Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask
3DS | Nintendo / LEVEL-5 | 1 Player | Nintendo Wi-fi Connection DLC available | Out Now | SpotPass Support
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31st December 2012; By KnucklesSonic8
Serving as the second title in a trilogy of preludes to the first three games, Miracle Mask follows directly after the events of Last Specter (and even the canonical film, Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva), introducing to us a new menace. Not in the form of an apparition or an unruly rival as has been the case in the past, players bear sight to the entrance of a magician of sorts who, rather than wooing the audience with his charms, makes a spectacle out of inciting panic through seemingly otherworldly antics. Witnessing it for themselves, Layton and Luke meet up with Emmy and proceed to inquire as to this masked charmer's connections with a brewing dilemma in the town's upper crust region. As should be expected by now, Layton goes about addressing the problem in a procedural manner in connection with (surprise, surprise) a letter he received from an old friend.
Despite the immediate focus being on Monte d'Or, Miracle Mask follows after Last Specter in casting an introspective lens into Layton's past. With fans who've kept up with the series having a better understanding on what was only hinted in early games, players will now learn of the origin of some of Layton's signature expressions with a tale weaving the bands of friendship, trust, and betrayal all into one cohesive plot. While not using time travel as its reason for venturing into the past, it's great (and perhaps even a little weird) to see Layton have a less confident way about him, revealed to us through insightful flashbacks.
Past stories have been rather complex in make-up (Diabolical Box being especially twisted), with a deeper mystery being outworked that demonstrates careful planning from the outset. And this is true of Miracle Mask in some respects. However, players will discover that in resembling that of Last Specter in terms of plot development, there are fewer surprises and some of the mysteries aren't as climactic as they have been in the past. That doesn't make it any less of a dedicated affair, nor does Miracle Mask lose credibility for being different than its predecessors. On the contrary, the game resounds in its ability to improve on the basis of its core foundations and behave in a respectful manner as it strives to grow without losing its proven impact.
Provoking with a new sense of style is the revised art direction, and this is a result of the game being the first in the series to be developed for the 3DS from the ground up. Accompanying the usual brand of lively animation work, environments unfold with depth that resembles a diorama-esque style, making all-around exemplary use of 3D. This enhancement seen in the visual dynamics is not only limited to the adventure field scenes, but also transcends to some of the puzzles and cutscenes. To navigate, you'll use the Touch Screen to guide a magnifying glass around the space and then tap on points of interest, rather than using direct taps as was the case previously. There's also a zoom feature that enables you to get a closer look or change the angle you inspect elements from.
Over the course of your investigation, new locations will become accessible, with a map displayed that features circular markers, as well as arrows leading off into the distance for accessing side-streets and the like. As you guide yourself to destination spots that relate directly to your next objective or lead, cutscenes and discussions will be triggered to make for a smooth adventure that flows in and out very nicely, whilst still giving plenty of opportunities to break off from making a new step in the case and instead deciding to speak to the locals. And of course, you must be sure not to overlook the importance of seeking out Hint Coins that will prove valuable in the long run.
Beyond the pleasantries of small talk, the many townsfolk you encounter will be happy to bestow upon you a puzzle to aid either in the expansion of your mental muscle, or to further your case in some indirect fashion. As such, it can be said that puzzles are introduced in a similar fashion as has always been the case -- that is, except for the fact that these encounters aren't as random or aren't as much by way of reminder. Actually, they are better connected to the investigation in the way they wrap up details, bridge the plot, or simply grant passage to viewing or learning about sensitive information in a more correlated fashion. For anyone who formed an early opinion that the series' methodology of completing irrelevant puzzles was bizarre in itself, Miracle Mask presents a muted change in the way that puzzles are better organized and aren't as much of a detour as they might've been perceived since Curious Village.
Bearing similar qualities of improvement is the core puzzle dynamic. It's great to see that, while harnessing similar devices, they've embedded the game with some new puzzle creations, such as ensuring all slices on a pizza are facing upward, and inspecting cave paintings to quantify the appearance of animal symbols. Some are rehashes from before, including slight variations on pre-existing chess arrangements, the principle of sectioning off areas, leaping-type puzzles where you must clear the board of all but one animal (previously done with frogs, now using kittens), identifying discrepancies with an undertaken route, putting separated pieces back together to form wholes, and deciphering step-by-step patterns to determine the next result. But because of the interconnected elements in other parts of the game, these aren't inept or stale renditions and are still really enjoyable.
