illusions and more. Successfully completing one typically advances the story, as well as rewarding you with some in-game picarat currency, the tally of picarats awarded depending on the notional difficulty of the puzzle and how many penalties for bad guesses you've been docked in solving it.
Why 'notional' difficulty? Because like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, pub quiz machines or, we're reliably informed, quantum mechanics, difficult is in the brain of the beholder. Some puzzles seemed to us infantile in their simplicity, yet we still got stuck more than once towards the end. And inevitably one or two puzzles aren't very convincing, even when you know the answer.
It'd be churlish to mark down Professor Layton for this Jekyll and Hyde side to puzzling though when it's surely endemic to all such enterprises, especially given the developer has sensibly included a hint system to alleviate your frustration. Using collectable hint coins, you can buy yourself to the brink of a solution; the coins aren't overly numerous, but then neither are the absolute stumpers.
More disappointingly – albeit in the way tiramisu is disappointing if you really wanted coffee cake – there's no correlation between the puzzles posed and the poser. Some brainteasers are just lying about the village, but as most are set by the game's diverse cast it would have added an extra layer of characterisation if they'd been more interrelated.
Still, this is a game rich in personality and atmosphere. Professor Layton will look uncannily like Mr Ben to anyone over 30, but the rest of the mob are arty clichés brought to life in the best sense.
St Mystere could play home to Audrey Tautou's Amelie drawn by Hayao Miyazaki (or, if you really know your grown-up animated flicks, think 2003's Belleville Rendez-vous). The music is almost as engaging, though eventually annoying when puzzle solving.
But the best testament to Professor Layton's world is that you 'wander about' St Mystere, 'talking to' the characters and 'chasing' a cat. For a static screen-based 2D game with (admittedly super-slick) point-and-click controls, map-directed movement, text-based dialogue, and (gorgeous) flick-book cut-scenes, that's quite an achievement in 2008.
Professor Layton isn't perfect – nothing is. A few of the puzzles will be familiar to genre fans, the various characters' motivations and speech don't always live up to their appearance, and Layton isn't impressed onto your psyche like, say, Phoenix Wright.
These are miniscule objections, however. Taken on its own terms, Professor Layton and the Curious Village is as state-of-the-art as anything on rival platforms, or indeed on DS, which is already established as the natural home for such joy-inducing, leftfield fare. Originally a Japanese game, Professor Layton is also testament to the value of top-notch translation.
Resist the temptation to rush through it in a weekend, but whatever you do don't miss it.
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