Monte d’Or, the City of Miracles, has in a short space of time gone from a desert oasis to a hugely popular tourist destination. With its many hotels, casinos and a circus, it is a round-the-year party town where everyone can just relax and enjoy themselves. But recently a pall has been cast over this haven of jollity. A strange figure known only as “The Masked Gentleman” has been performing bizarre, even threatening miracles around the town. As Professor Layton investigates these mysterious happenings in his fifth adventure, The Miracle Mask, he finds old friends and acquaintances and must face up to events from his youth. Whilst the setting leaps into the third dimension for the first time on the Nintendo 3DS, and the usual array of great production values, puzzles and minigames are on offer, some story elements strain credulity and the odd questionable new feature has been added to the mix.
If you simply enjoy the independent puzzling of the previous Layton instalments and have never really worried about the story, then you probably don’t need to read any further. Whilst you will want to have played at least the previous episode to follow the overarching story, the pattern of the series remains largely unchanged here. The Professor still faces a grand overall mystery – this time about a man with apparently magical powers – which is once more split into twelve sub-mysteries solved one by one as the story progresses. Advancing the story largely involves solving standalone puzzles, with the endgame requiring you to have solved a certain number to advance. The overall graphical look is the same fine art cartoon style as the previous outings. Series veterans will once again find magnificent buildings and varied characters, and the cutscene animations continue to be of movie quality.
The move to 3D involves largely cosmetic tweaks, but that’s not to say that the developers have simply made cardboard stand-ups of the buildings and called it a day. The scenery has a fully 3D look, from the gracious curves of the Montsarton gallery to the more functional facade of the local police station. Where an object is positioned at an angle to the viewer, the 3D effect representing one end as further back than the other also works well. The display is further enhanced by layers of scenery, with buildings in the background clearly placed behind the ones you are interacting with. Overall, the scenery represents one of the most impressive uses of the 3D effect I have seen to date. This is also evident in the cinematics; the release of a cloud of balloons in the opening scene demonstrates the new 3D effect to the full.
Sadly, the characters have not fared so well from the transition when they appear close up during conversations and certain cutscenes. Whilst still having an overall 3D look, the lesser detail mars the general effect, the characters appearing more like the people-shaped balloons that form part of the city’s parades, rather than living and breathing individuals. This is especially obvious with faces, where the expressions seem to have been painted onto otherwise smooth surfaces. The detailed backgrounds around them only serve to exaggerate this difference, making you try to focus on one or the other to ignore the jarring mismatch.
Navigation and interaction have seen some minor changes, the most notable being that whilst you still use the touch-screen to interact, this now moves a cursor on a scene reproduction on the top screen. The cursor highlights over interactive items, which makes finding those elusive hint coins easier. A new “zoom” option has also been added, allowing you to focus in on a particular area, but this seems a largely pointless addition. Had it allowed you to more closely examine the interesting details of a scene, this could have been something worthwhile. Instead, the zoom actually takes you to a new area, such as an alley between two buildings, and reveals items not even seen in miniature in the main view. Since opportunities to zoom are almost always blatantly pointed out, the only difference between this and normal travelling is that the zoomed locations do not show on the map.
On the sound front, the move to 3DS has not resulted in any major changes. The voice actors for the lead characters from previous games reprise their roles here, including Layton’s second assistant Emmy, and they continue to perform well. They are ably supported by a cast of new characters, such as some rough and ready clowns and the aristocratic Ledores. As in previous instalments, full voice-work is reserved for cutscenes and a handful of important conversations, but the acting standard remains high. The game also has the same quality orchestral musical soundtrack. Quiet strings back the gentler parts of the action whilst more lively pieces kick in for dramatic scenes.
The story continues from the The Last Specter/The Spectre’s Call, and you will come across more evidence of the ancient Azran civilisation over the course of the game. The Masked Gentleman makes for an intriguing antagonist, apparently imbued with powers that will make him impossible to catch. The possible supernatural nature of the mask he wears, and its place in Layton’s own history, prove interesting hooks. By the end of the game you will have brought closure to this mystery, but that sets up a grander quest to be covered in the next game. The town of Monte d’Or is also close to the Professor’s hometown, and there are several chapters which take place in the past as he tells tales of his youth. Many of the young characters you meet in these historical chapters also appear as adults in the present, linking the two parts of the story together well.
