Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
by Polly

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is a direct sequel to 2008's oddly successful Professor Layton and the Curious Village. I say "oddly successful" because I honestly never saw a puzzle game that presented puzzles as challenging and tricky as that game to really take off here in WE LOVE HALO America. I guess it may be fair to say I'm a little jaded? Hmmm... Anyway, Curious Village gained quite a following (and since there's no review of it on the site, I'd personally have given it a 3.5 on the sock-o-meter with negatives being the predictable story, somewhat dry variety in puzzles, and their sporadic difficulty spikes) and the sequel finally made its way state-side after nearly a year and a half of people wondering if it ever would.

For the Layton-uninitiated, the Layton games are glorified puzzle compendiums wrapped inside fantastical mystery stories that follow the exploits of famed archeologist and puzzle master Professor Hershell Layton and his apprentice Luke. Together, they travel around the world having awesome adventures and solving tons and tons of seemingly unrelated puzzles along the way to get to the bottom of each mystery. The stories ride an interesting line between reality and cartoon, containing just enough realism and cartoon mystery solutions to be appealing to folks on either side of the fence.

This time around, the good Professor and his apprentice set off to meet Layton's mentor after receiving a letter about having discovered an ancient relic known as The Elysian Box, (or as every other version in the world will refer to it, Pandora's Box) which is said to kill any who open it. Layton and Luke arrive all too late to find Layton's mentor sprawled on the floor dead and only a few vague clues that point to the involvement of the Elysian Box and a train ticket with a mysterious destination. Without spoiling much (the previous sentence isn't that much of a spoiler) the story takes a lot more turns and is featured more prominently, making it and the characters that help it come to life far more engaging than The Curious Village's, but ultimately still has a rather blaaaaaahhh explanation and conclusion.

For a puzzle game, the Professor Layton games feature some pretty damn high quality production values. Every screen of every locale is absolultely dripping with detail and life. The backgrounds are nothing short of beautiful, the character designs are unique and original, and the animated cutscenes (which get used even more this time around) are top-notch stuff. The music and voice acting (save a couple of really bad voices...ugh...) round out the entire package making it seven or eight cuts above any other average puzzler. The puzzles themselves also feature a good bit of style in how they're presented. There's absolutely nothing drab or boring about the game's presentation whatsoever.

The interface is friendly and easy to use and features a few new improvements here and there. The best new addition is the Memo function available during puzzles. The Memo screen puts an overlay over the current puzzle you're solving so you can scribble around on it while trying to figure out a solution. In addition to helping immensely with those teensy tiny multi-path maze puzzles or writing down numbers for a complex math problem, it also keeps some missteps which could happen in the first game from happening such as accidentally clicking on a wrong answer while trying to trace a path or something of that nature. Moving around in the world of Professor Layton is still a bit of a chore as you always have to tap a shoe icon on the bottom right of the screen and then a highlighted path, but it's probably the easiest way they could have presented this part of the game, so I won't beat it over the head too much.

Most important to this entire package is obviously the selection of puzzles. Not counting the weekly puzzles you can download via Wi-Fi (of which there will be 33), there are a total of 153 puzzles on the card to be discovered and conquered. Unlike the original game, the puzzle variety in Diabolical Box feels a lot more fresh and less repetitive. If a certain kind of puzzle bugs you, it's very rare that you'll run into the same type of puzzle again very soon. This, I feel, was a huge problem with Curious Village, which felt a little too focused on complicated math than logic or something that required more than just writing an answer. The types of puzzles in Diabolical Box range from simple logic and math puzzles to sliding puzzles, peg solitaire, optical illusions, mazes, and Chess problems.

Another big plus for the puzzles in Diabolical Box is that the puzzles themselves feel more integrated into the story and environments themselves. A good example of this is a puzzle found in the first village Layton and Luke stop in involving a town square's fountain and deciphering a message by imagining what its inscription would say if half of it was reflected in the fountain's water. In Curious Village, puzzle placement didn't make a whole lot of sense. The puzzle types and problems presented were sprinkled throughout the village all willy-nilly and they felt too far removed from the game itself, making the whole package feel like it was split down the middle into two unrelated parts: Puzzles and Story. Everything in Diabolical Box comes together much more seamlessly and though there are a few rare instances of "wut?" it's still a major improvement.

