Level-5’s famous time-traveling, puzzle-solving, tea-sipping professor of archaeology hasn’t made an appearance since 2014’s Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, and the new Layton’s Mystery Journey does nothing to change that — the professor himself is not to be seen, his traditional white male self having been politically-corrected into a spunky young girl called Katrielle Layton. I’m sorry, did I say "spunky young girl?" I meant "independent and capable single woman," as the game consistently reminds us. Yes, it’s one of those games, loaded down with preternaturally intelligent, competent, wise, and good female characters who somehow have to tolerate living in a world full of boorish, pigheaded, stupid, and shifty male characters. It’s as though all the excesses of 90s sitcoms never left us!
Still and all, there’s more to a video game than its prostrations before far-left false idols — at least, one should hope so. Does Layton’s Mystery Journey manage to redeem itself?
The first sign of trouble happens only a scant few minutes into the game, while we’re still watching the opening credits:
Oh hello! The Butcher of Dragon Quest graces us with his presence. Making matters worse, Honeywood is reunited here with his compatriots at Plus Alpha, meaning we’re in for a real treat: impenetrable, nonsensical dialects? Constant repetition of the same few puns? Pointless alliteration? Ham-fisted pop culture jokes? Long-winded, horrible "funny" names? Check, check, check, check, and check! Honeywood and his baleful crew of zombie localizers should never be entrusted with a game set in London, of all places. The entire experience is like suffering through a competition to see which Dick Van Dyke can chim-chim-cher-ee the most flagrantly. And would that they restrained themselves simply to that, because they’ve taken whatever excuse they could find to smash in other dialects. We have rubbish Italian, rubbish French, rubbish Scots, rubbish Arabic, rubbish generic-Eastern-European, and even a rubbish Texan in there for good measure. None of it makes a lick of sense, and the game certainly doesn’t benefit from it, but, hey, at least it makes the text difficult to read! That’s a bonus! The most inexplicable thing about this mess is that, when the dialect joke practically writes itself, they somehow manage to miss it.
All this would be bad enough on its own, but the dialogue isn’t even particularly well-written. It consists largely of every piece of British slang and every dog pun the writers could think of, repeated ad nauseam. The script is also rather littered with typos — though, in fairness, the script is huge — and contains arguably the worst politically correct pronoun chowder I’ve ever seen. Pronouns are mixed around all willy-nilly in the same sentence, making it totally unclear who or what we’re talking about at any given time. Then there’s this nonsense:
Let me count the ways:
- "Singular they" is always wrong. Always. Everywhere.
- Just because the localizer doesn’t know if the steward is male or female doesn’t mean the captain doesn’t know. Obviously he would.
- "Steward" is already a masculine noun anyhow. There is no such thing as a female steward. There is a separate word for that.
I’ve had it suggested to me that the captain’s "they" doesn’t refer to the steward, but rather to some unspecified group he fails to identify. That’s bad writing even if so, but I’m disinclined to believe it anyhow, since this exact error crops up several times in the script. Sometimes it even gets so madcap that it interferes with puzzle instructions:
Now that’s just sloppy. Tsk.
Katrielle is accompanied on her puzzle-solving adventure by her hapless, bumbling sidekick Ernest — who spends far too much time trying to get into Katrielle’s bed, as 90s sitcom men are wont to do — and (so help me God) a magical talking dog called "Sherl O. C. Kholmes." To say that this is a poor replacement for the original cast is to understate the point badly; whereas Professor Layton himself is an interesting mélange of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, and Phoenix Wright, his daughter Katrielle appears to be a combination of anime girl tropes and warmed-over feminist sloganeering. She spends most of her time obsessing over food and hats, or asserting that she’s strong and independent and certainly doesn’t need any man helping her solve mysteries. Meanwhile, Ernest fruitlessly moons after her, and Sherl makes the exact same set of dog puns over and over again. It’s a travesty.
