"What's that game?" my better half asked, staring wide-eyed at the television. I turned, expecting to see Girls Aloud's Nadine and Kimberley seductively 'awwing' over Nintendogs, or Ronan Keating looking uncomfortable playing Brain Training, or the Redknapp family, complete with hilariously bemused Harry, playing Mario Kart Wii, or perhaps even Captain Picard flirting with Julie Walters as he demonstrates his mental prowess on a plane. It was neither.
It was, to my surprise, an advert with an impossibly attractive and successful couple sitting on a couch in their impossibly trendy apartment living room, probably somewhere in Clapham, who are trying to separate a bunch of pigs with only three lines in Japanese developer Level-5's Professor Layton and the Curious Village. "That looks good," she said. "Can you bring that home?"
I've always appreciated Nintendo's TV spots for their effectiveness, but, on the whole, found them more hilarious than anything else. I'd even go as far to say that in some cases they're even cringe worthy - the Mario Kart Wii one with the girl who has hair hanging in front of her face from only one side, and the new Wii Music one spring to mind. Not for one moment did I believe that I, or my life, would be influenced, and mimicked, by one of them.
Given that the game was one of many piling up on my Christmas 'to do' list, I thought, what the hell, I have to review it anyway, I'll bring it home and let her play it for a bit. She'll get bored after five minutes and start watching early evening E4 again. I handed the game and my DS to the misses and told her to go ahead as I booted up the 360 and played some CoD. Two-and-a-half hours later and bored, I turned off the supposed next-gen console and cast a glance at the missus. There she was, face creased in concentration, the wonderfully aloof soundtrack keeping her company.
"I can't do this one, come help." So I did. An hour later a flash of realisation came over me. I was in that advert. I was the impossibly attractive bloke, sitting on a couch with my impossibly attractive girlfriend in an impossibly trendy apartment (somewhere in Clapham), playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village just like the Nintendo TV advert wanted me to do (the impossibly attractive and impossibly trendy apartment somewhere in Clapham bit may or may not be true). All that cynicism evaporated. As we laughed and joked and tossed and turned over the incredibly rewarding puzzles, enjoyed the Studio Ghibli-esque art design and the lovely, entrancing story, I realised that Level-5's point and click adventure/puzzler might just be one of the greatest games ever made.
For what it is, of course, which is hard to describe, since it's a mishmash of a hell of a lot of different genres, held together expertly by a clever story. The game begins as if it's a point and click adventure, with the silk top hat-wearing Professor Layton and his young assistant Luke arriving in the brilliantly named village St. Mystere. The beautiful Lady Dahlia, widow of the late Baron Reinhold, has requested their assistance: The Baron's will says that whoever finds the Golden Apple, hidden somewhere in the village, will inherit his estate. But before they can start talking a loud noise startles Lady Dahlia's cat, Claudia (Satan's spawn, trust me), who runs off. Luke and the Professor then set out to find and return the blasted feline, unravelling the mystery behind the Curious Village and Baron Reinhold's inheritance along the way.
Those looking for a gritty, adult story with aggressive dialogue won't find it here. Level-5's tale is lovingly constructed and brilliantly localised, with moments of genuine hilarity, bouts of despair and more than its fair share of shocking plot twists. The people of the village are interesting, have tales to tell, secrets to keep and puzzles to give. The Professor himself is overly cheery, and Luke a tad too enthusiastic, but, as the girlfriend says, "but I like that!". It's a bit like an Inspector Poirot murder mystery spliced with Tintin, except with Professor Layton as the portly Belgian and Luke as that weird Captain Hastings bloke.