Schmobile Review: Layton Brothers: Mystery Room
A new spin-off title from the much lauded Professor Layton series of puzzle games was— to the general surprise of just about everyone— released yesterday for the iOS! The game was actually announced way back in 2009, for the Nintendo DS, but ran into several development snags, subsequently falling off everyone’s radar in the process. No matter, who among us isn’t up for more Professor Layton, amiright? Oh, it’s not the Professor Layton, but his son Inspector Layton, you say? And instead of solving puzzles we’re solving crimes? Weeeeelll… it can still be good— Pleease?
We assume the role of plucky upstart Detective Constable Lucy Baker on her first day at Scotland Yard, where she is duly assigned to an unglamorous back-office and a peculiar super-sleuth partner, Alfendi Layton. Yes, Hershal Layton’s ‘son’, although he resembles his father about as much as Gary Busey resembles Pikachu.
It doesn’t take long for our duo to start cracking cases, the crimes scenes of which— due to a rather bizarre and inexplicable plot device— are all replicated to scale by a machine in their Scotland Yard office. It works pretty much how you would expect: click on random points in the room, uncover evidence and incongruities, press suspects afterword with the evidence you’ve uncovered; if you’ve played the Phoenix Wright series, you’ll be in familiar territory. Which, to Level 5’s credit, is all capably done, the scenarios are interesting, clues are well placed, and uncovering the chain of events is just challenging enough to feel rewarding without being unnecessarily frustrating. It still has moments where you know the conclusion the game ultimately wants you to reach, but are lost on how the game wants you to get there, so randomly clicking anything and everything is the only possible solution.
But to be fair, every point-and-click game ever made has those moments; and this one has far fewer of them than, say, Monkey Island. Layton Bros also did a good job of slightly varying the procedure from case to case, so while the core mechanics remain the same, it never really gets stale or tedious.
Lucy really ties the whole experience together for me. The writers had a fun time with her, and that shines through in her ever-energetic demeanor. Easily befuddled, but never portrayed as air-headed or clumsy, she’s easily the most likable character of the lot; watching her come into her own as an investigator is just as ‘fun’ as solving the cases yourself. Lucy’s pep serves as a much needed counterweight to a very uninspired Layton, who, aside from a rather contrived Jekyll and Hyde thing going on, has little that arouses interest or empathy.
In fact, throughout the first several cases, I couldn’t help but think I would enjoy the game more if Layton weren’t in it. At the very beginning of each case, he lays out a brief summary of the situation to Lucy, and then gives her (you) 5 minutes with the crime scene replicator to come up with a ‘gut instinct’ on who she thinks the culprit is. After time is up, you pick your choice, and then Layton— brilliant deductive mind that he is— pretty much tells you who the culprit is before you’ve had any chance to start the investigation proper. Coming up with the ‘how’ and ‘why’ is still interesting, but I couldn’t help but feel like I had been denied the chance to solve the case on my own. You are, in essence, resolving a case that’s already been solved; it completely sucks the tension out of the proceedings.
Luckily the game doesn’t continue like that past the first handful of cases. Still, I think the thing that bothered me the most about Layton was that his presence kept reminding me that this wasn’t a Professor Layton game. Alfendi in no way resembles anything close to what Hershel is, physically and in character; it’s painfully obvious that this character wasn’t conceived as Hershel’s son, and that disconnect only serves to draw attention to the other aspects of the game that just don’t fit into the Professor Layton universe.
The game was originally conceived as a stand alone title in the popular Atamania series in Japan, another Level 5 property that deals in lateral-thinking puzzles similar to what Professor Layton does. The decision to make it a Layton spin-off didn’t come until much later in the development process, so aside from a vaguely reminiscent art style, London setting, and several superficial references (Lucy unfortunately takes to calling Alfendi “Prof”, because reasons,) the game has no ties to the Layton series at all. And boy does it show. The music, adroitly done by Etrian Odyssey composer Yuzo Koshiro, takes a rather dark jazz-noir sound, in no way redolent of Layton’s whimsical, accordion inspired score. Mystery Room’s characters lack those tale-tale quirks that make even minor characters in the main Layton series so endearing, and the atmosphere in general lacks the optimistic charm its parent exudes so effortlessly. By nature, a game that revolves around murder can’t very well be as jocular; but I think that point just means CSI was a poor choice to try and add to the Layton series.
Despite how I may sound, I found Layton Bros to be an overall good game; I was entertained from beginning to end. Taken on its own merits, it does most everything right, but trying to force it to assume the mantel of a much beloved puzzle series hampers it tremendously.
The game uses an in-app purchase system, which some people are turned off by but I found a rather good idea. The first 3 cases are free, the next 4 cost $3, and the last 3 cost $2, bringing the total cost to $5. It in essence allows you to play a demo and purchase the full game if you like what you see. The game has an overarching plot that is only truly resolved in the final episode, so if you purchase the first case set, you’ll need to purchase the 2nd case set as well.
And for $5 I have no problem recommending this to anyone vaguely interested in Phoenix Wright style crime puzzles. It might lack the cleverness of a Phoenix Wright or Ghost Trick, and it certainly doesn’t live up to what we’ve come to expect of the Professor Layton series, but try to ignore the contrived tie-ins, if you can, and you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this entertaining, if somewhat brief, divertissement.