Nintendo gets a little ‘Curious’

Gaming, Nintendo

professorlaytonds.jpgOne of this week’s new Nintendo DS releases is destined to become the portable gaming sensation of the year. Professor Layton and the Curious Village from Nintendo and Level-5 is essentially a collection of minigames and puzzles – brain teasers, if you will, like you’d find in Brain Age or a dozen of its imitators – but they are linked by an overarching mystery right out of an Agatha Christie plot. And, like so many of Christie’s whodunits, Curious Village is nearly impossible to put down.

professorlayton_pr_screens_01.jpgGAMEPLAY: You assume the persona of the brilliant top-hatted puzzle master Professor Layton and his young apprentice Luke as they explore the town of St. Mystere and investigate a mysterious inheritance riddle that leads to hidden treasure. Along the way you interact with a population obsessed with puzzles. Sometimes these tests come out of nowhere, but usually they take the form of quid-pro-quo arrangements to help you solve the game’s larger mysteries. For instance, the widow who requested your presence becomes too preoccupied by her missing cat to discuss anything else. The villagers may help you track down the feline if you indulge them in a puzzle or two.

If you’re afraid this is all too much information to hold in your head – you’re right! Layton may be a bit of a dandy but he’s no fool, and he keeps meticulous notes for you to access at any time. It’s all stored in his trunk, along with all the gizmos and clues you find that won’t add up until later.

Beating puzzles earns you points (“picarats”), but the value of each brain teaser goes down with each incorrect guess. So far this seems to be nothing more than a scoring system. It’s actually the coins – not the picarats – found throughout the town that will buy you a hint when you need one (up to three per puzzle), but there are only so many in circulation.

ds_professorlayton_illu18.jpgGRAPHICS & SOUND: Curious Village is beautiful, with its hand-drawn, anime-inspired visual style and haunting – but not annoying – bistro musical score. There are occasional animated “cut scenes” but the bulk of the game is static. The game’s anime look owes a lot to Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli (Howl’s Moving Castle comes to mind), but the characterization and voice acting is distinctly European. It feels like a really good dub of a Japanese toon: enchanting and refreshingly different.

CONTROL PROBLEMS: Having played the game all weekend, the only consistent bug seems to be in some of the puzzles where you input a numerical answer by writing it on the touch screen – it stubbornly refuses to recognize the your intended digits unless they are printed with rigid accuracy. Other puzzles have you circling or moving objects and drawing lines, and those seem to work just fine.

WI-FI: If you have a wireless router and you’re willing to risk settling for WEP encryption (not worth it!) you can download weekly bonus puzzles. (The Nintendo DS, unlike its console cousin Wii, does not support the stronger standard, WPA encryption.)

IMAGES COURTESY OF NINTENDO

PROFESSOR LAYTON AND THE CURIOUS VILLAGE: Find out more for yourself at the game’s official Web site. (That accordion riff you’ll hear is basically the sum total of the game’s soundtrack, by the way.) There’s even a playable demo online. If you like Curious Village, you might want to check out DS games such as Touch Detective, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Then again, there’s always Where in the World/U.S.A./Time is Carmen Sandiego. Another old-school avenue you may want to explore is a trio of NES games called Shadowgate, Uninvited and Déjà Vu. You can thank me later.