Furthermore, the overall difficulty also resembles Last Specter in the way that it has a greater balance and doesn't have as strong of a penchant to challenge and throw off your thinking process. Whatever the reason for it having died down, it's something new players will appreciate. (Albeit, I don't recommend Miracle Mask, the fifth entry and the second part of a developing story, as a starting point!) Multiple-choice questions involving word riddles are considerably common, and as such, you can lean on the process of elimination a little more. This comes with an attached caveat, however, of puzzles being a tad less satisfying.
That said, rather than detracting from the probing that is often required from these riddles, this presence actually amplifies the existence of trick questions, and these are still as much of a highlight as they've always been in provoking attention to finer details and less narrow possibilities. In this regard, the formula remains clever, even with this change in puzzle direction, and while my personal tastes longed for something more akin to what was experienced in previous titles, it works well from a design and balance standpoint and from the point of view of someone who isn't as convinced in their ability to arrive at solutions.
One other important thing that Miracle Mask does well with respect to its organization of puzzles has to do with the interface. It seems like with every passing iteration, LEVEL-5 gets better at understanding how to change things up ever so slightly to allow more options. Reference points and memos can be much more readily looked at and manipulated in the way players desire, and related to this is the ability to control the instructions panel so that it rests on the top screen, or when that screen contains vital information in the way of a detailed visual, this can be pushed down to the Touch Screen or retracted completely. Just in looking at how much things have changed since Curious Village, having this measure of control is certainly appreciated as a valued feature. I would like to point out, though, that I found the rotation of pieces and the recognition for numbers written by the player to be a tad more finicky than usual.
As I mentioned earlier, Miracle Mask will have you bouncing back and forth between the present and the past, but it does so at defined points, thus never instigating confusion or causing you to lose sight of things. There's a unique point in the game where players will engage in a very simple dungeon-crawling segment involving intuitive puzzles, and this is a great change of pace -- something I hope to see more of, while perhaps not being in precisely the same vein. I will say that this portion is the one area where I felt the balance wavering, as the length came close to the point of being repetitive. But for what this brings to the table, it is still a positive component to the overall experience. At an even earlier point, you'll chase the Masked Gentleman on a horse, moving left and right to avoid barrels and collect carrots. But I personally would've much preferred if this weren't a part of the experience at all, as it takes away from the cohesion a tad.
Looking into the Professor's Trunk where he stores his belongings, there are always goodies to provide the player with variety and make the experience a more lasting one. The first is the Episodes compartment, which presents story arcs that at times prove telling as to the character traits or motives of individuals you've met. The next three -- Robot, Shop and Rabbit -- are mini-games that continue the tradition of pet training, puzzle-oriented and simulation-type exercises. Side-diversions though they may are, these are always a joy and function as a nice way to cool down when getting heated over a puzzle or, far more common, for the benefit of a short reprieve to process everything that has transpired thus far. Additional treats can be consumed either during or after the story reaches its end, with daily downloadable brain teasers lasting a year as of the end of October, as well as puzzles set aside only for master players.
much of the methodology and terms of interaction have remained the same, but Miracle Mask still strikes as being a well-balanced continuation that reflects well on the development team's admirable consistency. If you personally have viewed involvement in previous games to present gaps in the way of it being an occasionally challenging affair, Miracle Mask will be found more pleasing to even apprehensive tastes due to the more leveled-out difficulty. Anyone who already cherishes the franchise will find reason to point a finger at the reduced shock value and other details, perhaps even going so far as to rank this iteration slightly below others. But what has been done in the way of sprinkled changes (i.e., interface, visual style, and a few new ideas) sets a nice stage for the final title in this second trilogy. It is with bated breath that I look forward to the clincher of this intriguing tale, but until then, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask should be recognized as a strong and approachable puzzle game, with several superior qualities to occupy players' minds for the entirety of the unraveling story.
27/30 - Excellent
Gameplay 9/10 - Formula still works really well, great flow connected to the navigation and phase transitions, good plot development but less surprising
Presentation 9/10 - New style adds depth, good use of 3D, improved interface, commendable animations and audio as always, a few technical nitpicks
Enjoyment 4/5 - Slight changes in gameplay are a nice change of pace, range of puzzles isn't quite as varied, less satisfying puzzle creations
Extra Content 5/5 - Features plenty of puzzles to discover, lasts around 15 hours or so and is longer than earlier titles, additional unlocks for experts
Equivalent to a score of 90% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System