The Nintendo DS had great potential as a medium for portable graphic (aka point-and-click) adventure games thanks to its innovative touchscreen technology. Regretfully, this opportunity was overlooked by many developers who only released watered-down ports of existing titles or very mediocre original IPs. Only four companies truly took advantage of the system to create truly impressive works. Cing created deep, engaging mysteries such as Hotel Dusk: Room 215 andAnother Code: Two Memories that used not only the touchscreen but the other features of the DS for innovative puzzle solving. Chunsoft took gamers by surprise with the complex psychological thriller 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Capcom blended traditional adventure gaming dialogue and inventory puzzles with a murder mystery visual novel and sitcom humor in Ace Attorney (Turnabout Trial in Japan), giving rise to one of their most successful franchises of the past decade. And finally there’s my personal favorite, the Professor Layton series by Level-5. Each game follows the exploits of Herschel Layton, professor of archaeology, puzzle enthusiast and amateur detective, as he’s thrust into a baffling mystery. They’re all very well written, beautifully animated, boast many inventive brainteasers, and have a greatly appealing charm that I can’t really express in words, but if you ever play one of them you’ll see where I’m coming from. The series has been divided into two installments – an initial trilogy (Curious Village, Pandora’s Box, Lost Future) that established the characters and world, and a prequel tetralogy of three games (Specter’s Call, Miracle Mask, Azran Legacy) and one movie (Eternal Diva) to explore the adventures the cast took part in prior to the events of Curious Village. The final entry in the prequel saga, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, was released for the 3DS in Japan in February 2013, with publications in the PAL territories in November of that year. It finally reached the US in February 2014, bringing a satisfying conclusion to the arc.

Herschel Layton, along with his assistants Emmy Altava and Luke Triton, have been called to the icy mountain village of Froenborg by a fellow archaeologist, Desmond Sycamore. Their presence was requested so Sycamore could share with them what could be the most valuable discovery of the century – a living mummy. Encased in a wall of ice, the body of a young girl rests in suspended animation, still alive despite having been frozen for nearly one million years. After melting through the ice with some ancient advanced machinery, the girl awakens. Before she can be taken somewhere for a full recovery, however, the team is besieged by a squadron of armed men who demand the girl. Not wishing to see others hurt because of her, she goes with the thugs. Layton and his colleagues quickly follow, the professor managing to board the group’s airship. In a confrontation with the leader of the gunmen, he’s saved from being shot when the girl causes a massive burst of energy that causes the ship’s instruments to malfunction. Taking advantage of the confusion, Layton escapes with the young woman, surviving a rough landing on the outskirts of a lakeside town. Once the group is back together, Sycamore informs them that the men they were ambushed by belong to Targent, an organization that has been seeking out the remnants left by the Azran civilization, an ancient culture with access to technology far greater than anything we could comprehend. Anyone who possessed that wisdom would have the power to change the world, and the girl, Aurora, is the last survivor of that race. Targent had planned to use her to lead them to the Azran’s greatest achievements. Now that she’s free, Layton and the others must rely on her to find the keys that will unlock this hidden power before Targent can. The professor is embarking on his most dangerous journey, a quest where the fate of the entire planet rests on his shoulders and his brilliant mind.

