Professor Layton and the Curious Village was undoubtedly one of the best DS games of 2008 - a stylish cartoon adventure that wrapped a murder mystery plot around a massive collection of puzzles and riddles. Wez and his lady immediately fell in love with it, and such was his enthusiasm that I utterly failed in my attempts to prize his review cart away from him. So when a shiny copy of the sequel showed up at the office last week, I was quick off the mark to grab the code for myself.
As with the last outing, Pandora's Box follows the top-hat wearing Professor Layton and his schoolboy sidekick Luke as they work their way through a mystery. This time the story kicks off when Layton receives a troubling letter from his mentor, Dr Schrader. The message explains that Schrader has come into possession of The Elysian Box, a cursed artifact that supposedly kills anyone who opens it. Since he's a skeptical academic (read: idiot), he ends his missive by saying that he plans to open the box anyway. Our heroes dash over to Shrader's house, and sure enough it turns out that he's deader than a dead man who isn't alive anymore. Oh yes, he's an ex-doctor alright - but who or what was it that killed him?
The resulting investigation brings Layton and Luke to a luxurious sleeper-train called the Molentary Express, and later to a number of unusual places along the locomotive's route. At each stop you make you'll meet a selection of oddball characters, from floppy-haired detectives to irate cattle farmers, and they all have something in common: an obsession with puzzles. There are over 150 challenges to work through, from sliding block conundrums to logic-basic riddles. The layout for these tasks is deceptively simple, with instructions on the upper screen and the puzzle itself on the touch screen below, but the harder efforts will still have you tearing your hair out.
On the plus side, Pandora's Box comes bundled with a fairly efficient hint system. When you're not actually solving a puzzle you'll spend your time exploring your surroundings, moving between static screens with simple taps of your stylus. As you scout about it's a good idea to examine interesting objects around you, as every so often you'll find hint coins - currency that can be used to buy clues when you're stuck on a puzzle. There are three hints per teaser, each providing more information than the last, and the third one all but gifts you the correct answer. You may feel like a bit of a cheat if you push things this far, so you'll probably only do this if you're absolutely desperate.
On the other hand, you'll feel rather pleased with yourself when you nail a puzzle on your first attempt. There's a very short cutscene that plays every time you submit an answer, and you'll soon learn to hold your breath during these interludes. Assuming that you're successful, you'll be rewarded with a number of Picarats - a sort of indicator of how well you're doing at general puzzle solving. There's no massive penalty for repeated failure, but since you can eventually spend Picarats on unlocking secret content, you'll generally be discouraged from spamming a puzzle till you get the answer right.
All of this description will be inherently familiar to veterans of The Curious Village, but Pandora's Box also has a few points of difference. For a start, there's now an extremely useful memo function that allows you take notes during puzzles: a transparent grey filter covers the screen, and you're suddenly free to doodle about as you wish. This may not sound like much, but you'll soon appreciate the ability to write stuff down during the more taxing challenges. Indeed, I'd wager that some of the game would be near-impossible without this asset.