In 2007, Level-5 introduced a brand new take on the puzzle genre called Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Unlike most of its kind, this game didn't settle on one type of repeated puzzle nor throwing out random brainteasers. Its mental challenges were instead anchored to an engaging story and featured a large, colorful cast that delighted millions. Right away, The Curious Village was regarded as a true gem in the DS's lineup and blossomed into a substantial series in its own right - even outselling Pokémon on one occasion. Three games later, the series' original platform, the DS, traded places with the 3DS, but that didn't stop Level-5 from propelling their beloved Professor into the third dimension. Professor Layton and The Miracle Mask released in America in 2012 as Layton's fifth adventure and his first on the new console.
The Miracle Mask starts with the titular Professor and his young apprentice, Luke, visiting a vibrant metropolis called Monte d'Or. Teaming throngs of tourists crowded the streets each night to watch the "City of Miracles' " fantastical entertainments, but Layton didn't come for the sights. An old friend from high school had begged for his help, claiming the city was in danger. Of course, being the proper gentleman that he is, Layton arrived without delay, and it doesn't take long for the problem to find him. The evening's parade gets interrupted by a suave magician dubbed the Masked Gentleman, but he's not wearing said mask for concealment. It's the legendary Mask of Chaos. Claiming to wield its power, he casts a curse on several onlookers, turning them into stone. Layton and Luke chase after the fiend, but even with fellow investigator Emmy's help, the Masked Gentleman vanishes without a trace. Now with little else to go on, Layton must stop this conniving phantom before he destroys Monte d'Or. The answers lay both in the city's past and even his own.
For me, the biggest aspect in these games aren't the puzzles. It's the plot. So much so that I don't simply consider Miracle Mask a game. I think of it as an interactive novel. Now by virtue of being a mystery story, I obviously can't bring up spoilerific details, and I'll discuss its moral ups and downs later on, but I can say that Miracle Mask's narrative is the best the series produced since Unwound Future. The story is actually split into two plots. One centers on the present, and the other takes place in the past. What impresses me most is that both narratives intersect and are equally interesting. I especially liked how the writers took an approach similar to Unwound Future's story. It's just as much about developing Layton's character as it is about the fantastical phenomena plaguing Monte d'Or. A personal conflict makes any adventure far more interesting.
As the fifth installment in the series, The Miracle Mask sticks to the tried and true structure Curious Village founded. The game is segmented in chapters, and you can only progress by solving puzzles. You use your stylus to tap around for clues, and touching the shoe icon will allow you to walk from area to area. Accessing the Professor's trunk will allow you to save, review story highlights, look over stuff you collected, play mini-games, and keep track of the puzzles you solved or found. While some consider this format stale after five years of use, I still think it is a laid back concept that really doesn't need to change. It's simple; it's to the point, and considering how everything else is meant to be puzzling, it's appropriate. No need to bother with a complex interface. You learn it once, then it quietly backs off to let the rest take center stage. That is except for one or two sequences that do leave the beaten path, which I'll get to in a moment.
On this point-and-click adventure, you'll way more often than not find a puzzle. The main campaign alone sports 150 of these conundrums, and they're all lined up to cut your IQ to the core. Mathematics, logic, depth-perception, slide-block: puzzles of every type were handpicked to stretch your brain in any way it can. This design choice is in itself genius because this surefire guarantees that everyone will find one easy brainteaser that'll boost their confidence and one that will drive them crazy. Seriously, even veteran Professor Layton players like myself aren't spared. These mental challenges are ranked by picarats, which you earn for after-game bonuses. The higher the picarats, the harder the puzzle and the greater the reward. However, should you answer incorrectly, the amount of picarats you can receive drops, so it's best not to rampantly guess. Thankfully, these games also understand the word 'mercy.' If you're hopelessly stuck, you can buy hints from the vague to the blatant with hint coins you collect.
Admittedly, you can break the game's system by guessing for the right answer, quitting without saving, then inputting the correct answer to get full credit, but that's just dirty dishonesty. Not to mention, you'd never get the elation of figuring it out on your own. In short: cheat the game, cheat yourself. I should also mention that there are a ton of extra puzzles that will keep you busy long after you complete the main campaign. It's a good thing too, because if there is one valid criticism I have with the games, it's the low replay value. Solving all the puzzles means you'd likely remember the answers later on. No doubt the developers were aware of this, and I'm glad they tried to make the first experience last as long as possible. However, that doesn't cover the issue. I know it's a near unavoidable problem the series inherited, but a design flaw is still a flaw.