The game once again provides a variety of puzzles. The 3D capability is used mainly for visual effect here, such as 2D shapes placed in a rectangle on the touch screen being shown as 3D wooden blocks in a box on the top screen. There are a handful of puzzles that make greater use of the effect, such as a maze on the outside of a rolling cylinder, but for the most part the puzzles could have appeared on a normal DS without any changes. The puzzles themselves are typical fare for the series, with a range of difficulties and those seemingly simple trick questions to catch unwary players. These are as well crafted as ever, and include entirely new puzzle types along with variations on old favourites. There are also a large number of downloadable puzzles, accessed from the main menu rather than being playable in-game, with sixteen kinds of puzzles available, each with versions of varying difficulty. These too include some original new types, such as knights of different colours projecting holy light that needs to be reflected with mirrors onto matching coloured ghosts.
The problem with the puzzles continues to be the same one that has existed since the second game. In the series debut, there was a justification for all and sundry posing puzzles to you at every turn. Now in the fifth instalment, the fact that every passerby continues to have a puzzle for you to solve is stretching credibility to the breaking point. This is exacerbated further in the chapters where Layton recounts his past. Events in the latter part of this section should logically have put Layton off puzzles for life, not given him his long-lasting love for them. If you only care about the puzzles, and not whether they’re at all implemented plausibly into the story, this won’t be a problem, but for a puzzle-based game with such strong narrative elements, it’s a shame that at least a little better integration hasn’t been attempted.
This is not the only way in which the story stretches credibility. The Masked Gentleman performs a number of miracles within the city, some prior to our heroes’ arrival and some during the game. These include making the pictures in the local art gallery come alive, and turning a number of tourists in a plaza into stone. The villain exhibits other astonishing abilities in performing these, such as walking on air and vanishing suddenly without a trace. As is the norm in the series, these wonders are marked as mysteries in the Professor’s notebook, with him deducing a mundane explanation for all by the end of the game. The trouble is, even by this series’ broad definition of “mundane” these explanations do not hold up to scrutiny. Monte d’Or is a bustling city, teeming with citizens and tourists in every part. Yet the Masked Gentleman is able to set up elaborate feats of engineering and transport in busy areas without a single person noticing him doing so. Though not the actual explanation provided, you would be forgiven for thinking that the mystery is just a vast joke perpetrated on Layton that the whole town was in on.
As in previous games, the puzzles and story are supplemented by several optional minigames. These are unlocked individually as you progress, and are mostly accessed through the menu. I particularly enjoyed a shop-based puzzle game. In each themed level, a single item is placed at the start, with customers going on to buy a neighbouring item if it is the same colour or type. Arranging the objects so that a single customer buys out the entire stock through a series of such impulse buys proves tricky but satisfying. The rabbit theatre game, where you train a rabbit to express varied emotions, I found much less satisfying. An animal theatre owner gives you underperforming rabbits from his troupe, tasking you with training them to show the emotions he needs on stage. These include such actions as ducking their heads and shivering to show fear. Teaching these rabbits different tricks proved a less-than-enjoyable exercise. You encourage them by using the touch screen to make different stroking motions, but most of these cause the rabbit to fall over backwards. This even occurred when I was following clues I had found to unlocking a new emotion. The constant delay of waiting for the lapin thespian to right itself soon made me give up on its training.
But by far the most bizarre minigame edition is horseracing. In this, Layton rides along the streets of Monte d’Or, the player swiping left and right on the touch screen to dodge obstacles and collect carrots. The most obvious problem with this is that it requires reflexes in a game series that has always focused on intellectual puzzling at the player’s own pace. This is not the only odd decision. In similar games of this type, the path usually continues up to the top of the screen, allowing you to see obstacles and bonuses well in advance. Here, the road slopes so steeply that objects only rise up from the horizon shortly before you reach them. Obstacles often span lanes as well, making it tricky to judge avoiding them. Worst of all, the first appearance of this minigame in the Prologue is unavoidable. Whilst it seems to be impossible to outright fail this sequence, repeatedly hitting objects makes it much longer, adding to the pain for the less dextrous player. Fortunately, after this initial occurrence, further racing becomes an optional side quest.
Apart from the inclusion of an unavoidable action sequence, this game continues the Professor Layton legacy well. The overall art maintains the high standards of its predecessors, and the 3D capability of Nintendo’s handheld console has been put to good use in the scenery, though the characters could have used more work. The puzzling fare is also up to both the abundant quantity and high quality standards of previous games, with both old favourites and new inventions to test the player’s grey matter. The story does strain suspension of disbelief a lot, but those seeing past that will find an intriguing tale drawing you towards the final game in the second Layton trilogy. It may not have much in the way of spectacular new tricks, but The Miracle Mask is a solid addition to the line and I look forward to joining the Professor in his final adventure.