Azran Legacy’s main narrative focus is to bring closure to the enigma of the Azran, which had been touched upon in the prequel games and films but only explained in greater detail in the previous title, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask. The long-hidden ruins discovered by Layton, Luke and Emmy in their earlier exploits (the Golden Garden, Ambrosia, Akbadain) are revealed to have been constructed by the Azran as testaments to their mastery over various sciences and nature itself. Even this revelation leads to more puzzles though, not only the question of how many more relics the ancient people left behind, but what eventually caused this incredibly advanced race to vanish. It’s a concept which has been touched on many times before in various other media, and while it follows just about all of the motifs associated with this type of plot (a lone survivor of the ancient race with fragmented memories of the past guiding the explorers, the culture’s downfall brought on by their hubris, incredible technology that was hidden away for fear it could lead to great disasters in the future, members of the investigation team having planned to betray one another from the start so they can use the wealth of the lost people for their own agendas), it’s still presented in a way that mostly keeps it from feeling tired or clichéd. There are a few flaws with the surprise revelations presented during the finale; some were easy to see coming if you paid close enough attention, while others, mainly those connected to the antagonists, seemed too outlandish. I suspect the second issue was due to the writers having difficulty trying to write out characters and concepts that would not be addressed in the first three games to maintain continuity, so they had to come up with incredibly dramatic rationales to justify these absences while leaving strong impressions with the players, even if it led to several unnecessary retcons. The problem could have been resolved if some of these points had been addressed in Miracle Mask so there was a chance to effectively foreshadow them, or to briefly touch on them in this game and then have the full impact revealed in another sequel.

That’s not to say I disliked all of the twists. I thought the events which led to Emmy’s departure were very well handled with moments that were not only emotionally deep, but showed her inner strength and true loyalty to her friends in the face of overwhelming odds (further cementing her status as my favorite character in the series). Even with a trivial backstory shoehorned in to create artificial tension, it portrayed Emmy at her best, making it even harder to see her go at the end. Also working in the game’s favor is the much wider scope. You’re not simply travelling back and forth around one city, but instead exploring different locales across the globe. It builds anticipation as you look forward to seeing what wonders each new area you visit will present, like a good Indiana Jones-style adventure movie or a less action-heavy Uncharted game. The central challenges are nicely varied, ranging from simple interrogations on an island resort, to finding the cure for a strange ailment that’s caused nearly every resident in a desert village to fall into a deep slumber, to uncovering the secret behind a pastoral town’s ancient macabre ritual. It was nice to see Layton wasn’t again restrained to one location, but to go wherever the clues led him as any proper archaeologist/detective would. It’s a shame that it took six entries before we got to see such an expansive game world, because it created an atmosphere that greatly enhanced my experience and compensated for several deficiencies in the plot.

Part of the appeal of the Professor Layton series has been its clever writing. They’ve have always had an amusing absurdity in their premise alone, set in a world where practically everyone has a passion for puzzles that rivals the inhabitants of the Yu-gi-oh universe’s obsession with card games, but the oddities are bolstered by comedic dialogue and scenarios. Azran Legacy has perhaps more puns and wordplay than any of the previous entries, with a jungle village called Phong Gi where everyone styles their hair to resemble mushroom caps and are named after mushrooms (Amanita, Chanterelle, Morel), a pair of star-crossed lovers named Julien and Romilda, the former of whom speaks in iambic pentameter to reflect his Shakespearian influence, the desert town where people have fallen ill to a sleeping sickness is named Mosinnia (an anagram of insomnia) where one of the main crops is a mushroom called the Ommis nommis, and two fashion obsessed girls named Prima and Donna, just to name a few examples. Much like the classic LucasArts adventure games, tapping on objects in the background will occasionally result in humorous quips from whichever characters are accompanying Layton, such as when they vainly admire themselves in a mirror, or when Luke decides to touch a flaming torch simply to satisfy his curiosity. One funny scene that stands out is when Luke and Layton put on absurd masks in an attempt to make an old man laugh, and when they fail, Sycamore takes a shot with a painfully lame shaggy dog story that you have to chuckle at simply because of how bad it is. The story doesn’t consist entirely of light comedy though – there are a few dark moments near the end of the game, bringing up disturbing topics like ritual human sacrifice and attempted murder. And there are several very touching scenes where we see how close the protagonists have become, even those who only joined them a short time ago, and the sacrifices they’re willing to make to protect one another. For all the puns and oddities, the Layton games never fail to show they have heart.

