Despite being a series that by all accounts should only appeal to a niche market, the Professor Layton franchise has developed a sizable following on Nintendo’s handhelds. Whether it’s the clever puzzles, the development of a series-wide lore or the professor’s gentlemanly charms, Layton’s name has become synonymous with the DS and 3DS.
As the final game in the series’ prequel trilogy, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy has would-be archaeologists and puzzle connoisseurs excited at the prospect of wrapping up this latest series of interconnected tales. The real puzzle though, is whether Azran Legacy will be able to maintain the series’ patented charm and polish or whether monotony will finally set in after six games.
Taking place shortly after the events of Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, the series’ titular hero, his young apprentice Luke, his headstrong assistant Emmy and series newcomer Aurora find themselves employed by renowned archaeologist Desmond Sycamore as they travel the world, attempting to uncover the secrets of a technologically-advanced but lost race of people. Along the way, Layton and his companions find resistance in the form of a shady organization bent on harnessing the Azran’s lost technology for their own personal gain.
It’s here that the current trilogy’s past tales converge. Throughout Layton’s journeys, he has had more than a few brushes with the Azran civilization’s legacy. As such, fans will be pleased to see these past events come to light once more as thy are given new meaning. Despite clearly being geared towards returning players, as with any Layton game it’s still entirely possible for newcomers to jump in and quickly get up to speed with the game’s narrative, but also to find themselves instantly charmed by the colorful cast of characters.
This represents one of the Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy’s biggest strengths. On its own, the narrative is hardly the most compelling and at times can suffer from issues with pacing, particularly towards the end where key reveals come so hard and fast that the player is left with little time to process and appreciate the various mysteries’ resolutions. It’s the incredibly strong sense of charm though, that has kept gamers coming back since the first Layton title and is no less present here.
From the uplifting musical score, to the beautiful storybook visuals of the locales, to the characters who each have a distinct and memorable personality and are brimming with energy, its hard not to emulate Professor Layton’s unassuming smile. It’s clear that the developers at Level-5 know exactly what makes the Layton series shine and have ensured that they have kept with this trend.
In terms of gameplay though, for some this could become a point of contention. As the sixth mainline game in the series, the gameplay has remained unchanged in many respects. Players navigate through the world via storybook-like tableaus, interacting with each locale through the touchscreen. When players aren’t looking in on exposition between characters, they’re likely embroiled in a puzzle of some sort or taking part in one of the game’s unlockable minigame distractions.
The puzzles are the meat of the series. With the sheer number of them on display, some feel familiar after the five previous games, but among the new ones there are some real head-scratchers. Even the familiar puzzles receive a breath of new life as each one is not only tied into the tone of the locale it is encountered in, but also in many ways, the plot itself.
As the narrative begins to fall into place, Layton and his companions set out to find five mysterious “eggs” that are said to bring to light the secrets of the Azran civilization. It is at this point that players are able to forge their own path. Aboard the Bostonius, the team’s airship, players can choose which locations to tackle in whatever order they please as they hunt for the eggs. Not only does it provide a sense of openness in an otherwise linear game, but it presents the player with a varied set of distinct environments to explore and small, self-contained stories that unfold during each individual egg hunt.
These self-contained stories provide a welcome and arguably needed blast of variety. Each egg hunt and location holds different mysteries and takes on a different tone with some being surprisingly dark and foreboding. They may not represent a large jump forward for the franchise, but it’s clear that the developers are experimenting with opening the world up to increased player exploration, possibly for the upcoming crossover with Phoenix Wright.
Like its predecessors, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is without a doubt a niche game. Outside of the breathtaking cutscenes, there is very little action to be had and players will face a large amount of exposition throughout the majority of the game. Behind all of this though, there is a level of charm that is unmatched in modern gaming. It may be a niche experience due to its combination of visual novel conventions and puzzles, but it is a niche experience that doesn’t miss a chance to welcome new players with open arms.
There’s a reason Professor Layton has become one of the most recognizable names on Nintendo handhelds. Whether it’s returning players or those who are new to the series altogether, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy offers something to bring a smile to anyone’s face. While it’s too bad that the developers didn’t take more chances in terms of changing up the formula, its hard to deny the strength of the foundation that the series has been built upon. Now if only Nintendo would hear fan’s pleas and allow Professor Layton to join the fray in Super Smash Bros.
Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is available now for the Nintendo 3DS.
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