Wound up but not yet unwound. In a way.

September 24th, 2010

There’s something about the “Professor Layton” series for the Nintendo DS that transforms me into a snarling Neanderthal when it nears the release date of a new game. Is it perhaps the puzzles that make me wreak havoc on my brains and the brains of others close to me? Maybe it’s the intriguing story line that unfolds well despite the necessary interruptions by the aforementioned puzzles? The mysteries that remain sealed in one game until the subsequent game comes out with the key to unlock them? The excellent scripting and localization that Level-5 and Nintendo have employed from the start of the series? Or perhaps the swoon-inducing, proper British accent utilized by the top-hat-wearing titular character, rounded off by his mad tea-brewing and fencing skills? (In a fit of wild inspiration, I tried to convince my fiance to cosplay as the good professor, insisting he could properly carry out the character. No dice. So far.)

My raging primitiveness ratchets up as the weeks to the game’s release slowly count down, to the point where the game joins the list of primal needs that must be fulfilled before anything else can be done: food, water, Professor Layton. The latest in the series is “Professor Layton and the Unwound Future,” in which Layton and his apprentice, Luke, receive a letter claiming to be from 10 years in the future — from Luke’s older self, in fact, warning them that London is on the brink of destruction and that only the genius professor can sort things out. Layton figures it could be linked to a recent presentation of a purported time machine given by one Dr. Stahngun, so he and Luke head to the location specified in the letter.

Heaven knows that Jason Y. has endured many barely coherent chat messages of mine — often multiple times a day — consisting simply of “(However many more days) LEFT! AAAAAHHHHH!” sometimes followed by “HOW WILL I SURVIVE UNTIL THEN?!” It didn’t help that I receive e-mails from Nintendo, and some of them touted the new game and usually linked to the official website, which had a trailer of “Unwound Future.” It was always the same trailer, there was nothing new, Nintendo never posted any sample puzzles from the game — and yet I ALWAYS went to the site and watched the trailer. Over and over again.

For this game, the original release date of Sept. 20 (a Monday) was pushed up to Sept. 12 (a Sunday). Being that my Sundays are usually free, my mind suddenly went into overdrive as it did with the previous game, taking note of what time the store opened and how closely I could cut things so that I could maximize the number of hours I could play the game before having to take care of other obligations later in the day. It got to the point where I was almost constantly musing over chat to Jason how to plan out that day to accomplish the above objective.

It was at a point late in the night during my feverish rantings that Jason informed me that a particular store would have it in stock on the day of release and — more importantly — that said store would open at 8 a.m., which was a full TWO HOURS EARLIER than the store I preordered my game at. Which one to patronize?! I hemmed and hawed over it, various factors going for and against going each course. Jason, for some peculiar reason, tried his best to get me to stay my original path and pick up my preordered copy at the ridiculous time of 10 a.m. when that store opened.

I will semi-shamelessly admit that primal desires being what they were, I hotfooted it to the earlier store at 7:45 a.m. Sunday morning. (I told a family member, “I’m going to [the store]. Really, really fast.” It was only as I was driving there that I realized my statement could have been taken two ways, both of which ended up being true.)

When I got to said store, I immediately headed to the electronics section. I must’ve really been barreling down on it like a guided Layton-seeking missile with an aura to match, because the sales associate at the counter said loudly to me when I was about 3 aisles away, “Hi there! May I help you find something?”

“Well…Professor Layton,” I said a bit uncertainly.

“Right here!” and he held up a package of 5 of the games that he was literally carrying in his hand that he’d been about to open and put out on the sales floor.

It must have been fate.

I made it through checkout as quickly as possible as rocketed just as fast out the door, managing to not get that distracted by the rest of the store, but stopping for a bit to get some hash browns as part of breakfast. Back at my car, I ripped open the packaging and, being in the gaming minority that I am, I read the instruction book (what?) as I munched on a hash brown. My immediate “Professor Layton” need of the day finally satisfied, I returned home and more fully took care of the other primal needs of food and liquids before finally settling down with the game.

About 4 hours into “Unwound Future,” I found that the absurd pace of puzzles that was in the second game, “Diabolical Box,” is toned down in this one. It boasts new puzzle-solving music, and the Memo feature has been improved, with some of my complaints of the previous game dealt with. You now have an eraser function with the ability to selectively erase parts of your scribbles, as well as a palette of colors to change the ink of your in-game pen and the option to change line widths from thick to fine, to better distinguish your various notations.

Speaking of notes, there’s also now an in-game notebook that’s basically the Memo feature outside of a puzzle. So whatever you feel like writing, or if you just want to doodle, now you have a place to do so. (It was a useless feature for me, as I never used it beyond my initial curiosity-fueled scribbling.)

For the completists who hoard their hint coins and absolutely must get the full number of picarats for each puzzle, and do so by restarting the game after every wrong answer (I admit my occasional membership in this club), there’s a new, handy Reset button in the upper-left corner of the Professor’s Trunk subscreen. No need to turn off and on your DS and have to go through all the loading time, just hit the Reset button and it will bring you back to the title menu without saving your game. (I’m suddenly reminded of a Final Fantasy VII commercial…)

Something else new to help puzzle solvers are “super hints.” Whereas each regular hint costs the usual one hint coin, super hints cost two and are available only after you’ve purchased the first three hints. Within those first 4 hours, I already hit a puzzle that required me to use a super hint, and if all of them follow the same trend, then they tell you in no uncertain terms how to find the answer. Which I know will be a blessing for many.

