Developer: Level-5 / Publisher: Nintendo / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Mild Violence) / Played on: DS / Price: $29.99
It’s easy to dismiss Professor Layton and the Unwound Future as another churn of the crank on the popular Layton machine. It boasts the same main characters and reuses the convenient trope of a skewed Europe in which everyone is obsessed with puzzles and riddles. However, Unwound Future is a transition for the series. Nuggets of depth both reward those that have spent time with the series and promise a deeper and emotionally rewarding future. These unexpected tweaks make Unwound Future the turning point in the Layton series. It’s no longer a curious blip in the DS catalogue, but a new, welcome icon in gaming — as deserving and endearing as Mario or Master Chief.
Playing Unwound Future is nearly identical to the game’s two predecessors: The Curious Village and The Diabolical Box. You navigate areas or converse with NPCs by tapping on the lower screen, while the DS’ upper screen shows an overhead map of your area. The game’s real substance lies in its puzzles of various complexity and style. Some are simple riddles playing off your assumptions; others ask you to find logical oddities in a picture or require you to rearrange odd-shaped items to manipulate a gem from the bottom of a knapsack through an opening in the top. Of the game’s 150+ puzzles, very few repeat, and most of them leaving you feeling smug as hell once you solve them (though ten or so are bound to leave you shaking your head thinking ‘that’s bullshit’).
The game also offers tools for those players that ate too much paste in grade school. You can spend Hint Coins (uncovered by tapping conspicuous corners of the game’s areas) to unlock progressively revealing hints. Unwound Future also adds a “Super Hint” costing two coins that all but tells you the answer. Failure merely reduces the number of earnable picarats (points) for a given puzzle. Earning more picarats not only makes you feel smart, but can unlock bonus puzzles.
If you’ve played the previous Layton games you’ll notice the formula hasn’t changed, but you’ll also understand that it doesn’t need to. The game’s quality and quantity of puzzles speak for themselves, and the method in which they’re delivered convey enough charm to entertain all ages.
Unwound Future’s story offers more meat and complication than previous games, which also bears reciprocal effects on the gameplay. Series regulars Professor Layton and his apprentice Luke travel to Future London shortly after receiving an ominous letter from Future Luke (his proper noun in the game). From there the main narrative revolves around traveling to and from the future, including all the time paradoxes and complications implicit in time travel narratives.
The more interesting aspects of the story build on the series’ mythos. Unwound Future reveals the history behind Layton’s iconic top hat, as well as his dedication to all things gentlemanly. More elements of Layton’s past – such as an unrequited love – are metered [you mean meted?] out to surprise you with believable depth from a character you always assumed to be a convenient vehicle for the game’s puzzles. The surprise is half in that the designers cared to develop the character, and half that you will be genuinely interested to know more about him.
But the game isn’t all serious story and deadpan dialogue. Little humorous nods to the formula of Layton relieve some sequel fatigue. For instance, Stachen, the traditional teacher of the utility of hint coins, is absolutely livid in the game when another NPC beats him to it. Additionally, Granny Riddleton – the steward of any puzzles you miss due to plot progression – becomes tired of looking after boring puzzles and leaves for a semi-permanent coastal vacation.
Unwound’s visuals maintain the series’ quality, which is nothing but a compliment. Future London is washed in otherworldly golds and yellows, while past London is more even toned and vibrant, giving the two settings noticeably different feels. Unwound’s cast of characters are as caricatured and quirky as ever, exhibiting slightly more animation during the talking-heads dialogue segments.
Though the series’ first two games largely used the same music and visual quips, Unwound Future’s audio is completely redone. The most noticeable switch is the most prominent piece of music: the puzzle-solving track. The moody xylophone track from the first two games has been replaced with a thematically similar, if not slightly higher pitched melody. The switch is slightly disconcerting at first but entirely welcome. The little snips of voice acting that kick off some dialogue and punctuate the end of a puzzle have also been re-recorded, offering much better sound quality and a welcome change of pace.
Unwound Future is the exact same experience as its predecessors, and yet, it’s also a sign of so much more. It’s that one episode of Star Trek that turned it from a show you like to a series you love. It’s the album from your favorite band that made them so much more than background noise for World of Warcraft. At this point, the only reason to not play Professor Layton is to profoundly dislike puzzles. And if that’s you, did you eat too much paste in grade school?