Along with the main and bonus puzzles, Miracle Mask offers little mini-games or puzzle hors d’oeuvres as I like to call them. These include shelving store items in the correct order, guiding a robot through a dangerous obstacle course, and training a cute bunny to perform in plays. These mini-games do gradually get harder but never approach mind breaking levels like the main puzzles. My favorite of these is the bunny game. It's just too adorable and watching the fur-ball act out skits is a pure delight. You even get to choose, name, and pet your long eared friend like a watered down version of Nintendogs. These mini-puzzles are somewhat dependent on the main game too. Some in-story puzzles reward you with new moves to teach or store items to situate, so if you're serious about fuzzball's acting career, you better keep that brain a'clicking. In short, these bitty brainteasers were designed as Layton sidequests set apart from the norm.
Speaking of the norm, let's talk about where Miracle Mask did try breaking the mold. For one thing, there's this horse riding game near the beginning that lasts less than a minute. Honestly, it didn't really leave that big of an impact on me. I guess Level-5 inserted it for immersion purposes, but it happens once in-story then never again. It left me wondering whether it was really worth adding. You can revisit this little distraction later on if you like, but I had minimal reason to. In the middle of the story, the game also has you play a dungeon-crawling sequence that lasts an entire chapter. I will admit it was crafted better than that horse gimmick. It mixed in puzzling elements that jelled better with the rest of the game, but I felt it went on a bit too long. They did add new elements every other level to freshen the experience, but the main crux of it felt too recycled. It was basically the same brainteaser on repeat. I'm not saying it was unbearable. It just left me a little fatigued.
Now let's get to where the series shines: presentation. First off, I'm pleased to say that the watercolor backgrounds from the DS games survived the transition. By painting on top of the character models and layered structures, they made it work with the 3D format. The scenery is more interactive too, thanks to the added animations and ability to pan around the screen. Most puzzles were also done in watercolor, which is nice considering how long you'll be staring at them. It's like doing calculus while on an art museum field trip. The character designs were also preserved quite well from DS to 3DS. True, a three sided Layton took a little getting used to, but after the initial oddness, I grew accustomed to his new look. However, the best of the best in this art fest are the cutscenes. Same as previous games, Miracle Mask's most climactic moments are given a cinematic treatment that would make Studio Ghibli proud. The hand drawn animation is fluid, the cinematography is well timed, and what three dimensional elements were used meshed with the 2D artwork seamlessly.
As for the music, it's stellar as always. Returning composer Tomohito Nishiura really knows how to rock an accordion and gave the instrumentation a charming flavor that is every bit as unique as the game's visuals. It is distinctly Layton. You hear it once, and there's no question about it. The voice cast did a marvelous job as well. When it comes to anime, casting choices are often a hit or miss with me, but Level-5's cast selection couldn't have been better. If the story is Miracle Masks's lifeblood, then the characters are its beating heart. Both old and new faces were given equal integrity. No part of their dialogue felt fake or forced, and our frontrunners from hero to villain are memorable and at times compelling. I found myself getting fully invested with their struggles as the tale unfolded. Plus, true to Layton fashion, the side characters all have at least one silly quirk that not only entertains but also makes them feel a tad more 'human'. (I mean, honestly. Who doesn't have a strange habit?)
Morally speaking, I consider Miracle Mask virtually clean. There are one or two things to consider though. Starting with Monte d'Or itself, it does have this Las Vegas vibe to it. I mean, you won't see any smokers or scantily clad ladies, but there are one or two casinos and a couple of casino themed puzzles. However, neither Layton nor his comrades engage in or encourage gambling. There are some moments of peril and one cutscene includes gunfire, but no one gets shot. As for the Masked Gentleman's 'dark miracles', all I can say to any concerned parents out there is that nothing is as it appears.
Beyond that, Miracle Mask's virtuous rewards far outweigh the nitpicks. The story, both in the then and now, is a grand illustration of how everyone's actions, no matter how seemingly simple, affects those around them, and affirms the importance of treating others kindly. On top of that, two characters demonstrate two different parts of Christian living. One undergoes a somewhat similar experience to the prodigal son, and the other turns out to be an excellent example of Godly stewardship. I also think it's worth mentioning why Professor Layton himself is my all time favorite video game character. Frankly, he's one of the best role models I've seen in fiction. He carries an upright nobility that reflects Christian principles so strongly, I can't help but admire it.
Considering that it's the fifth game in its lineup, it's amazing that Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask became one of the strongest in the bunch. Most of the time, a long running franchise would show its age by now, but Level-5 knew what made these games special and stuck to it. That didn't mean they shrank back from a few risks, and though some of these risks didn't all quite click, I'd say their first trip to 3D land was a success. In my opinion, this is the second best in the series. While the story didn't quite reach exceptional levels the way Unwound Future's did, it is still poignant in its own right and had my favorite ending overall. Due to its moral integrity, I can heartily recommend this game to anyone who doesn't despise puzzles. You don't even have to know anything about the earlier games to enjoy it. It's hospitable to both newcomers and dedicated fans. True, you might play Miracle Mask only once, but one playthrough will leave an impact that you likely won't forget. After all, one must always strive to make good first impressions that last. That's what a gentleman does.