The full-motion cut scenes are animated and voiced just as well as ever, and there’s some improvement in the more static in-game dialogue scenes. Where characters used to move single parts of their bodies — crossing their arms, a tip of the hat, a frown on the face — they are now more dynamic, with people actually moving in, out, and around. For instance, during the presentation of the supposed time machine, Dr. Stahngun calls up the prime minister of England to the stage to help out with the demo, and the premier hesitantly slides his way onto the screen as the conversation rolls along. The animation of such is a bit awkward and jerky — it certainly gives the impression of flat cardboard puppets on sticks being slid along a fixed background — but the novelty of it was enough to elicit an appreciative laugh from me.

The minigames, also found in the Professor’s Trunk, are all new ones, and finishing them again unlocks new puzzles in the Bonuses section found via the game’s title screen. The easiest is the picture book game, in which you find stickers by solving puzzles and attach them in the correct places in the book to complete the story. Another is the toy car, similar to the hamster game in “Diabolical Box,” where you have different obstacle courses and must use arrows to guide your car around to collect items and reach the goal.

The most difficult minigame is the parrot. At a certain point, you’ll find a parrot that you can later use for “deliveries” requested by some of the game’s characters. Like the car game, these deliveries consist of various obstacle courses that the parrot has to navigate within a certain time limit. You help your feathered friend by drawing perches, and the angle and length of the perch will affect the bird’s flight trajectory. Well, your bird doesn’t actually “fly” — because of the weight of whatever it’s trying to deliver, it can only hop. I found it hilarious somehow to see the poor parrot struggling with the burden as I struggled with trying to figure out how to draw the perches. Plus, your parrot can make some funky movements depending on how you draw perches. I especially liked (read: “got THOROUGHLY ANNOYED”) when the bird managed to bounce back and forth between perches and other obstacles like a pinball right down into the open hole at the bottom of the screen and into utter failure. I got more fun out of it by pretending this WAS a pinball machine, although of course I still lost because the bird usually ultimately ended up down the gutter.

Making enough “deliveries” makes your parrot smarter, and the bird will eventually be able to point out hidden hint coins, much like the hamster and dog in previous games.

Then, of course, there are the puzzles themselves. There is still a large variety of them — what with 160 or so in the game — and they seem to generally be easier to solve, although there are far more “number” puzzles that required some manipulation for the answer. And once you figured out the trick behind the first one, others of the same type were so easy to solve that it made me roll my eyes. “Ohh boy, not ANOTHER of these…”

A sentence in the instruction manual says, “Sometimes the people you talk to will even present you with a puzzle mid-conversation!” How true this is, and I made an impolite remark after reading that, remembering how that very aspect frustrated me in “Diabolical Box.” The conversation leading into puzzles is even smoother this time around, but the less frenetic pacing of the brain teasers tempers that. Although I’m not sure the theme works sometimes, especially when some 1920s-style Mafia goon threatens to teach you a lesson for the egregious offense of talking to him by throwing at you — a dasatardly 30-picarat puzzle!

Unfortunately, the story line, which drew me in so completely in the previous two games, seems to have fallen several degrees in quality. Key to any story is the mysteries that are presented, and “Unwound Future” seems to have taken the easy way out. Although the premise of time travel is what intrigued me about the game, we already know from the beginning where Layton and Luke are headed and so the entire first two chapters, which make such a fuss about the pair not knowing where they are, is a dull retread. Because we the players are already in the know, it’s painful to have to play through until the point where the game characters realize it as well — especially when it takes the professor horribly long to accept it. (“No, we must keep investigating whether or not we’re really in the future!” Layton’s cautious, scientific self keeps insisting long after Luke has been convinced of the fact.)

…Or at least so I thought when I was about a halfway through the game. Silly me, I should have realized that the story twists were coming, it’s just that they took so darn LONG to come. And even sillier of me to accept the game’s supposed premise at face value!

In any case, the upshot of my impression now that I’ve finished the game is that in some ways, “Unwound Future” is truly a trilogy-ending game. Some relationships are explained, histories are delved into, and questions raised back in the first game, “Curious Village,” are answered, while new ones possibly lead into the next set of “Layton” games, which are already out in Japan.

And you may have heard this elsewhere, and I will readily confirm it: Get some tissues ready, because the ending is a complete tearjerker. I am not ashamed to say I cried when I saw it. And, because of the bonus features that allow you to rewatch the game’s movies, I now can watch it multiple times and cry EVERY TIME!

The emotion of the ending is enough to make me overlook the weak points and sluggishness of the plot and make me declare this the best “Layton” game, at least in terms of story. The puzzles, on the other hand, are a mixed bag, with some being repetitive in their solutions as described previously, and the control scheme sometimes imprecise when dealing with items that you must move around, flip or rotate.

All in all, “Unwound Future” is a good though bittersweet and profoundly affecting end to this trilogy. Here’s hoping for more mysteries with the good professor and young Luke.

One Response to “Wound up but not yet unwound. In a way.”

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