Perhaps the biggest plus for Diabolical Box's puzzle department is that the puzzles now feel like they're balanced in a linear fashion difficulty-wise. That's not to say that they're easy. You're still going to run into more than a few that'll smash your brain to bits and probably take as much as an hour to solve (FUCK YOU SLIDING PUZZLES!), but it doesn't feel like you're trucking along and suddenly just hit a roadblock of a puzzle. The first game's puzzle progression was horribly balanced with random spikes in difficulty all over the place. Diabolical Box flows much more naturally and is easier to play in longer sessions than its predecessor, in turn making the whole experience a bit more enjoyable.

Returning from the first game and being almost as irritating at times is the Hint system. Sprinkled throughout nearly every screen in the game are hidden hint coins you can acquire by tapping around. These let you purchase up to three hints for every puzzle. Some hints are obviously more helpful than others (Hint 1 will almost likely never get you anywhere, Hint 2 is sometimes helpful, and Hint 3 can sometimes all but give you the solution) and you don't get to decide what order you wish to buy them in, so if a particularly tough puzzle has got you stumped, you'll likely spend three hint coins to get to the most helpful hint. It's only a minor gripe that can be easily forgiven though, since the whole game is about using your own brain to figure shit out.

In addition to the normal puzzle solving and general sleuthing about, there are also a couple mini-games thrown in to fatten up the package a bit. Each one, when completed unlocks another set of challenging puzzles from the Bonuses section of the game to make you cry and quit.

First is the hamster raising mini-game. Shortly into your adventure, you'll be put in charge of a fat hamster (whom I lovingly named Dinner) and it'll be your job to get him to drop the flab by creating little excercise courses for him to take part in. You'll craft each excercise from toys you collect from solving certian puzzles and can arrange them on a 8x6 square grid and let him run the routine you've set up. Each toy has distinct characteristics and makes the hamster behave in various ways and he also has preferences for which toys he'll go for first. Setting up these excercises can be quite a bit of fun and in itself is a large puzzle every time you want to try and lower his fat level. Each level of progress requires that your hamster walk a specific number of steps in order to drop a bit of weight. When he's back in shape, he acts much like the strange gizmo from the first game, sometimes pointing out to you where hint coins are hidden. It's a lot of work for a little bonus, but it's still fun seeing what combinations of toys can produce the most steps.

Up next is a smaller mini-game that involves the construction of a camera which can be used to take pictures of pre-selected locations, which will turn into a "spot the difference" mini-game. Each time you spot the three differences between the original and the photograph the location of a hidden puzzle is revealed. I found these little hunts to be quite relaxing and just as fun as normal puzzles (though they don't yeild Picarats) and the hidden puzzles they lead to can sometimes be downright murderous.

The last extra bit of extracurricular activity that you can participate in involves serving tea to certain folks around the city that may be thirsty and want a specific blend to quench their thirst. This one's a bit too much of a time-waster and really isn't all that fun and involves way too much backtracking and exiting and re-entering a screen hoping someone will get thirsty. As you progress through the game you'll be given various tea ingredients and can brew up to 12 different blends and it's up to you to figure out through trial and error what ingredients make what blend. On top of that, serving tea to people can be a bit of a hit and miss process as well, because sometimes the person you're serving isn't exactly helpful in telling you what they want. The hints they give for what they'd like to drink really could have been a little more informative. This whole part of the game seems to go against the overall reliance on critical thinking and puzzle solving the series is known for and feels really out of place. It is an optional side-quest deal, but if you're a completionist like me, you'll end up having to trudge through this part of the game to max out everything.

All in all, Diabolical Box manages to do nearly everything just a bit better than Curious Village, but it'll still have a hard time winning over those who disliked the original. As far as brain teasers go, Layton's clearly got the market cornered in both style and substance and Diabolical Box only pushes that level a bit higher. An only slightly higher level, but overall it's a nice and comfy improvement. Let's hope the wait for A Ticket to Time Travel doesn't take quite as long to get here.

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