Despite his questionable dress sense, strange obsession with puzzles and fondness for young boys, Professor Layton is actually a bit of a dude. He might not know how to throw a fireball or wield an assault rifle, but that big sexy brain of his has established Layton as one of the more iconic video game characters of recent times. In The Unwound Future, his third outing, Layton once again joins forces with the pre-pubescent whippersnapper Luke to solve another mystery. While Pandora's Box took the trademark puzzling across a series of exciting new locations, Unwound Future presents a mystery of a far greater magnitude: an enigma that spans time and space.
Our first hands-on with the game began with our unlikely duo aboard a big red double-decker bus. Unwound Future is set in London, or at least this section of the game appeared to be. The pair find themselves in Old Blighty after a mysterious letter arrives in Luke's possession. The letter asks for Layton's help in solving a particularly troublesome problem, which Luke finds himself right in the middle of. What's interesting about this is not so much where the letter came from, but when it came from. It transpires that the letter is actually from Luke himself, but a Luke of ten years in the future - an intriguing situation even by Layton's standards.
The narrative gluing the puzzles of the Layton games together has always been fantastically well-crafted, with interesting twists and turns and an outcome that can rarely be predicted. With time travel and all its paradoxes thrown into the mix for the third game, there's every hope that this could be the best instalment yet. As always, the plot is driven through charming animated cutscenes, with a colourful cast of characters and ever-enchanting soundtrack. The word 'quaint' fails to do the series justice.
Being the clever clogs that he is, Layton already thinks he might be onto something, asking Luke to think back to an event that took place the previous week. The playable flashback takes place at the unveiling of a time machine, where Dr Alan Stahgun is ready to show off his fancy new contraption to the world. Layton and Luke find themselves listening to Stahgun as he speaks of particle physics, quantum mechanics and how the new machine will change the face of mankind for all eternity. In the tantalising interval before the machine is turned on, Layton and Luke have a little nosey about.
It's here the first puzzle presents itself. After talking to a security guard, Layton learns that an uninvited guest has managed to sneak into the grounds. Puzzle No. 001 involves working out the interloper's identity using a good old-fashioned process of elimination. The screen shows an arrangement of tables, each with different coloured table cloths, and some with a decorative flower on top. Using a description of the table on the top screen, the idea is to finger the uninvited guest by drawing a circle around his table. As always, your hard work is rewarded in Picarats (essentially how the game scores puzzles), with the reward dropping the more times you fail the puzzle. If a puzzle proves particularly troublesome, hint coins can be used to purchase clues.
It's the tried and tested Professor Layton formula, albeit with 165 new puzzles to work through. From my time with the game, there didn't appear to be any major differences in its structure or mechanics, but this shouldn't be considered a bad thing. Ultimately, a new Professor Layton game simply needs a new story, and new puzzles. I'm already confident that the story will be the best yet, I'm just left hoping that the puzzles don't succumb to the thoughtless trial and error that occasionally popped up in Pandora's Box.
With the gatecrasher identified and presumably booted from the premises, the event continues. Prime Minister Bill Hawks takes to the stage, introducing the demonstration and emphasising the gravity of its importance. "Is it real?" he asks Stahgun. "Have a seat and see for yourself!" the doctor replies. After much hesitation, Hawks agrees and takes a seat in the intricate dome-shaped device. Switch thrown, the contraption is brought to life, wheezing and panting in strange mechanical groans. Something is clearly wrong. After a series of visible malfunctions, the demonstration is brought to an end, but both Hawks and Stahgun are nowhere to be seen, quite possibly lost in timeless limbo.
With the stage for the mystery set the action returns to London, where Layton and Luke are on their way to a clock shop, as directed by the mysterious letter. Not surprisingly, the directions to the shop are cryptic, leading to another puzzle. This time the clock shop must be located using a series of time-based numbers, the list reading 12.00, 03.00, 12.00, 09.00 and 06.00. The idea is to translate the ambiguous list into a tangible set of directions, and to then apply them to the maze-like map on the bottom screen. Using my magnificently powerful brain, I was able to do this in a matter of seconds, embracingthe influx of endorphins as I watched the familiar 'Correct!' animation.
As per usual, I came away from the game with an intense feeling of satisfaction. The Professor Layton games have always done a fantastic job at making you feel clever, and Unwound Future is no exception. The puzzle-solving and Picarat-collecting appear to be just as addictive as ever, and the few puzzles I tried didn't contain a hint of trial and error. More than anything else, I'm interested to see how the story pans out. Presumably a teenage, time-travelling Luke will make an appearance at some point, and I can't wait to see how Level 5 portrays him.
If I had a future version of myself able to post objects through time, I'd probably get him to mail me a copy of Unwound Future so I can find out, but I suspect that doing so would probably cause some irreparable damage to the space time continuum. Unfortunately, it's probably safer just to wait until the game's released later on in the year.
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is available on Nintendo DS Autumn 2010