If you think I’m spending far too much time on the dialogue, well, I’m just following Level-5’s lead; Layton’s Mystery Journey is almost overwhelmingly talky. Classic Layton games use dialogue sparingly; there are brief scenes when the characters make important discoveries, but beyond that the player is left to roam the world and search for puzzles. Layton’s Mystery Journey, on the other hand, appears to have been designed as an anime series and then converted into a game with all of the dialogue intact; the various "cases" Katrielle takes on are presented as long stretches of dialogue occasionally punctuated by a puzzle or two. There is no roaming of the world to be done, either; the path through any given case is entirely linear, the next objective is always marked on the map, and there’s never anything to do in any other area (except, I suppose, search for hint coins you missed the first time through). The puzzles seem oddly disconnected from the game, as though the mystery-solving narrative is the real focus, and the puzzles are just something they threw in there because people expect them in a Layton game.
The "case" structure is an interesting idea, and shows promise, but ultimately comes to nothing due to the game’s steadfast insistence on non-interactivity. Previous Layton games have a single overarching mystery that unravels in a linear fashion over the course of the game, with smaller mysteries that all relate to it occasionally cropping up and falling down. In Layton’s Mystery Journey, on the other hand, the mysteries are all presented as separate cases that the Layton Detective Agency undertakes. The player can switch among active (or completed) cases at will, and any given case progresses until six "clues" have been discovered, after which it can be solved. This sounds fun, but in practice amounts to very little, since the player has no agency whatsoever in collecting the clues or solving the puzzles. Clues appear automatically as the story progresses, and don’t need to be understood or applied by the player in any way (à la Ace Attorney); Katrielle just files them away until she has six, and then solves the mystery on her own, reducing the player to the role of dialogue-scroller.
Puzzle-wise, the game has nearly two hundred "main" puzzles, plus a few categories of DLC extras, so there’s no shortage of stuff to do. The quality of the puzzles is definitely a step down from the standard set by previous games, though; puzzle-master Akira Tago died last year, and his absence is keenly felt. This time around, a great many of the puzzles rely more on ambiguous or deceptive wording rather than on proper logic and deduction, which gets old quickly; the Layton games have always had a few "trick" puzzles, but they work well when they pop up occasionally — just little "gotchas" to make sure the player pays attention. When there’s a constant stream of trick puzzles, though, the player becomes inured to them, and the tricks stop working. Such is the case here.
The non-trick puzzles are reasonably fun (though there is one puzzle in which the instructions are actually faulty, rather than just tricky), but they’re uniformly quite easy — the game’s "memo" function, the greatest usability improvement the series has ever seen, is almost superfluous here, since there are no long chains of complex reasoning involved in any of the puzzles. Making matters even easier, the game contains over four hundred hint coins; while unlocking every single hint would take nearly a thousand, I’m willing to bet that, in practice, absolutely nobody will ever run out. The game is also kind enough to tell you exactly where the hint coins are, meaning that it’s a trivial matter to collect all of them. Due to the replayability of the cases, no puzzle or hint coin (or other collectable) can ever be missed, neatly avoiding the usual Layton-series stress of trying not to progress the story too far before you’ve found all the secrets. As is always the case, completing puzzles awards "picarats," which is a score system used for both bragging rights and unlocking concept art galleries and the like. As with previous Layton games, getting a puzzle wrong reduces the number of picarats awarded for successful completion; unlike previous games, though, the penalty is minuscule. Even high-value puzzles with few options will lose just a tiny number of picarats — usually around four — for a wrong answer, meaning that unlocking all the bonus galleries is mainly a matter of playing all the puzzles, and not of doing an especially good job of it.
