By Wilma Jandoc
There probably has been no game in recent memory that I was as frantic to get my hands on as “Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box” for the Nintendo DS, the sequel to the first game, “Professor Layton and the Curious Village.” This was perhaps partially fueled by the titillating message in the back of the instruction book of “Curious Village,” promising “Top Secret” content in that game by getting a code that would be in the sequel. After THAT most provocative note, there likely would have been riots if “Diabolical Box” hadn’t been released, especially considering how excruciatingly long it took for Nintendo just to announce the sequel for the U.S. — “Curious Village” was released stateside in early 2007 and news of “Diabolical Box” broke just earlier this year, in March.
The last game that made me go ballistic at trying to get my hands on a copy right on the day of release was “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” way back on the Nintendo 64. Not even the greatly anticipated, trilogy-ending (supposedly) “Halo 3″ caused me to torment myself as much as I did over “Layton,” counting down the days to its release and then subsequently checking various web sites and store advertisements like mad the day before, trying to determine which place on the island was likely to get the game in on the day of release and actually have it IN STOCK before I started my work shift. (Most places were anticipating having it in between 1 pm and 5 pm. And being on an afternoon work schedule, I wouldn’t have been able to make it to any store before they closed for the day, which would thus force me to patiently wait for them to open the next day and be without my precious “Layton” for another 12 more hours — an entire TWELVE HOURS that I could be solving the game’s puzzles! — a course that was COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE to me.)
On the morning of the game’s release day, I had only enough time to hit a couple of stores, neither of which had them in. (I arrived at the second store, which shall remain unnamed, JUST after the UPS truck pulled away from its door. The clerk still insisted that the game would be available at 5 pm, which apparently one of its ads had said. At this point it was only around 11 am. I was forced to declare defeat.) I was ready to put into action a plan for heading off to Ala Moana Center during my dinner break later in my shift when lo and behold, Jason Y. showed up with “Layton” in hand, thus saving me from my drastic course. (The crazy irony of this all was that while the two of us earlier were plotting out which stores to try to hit up in our limited pre-work hours, it ultimately turned out that the store that had it in on time was the GameStop closest to my house — a store that we had deemed rather UNLIKELY to have it in due to shipping schedules and previous precedent. Talk about flukes.)
And so the game is now in my eager hands and in my DS. For those who don’t know what it’s about, “Diabolical Box” stars the namesake Professor Hershel Layton and his young apprentice, Luke, as they set out to solve the mystery of a curious relic called the Elysian Box, which is rumored to kill anyone who dares to open it. The two of them are drawn into the case after the professor’s friend and mentor, Dr. Andrew Schrader, comes to an unfortunate end while on the trail of the box himself.
What originally drew me to the “Layton” series was the numerous brainteasers that are thrown at you, many of which must be solved in order for you to advance in the game. (The puzzles were created under the direction of puzzle master professor emeritus Akira Tago of Chiba University in Japan, so you can expect to be in for some serious brain-twisting at times.)
Anyway. I’ve been playing “Diabolical Box” (according to the game clock) for only about 4 hours, during about the first 15 minutes of which I remembered why in heaven’s name I wanted to kill the original “Curious Village” so badly after just a short while. The puzzles came up fast and furious in “Curious Village,” and they seem even MORE so in its sequel. While you could count on the residents in the original village of St. Mystere to be the main ones to put our noggins to the test, with relatively few puzzles hidden here and there when you touched an errant item, in “Diabolical Box,” there’s far more of the latter in addition to the former. I found this out when, vaguely remembering my lessons from the first game, I would tap the screen like mad trying to find hint coins (which can be used to buy hints if you’re stuck on a puzzle) and was instead mostly rewarded by the most innocent-looking things throwing a puzzle at me. A cat statue? Why, it reminds Luke of a puzzle involving cats! A tree along a path? There’s this puzzle with trees that Layton recalls! The door to the town hall?! Layton has just such a puzzle regarding three mayoral candidates! And it continues on.
By around the fourth screen I was already dreading the familiar red exclamation mark that pops up whenever you tap on someone or something that will give you a puzzle to solve, with many impolite exclamations of my own often accompanying it. And the brainteasers are more smoothly written into casual conversation in “Diabolical Box,” which ironically multiples the annoyance factor for me. For example, one person you come across is fishing at the edge of a lake and Luke strikes up conversation, asking if the fishing has been good. The man wonders how exactly he’s been doing, and before you know it up pops the dreaded “PUZZLE!” screen and now you have to figure out how many fish are in the guy’s net.
Information — even something as simple as an answer to the question “So how’re the fish biting?” — has never been so DIFFICULT to obtain. This oldie-but-goodie Penny Arcade cartoon (be warned when clicking on the link, because the comic does contain strong language), although it was based on the first “Layton” game, still perfectly captures my fast-mounting frustration. Though thank heaven so far there aren’t as many math-based problems in “Diabolical Box” as there were in the first game. At least, not yet.
Because of the constant deluge of puzzles (perhaps made more intolerable by my general seeming inability to solve them rapidly), the game’s story has so far been going along slowly. But I also tend to stop and doggedly tackle all brainteasers that I come across, whether or not they’re required to moving the story along. (Don’t worry, nonessential and nonhidden puzzles that you miss in a story chapter are sent to Granny Riddleton’s Shack, for you to complete at a later time at your leisure.) There is now included a nifty “Memo” feature that pulls up a transparent screen over the puzzle so you can doodle as much as you want on top of it, although there’s no way to selectively erase parts of what you write (there’s only an option to clear the entire screen) and any notes you make will be deleted if you decide to quit out of the puzzle without solving it.
Despite the puzzle panic, I’m still enjoying it. It really is the game’s story that captured my attention to the end in the first game, in addition to the excellent voice acting and amazing animated cut scenes, and “Diabolical Box” is shaping up to be the same. Lots of secrets are hinted at, not only with the Elysian Box but also other matters that may or may not be connected to it. St. Mystere had such an incredible secret behind it that led to even more incredible happenings, and I have no doubt that the second game’s town of Dropstone will hold equally astonishing surprises. In addition, there are some rather fascinating mini games, a couple of which could possibly turn out quite tedious but which I’m still eager to have a go at playing.
Plus, in the instruction book, there’s a copy of the ticket to the Molentary Express train that the professor discovered at Dr. Schrader’s house. Could this be a clue to the Elysian Box? It has no destination written on it, but it’s obviously some kind of puzzle — one that must be physically manipulated to solve. I stared at the ticket for a few minutes and tried a few things before deciding to set it aside and solve it later, perhaps after I’ve gotten a hint within the game.
There are already three games out in the series in Japan, with 3 more planned to create a new trilogy. For the LOVE of DEITY, Nintendo, bring them to the U.S. also! With far less dead time in between! Especially since “Diabolical Box” is also promising secret content to be unlocked by a code that will be found in the next game! What a diabolical way to snare people, as I have obviously been.