A good adventure game must have well-developed characters, and the central cast of the Layton series remains as compelling as ever. Christopher Robin Miller once again delivers a stellar performance as the titular Professor Layton; erudite, cultured, chivalrous, and noble, a true gentleman in every sense of the word. Generally pleasant in demeanor, he won’t hesitate to fight back when the need calls for it, especially when those he cares for are in danger. His latest adventure tests his resolve at several points when he learns disturbing truths about his friends, his journey and himself, yet he still manages to press on despite his inner turmoil. Emmy gets plenty of opportunities to demonstrate her no-nonsense attitude towards anyone who threatens them, either with a verbal or physical beat down. It’s eventually learned that even this tough action girl can crack if the situation becomes too overwhelming, testing her fortitude to continue in spite of the odds. Layton’s young apprentice Luke Triton shows considerable character growth as he wishes to prove himself a worthy assistant to the professor, emulating his mentor’s tactful approach to interacting with others and showing his bravery by being willing to put himself at risk for the safety of others, even if Layton tries to dissuade him from doing so. The climax at the finale demonstrates just how deep this resolve is. But he’s still a child, prone to impulsive actions and extreme bursts of emotion, which leads to some rather entertaining scenes. The only nitpick I have is that Lani Minella voices both Luke and Emmy, and at times they can sound very similar, especially when one speaks after another. Though Minella does a better job at affecting a young male tone than Luke’s voice actress for the PAL versions, Maria Darling.

The side characters are a mixed bag. Aurora, the young woman who holds the key to the lost secrets of the Azran, is a rather interesting take on the concept of an ancient human revived in the modern world. She’s been asleep for eons while the world around her changed greatly, yet she shows no great shock at the changes in society and technology. The only thing she finds strange are modern clothing styles. While she has practically no memory of her civilization after she’s revived, the truth gradually returns to her with each artifact recovered, adding more mystery to the ultimate treasure of the Azran and to her own true nature. Maria Darling does provide the voice for Aurora and does a stellar job in the role, portraying her as a curious seeker of the truth rather than a naïve waif who can be easily manipulated. Though I found it odd that she was given an Irish brogue considering she’d been encased in ice long before the early Celts developed their system of language. Professor Sycamore, in contrast to Layton, is a dry, passive intellectual, which makes him fairly bland and uninteresting. He tries to be lively at points, but this mostly leads to his embarrassment. It’s also clear from the start that he’s hiding some secrets, which observant players should be able to guess very quickly. The always entertaining Inspector Grosky, voiced by Stuart Organ, steals every scene he’s in with his headstrong, overzealous passion for upholding the law, and like Emmy gets the chance to wallop some criminals. Each area you visit is populated by several quirky individuals that reflect their homelands, though how memorable each of them are will vary based on your perspective.

The antagonists are probably the weakest characters. Bronev, the head of Targent, doesn’t have much of an intimidating presence since he was only briefly introduced at the end of Miracle Maskrather than gradually built up through all the previous entries. For most of the game he’s nothing more than a generic head of an evil organization, berating his subordinates, letting the heroes do the work for him only to strike later, even using the tired “are we so different?” line when confronting Layton when they have absolutely nothing in common. Bronev does get some deeper characterization when we learn what motivated him to seek out the Azran relics no matter the cost, but it comes too quickly to have any significant impact. Layton’s archaeological rival, the master of disguise Jean Descole also makes an appearance near the end, also getting his personal history revealed to explain the reasons behind his actions, and though this resulted in one of the more convoluted changes to continuity, it stuck with me more than Bronev’s. It also helps that Descole’s scenery chewing and grandiose, bombastic presence provided by Jonathan Keeble make him a much more engaging character. In both their histories we see more of a recurring theme that’s been shared by almost all of Layton’s enemies; how obsession can twist good people into doing incredible harm. Targent agents Macaw and Robin get some amusing scenes in their failed attempts to recover the Azran keys with banter reminiscent of Abbott and Costello. The rest of Bronev’s thugs didn’t get much screen time, which regretfully included two members of the organization that had potential to play a much greater role in the plot: Detective Bloom, Targent’s mole in Scotland Yard, and Mackintosh, a nebbish archaeologist manipulated into seeking out the keys. They could have been used to escalate the drama, but were instead tossed aside.

