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.
Another point of diversion is the selection of mini-games that developer Level 5 has included with the main adventure. US fans seem to think that Pandora's Box is slightly weaker than its predecessor in this department; having not played the original I can't comment on this, but the new games are certainly engaging enough to be worth a look. The first mini-game involves re-assembling a camera from parts you scavenge around the game world, while a second requires you to fitness train a hamster by building an obstacle course. The latter game seems a bit rushed when compared to the quality of the game's other puzzles, but I certainly enjoyed the hamster's bizarre New Yoik accent.
Towards the middle of the story you'll also unlock a third mini-game that sees Layton and Luke brewing tea for the characters they meet. As with the camera and the hamster, this game uses collectible items that you'll occasionally win from a successful puzzle. In a nutshell, you're encouraged to mix different types of tea together in an attempt to discover new recipes. If you then happen to encounter someone who is thirsty, you'll be able to serve them their favorite brew. Do this, and you'll win a new puzzle. There are actually even more secrets to find in Pandora's Box - including a few that require codes from Mysterious Village - but by now you're probably getting the idea. Assuming that you like puzzles in the first place, this game represents amazing value for money. It'll last you an age, and even if you do somehow complete the whole thing, Level 5 is releasing downloadable puzzles on a weekly basis.
Pandora's Box would be pretty easy to recommend even if it were just a bare-bones collection of head-scratchers, but it certainly helps that everything else about the game is so utterly charming. The graphics uses a strange mix of European and Japanese styles, but the resulting hybrid is undeniably easy on the eye - especially during the game's impressive video cutscenes. On the audio front there's a rather nice selection of accordion-led tunes, and a surprisingly large quantity of dialogue. Written text is used for the majority of conversations, but where speech is used it's done very well - with Layton himself sounding particularly warm and friendly.
So, do I love Professor Layton as much as Wez did? Not quite. Despite the game's many strengths, I do have a few complaints. It's great that there are so many puzzles, but every so often I felt that the story was being spread a little too thinly between the challenges. Perhaps that's a daft complaint - or a compliment to the narrative - but there were certainly moments where I'd have liked a bit more plot as a reward for my brain-aching efforts. The puzzles themselves are largely very well designed, but the ones which rely upon spotting small details can occasionally suffer from the low resolution of the DS screens. There are also a few instances where your instructions are frustrating in their lack of clarity, or where the game is overly pedantic in the answer it demands. One early puzzle requires the player to work out how much of a particular picture is coloured blue, and how much is white. The required answer is 6:4, but if you simplify that answer to 3:2, as Mr Wright taught you in maths class, then the game will say that you're wrong.
I suppose there's also a chance that some people might be put off by the story's general weirdness. It's never really explained why Professor Layton is traveling around with a small boy, and when a police officer comments on this during one early moment, the duo react with peculiar embarrassment. I'm certainly not suggesting that there's anything untoward going on, but scenes like this do suggest that some of the game's humour has been lost in translation. Still, most of the time this strangeness is rather enjoyable - as if the game world has its own sense of logic, one that we're not quite privy to. If you liked Mysterious Village and need more, or if you just want something genuinely fresh and original for your DS, Pandora's Box is the answer you're looking for.