The bonus features include a whole bundle of downloadable puzzles, though they all appear to revolve around arranging elements on a board in a particular way. As of this writing, all released DLC puzzles are extremely easy, though it appears as though they’re designed to get harder as they go along. It’s too early to say how well that goal is achieved. DLC puzzles grant "museum points" for completion, which can be spent to unlock concept art from previous games in the Layton series. This is a neat extra, but probably of limited value; it’s unlikely that anybody who hasn’t played the previous games will be interested in the concept art from them, and the art galleries in those games include at least the brunt of this material. There are also three minigames, per series standard, and they’re pretty straightforward as well. There’s a pathfinding game about navigating Sherl out of a dog pound in a limited number of moves, a pathbuilding game about routing customers through a shop, and a menu-creation game about deducing what foods people want to eat. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in other Layton games, but they’re reasonably well implemented, if a trifle on the easy side.
Visually, there’s really nothing to complain about here; the game looks excellent, with a charming, cartoon-y vision of London, large, expressive characters, and static artwork for the puzzle scenes in the usual crayon-y style. If there’s a gripe to be had here, it’s the same gripe in common with the other 3DS-era Layton games, which is that perhaps the visuals are a bit too realistic; the original games had sort of a charming watercolor-fantasy style that was downright striking, and that’s lost a bit in the modern series. Also worth noting is that the game makes no use of stereoscopic 3D effects at all, which is a shame, given that previous Layton entries on the system used them to great effect.
The music, as always, is exceptional, though the one minor niggle I have with it is that there are a few tracks that sound rather Dragon Quest-y. Now, Dragon Quest has great music, so that’s not a problem in and of itself, but when one combines Dragon Quest sounding music with dialogue run through the garbage factory at Plus Alpha, that brings back all sorts of unhappy memories. Incidental sounds are exactly what one would expect for the series, except that they’ve changed the sound effect for solving a puzzle, and I simply can’t get used to it. There’s nothing wrong with the new sound per se, it’s just not what I’m conditioned to expect. There’s voice acting, of course, and it’s thoroughly mediocre; honestly, it would probably be pretty good if the actors weren’t forced into mouthing these absurd dialects, but there they are and here we are, and it’s a vast chasm between.
Which all leaves us circling back to the elephant in the room: the game’s plotline. Let’s be frank: it’s kind of a mess. The overall idea is strong — Professor Layton’s daughter opens a detective agency and solves mysteries. The trouble is that the mysteries themselves just aren’t very interesting. The first one is pretty clearly the best, but the answer — however improbable — is obvious far too early. Another issue is that Katrielle, in eschewing "masculine" concepts like deductive reasoning, uses her powers of Super Women’s Intuition to guess the madcap answers, which is occasionally completely insane. There is no possible way the answer in case 3 could be reached by any means, much less by intuitive stab at an extremely specific series of events. Another issue is that the game really badly wants not to contain any villains; as a result, all the "crimes" Katrielle solves turn out to be just misunderstandings, and everybody’s happy in the end. In addition to getting severely anticlimactic by the ninth or tenth time, this doesn’t always even make any sense at all; hundred-million-dollar insurance fraud is still a crime, even if the criminal committed it out of devotion to the firm rather than personal greed. That doesn’t just make the issue go away, Level-5! Then there’s the one about the theft of four tons of gold — current price nearly 150 million dollars — that nobody cares about because, hey, it’s only money. This is all notwithstanding the fact that Katrielle resolutely refuses to care about the game’s one actual interesting mystery: why is there a magical talking dog? I’m not just being dense, either; Sherl repeatedly attempts to hire Katrielle to investigate where he came from and why he can talk, and she repeatedly tells him it’s just not very interesting. Do you suppose Plus Alpha will hire me if I call that a shaggy dog story?
In the end, for all my complaining, Layton’s Mystery Journey is a reasonably good time. It’s all about the puzzles, after all, and there are lots of them, and they’re pretty fun. The game has lots of flaws — it’s certainly fallen low from the heights of the classic Layton games — but it’s still not a bad way to spend twenty or so hours. Just know what you’re getting yourself in to: a frustrating mess of repeated puns in thick dialect, linear, uninteractive gameplay, and puzzles that aren’t exactly top-tier. It’s perhaps just a notch better than average, and, as such, I award it a notch more than an average amount of hair:
Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaire’s Conspiracy is available for $39.99 from Amazon.