The Professor Layton games would not be as successful as they are without good puzzles, all crafted by professor Akira Tago, who is still coming up with brilliant brainteasers even as he nears 90 years of age. They can be classified into various categories: logic puzzles, pattern recognition, sliding block puzzles, mazes, and mathematical problems, just to name a few. Several require lateral thinking where the problem sets itself up as one that will require significant mental calculation but where the answer is instead found by taking considering alternatives, sometimes with hints provided in the pictures that accompany them. While there’s no deliberate cheating to lead you to the wrong answer, some of the riddles need to be read carefully due to ambiguous wording, which I can’t tell if that’s a mistake by the English localization team or done intentionally for challenge. As I mentioned in the introduction, Level 5 does a great job incorporating the touchscreen into many of the puzzles, mostly those that require you to arrange objects in a specific order or plot out a path. However, they didn’t make the most of the 3DS’ other features, such as the internal gyroscope, which could have added a new aspect to sliding puzzles, or the 3D option that could have been used for hidden image autostereograms like the Magic Eye series. And while there’s a wide variety of puzzle types, some get reused a bit too often at higher degrees of difficulty, like one where you have to couple and decouple train cars while changing the tracks so they’re eventually put together in the right order.

With more than 150 puzzles, many of which don’t become available until later chapters, the larger world leads to the problem of excessive backtracking. If you’re a completionist, you’ll be travelling back and forth between all the areas you’ve visited frequently to see which new puzzles were unlocked. The padding is alleviated with the opportunity to hunt for hidden treasures by examining the backgrounds, as well as the mini-games you can unlock by solving them. These games aren’t necessary to complete the central storyline, but offer nice diversions that still test your thinking: a dress-up game where the correct outfits have to be picked through logical deductions based on the person’s preferences, planting a garden by placing flower bulbs in the right locations so the energy they release upon blooming will cover every space, and a maze where you have to help a squirrel guide a walnut to the end while avoiding various obstacles. Along with daily downloadable puzzles that will be released over the next year, there’s plenty of material to enjoy outside the main game.

The art style remains the same; beautiful designs that evoke a hybrid of Studio Ghibli’s animation and the ligne claire aesthetic created by Hergé. The animated cutscenes show masterful use of uniform lines, a wide color palette, and heavily stylized, identifiable characters that make every scene pop. I feel that the series has benefitted from the transition to 3D; the fluid motion of characters during in-game discussions are much more eye-catching than one static image replaced by another with a slight change, and full three-dimensional backgrounds present the opportunity to have more dynamic background events, even subtle things like billowing smoke and flashing lights, which further enhances the immersion into the world. CGI compositions in the cutscenes, however, strongly stand out from the traditional hand animation, though they are still incredibly well designed and detailed. Complementing the gorgeous visuals is a soundtrack that covers many themes to fit with the many settings: a laid-back Caribbean tune for the island, a spaghetti-western inspired theme in a desert town, booming dramatic music for the more action-packed scenes, and ethereal tones to enhance the mystery of the Azran ruins.

While there are a few problems with the story, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is still an incredible game. I’d personally rank it as my second favorite in the series, just behind Miracle Maskand just ahead of Lost Future. Going into the game I was a bit concerned that this would be the end of the franchise, but I was relieved to hear that it is planned to continue – only not with Layton as the central character. And I’m okay with that. His story has been told, and I’d like to see a focus on some of the other cast members and their exploits, mainly Emmy and Descole. There is one more adventure where Layton has a starring role, the long-awaited Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, planned for US release sometime in 2014. Until that arrives, I recommend picking up Azran Legacy, as well as any other Layton games you may not have in your library, to satisfy your desire for challenging puzzles and intriguing stories.

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