"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.
As you point and click your way around the streets of St. Mystere, entering houses, searching bins and inspecting signs, cupboards and paintings by tapping on them with the stylus, you'll often be charged with solving a puzzle, the quality of which put those in other puzzle-specific games on the DS, and Wii for that matter, to shame. Turns out the people of the Curious Village love a good mind bender, and the Professor and Luke love to solve them.
The first puzzle sets the tone for the rest of the game and highlights perfectly how the teasers are expertly incorporated into the story. Lady Dahlia has sent the Professor a map detailing where the village is, but the directions are in the form of a puzzle: "My village is on a road that leads to no other towns. I look forward to seeing you there," it says on the top screen. On the touch screen is the map, on which you need to use the stylus to draw a circle around the right village, then touch submit.
As you progress through the game, the Professor might stop and say something like: "This reminds me of a brilliant puzzle...", or a character from the town will ask for your help, and solving a puzzle is the way to do it. There are puzzles everywhere. They vary in quality, but the vast majority will leave a big smile on your face once you've submitted the correct answer and are patted on the back by the Professor.
Here's some of my personal favourites: My Beloved, a puzzle discovered when you go to check in at the local inn, presents a recently discovered self portrait from a famous artist. Hidden somewhere in the painting is his beloved - you need to rotate and swap the four quarters of the painting to reveal her. It took ages to solve, but it's hugely rewarding.
Digital Digits asks you to work out how many times a digital 12 hour clock will display three or more of the same number in a row over the course of one day. That had the two of us racking our brains for ages. Go on, give it a go.
If you get stuck on any given puzzle you can ask for up to three hints, and it's a good thing too because some of the puzzles are rock hard, but each hint costs a Hint Coin, which are found by searching bins and cupboards and whatnot around the village. And you can't simply keep guessing, either. Solve a puzzle with your first guess and you'll score the maximum amount of Picarats - the game's high score currency. Get it wrong and the number of Picarats you can win goes down. The more attempts you make the less Picarats you can win, so you're encouraged to take your time and not take wild stabs in the dark.
There's absolutely tons to do in the game. Not only have you got the main mystery to solve, and the associated puzzles along the way, but there's plenty more puzzles you'll come across if you take the time to explore. Then there's side objectives you can tackle, like furnishing the Professor and Luke's rooms at the inn, collecting gizmo parts and arranging the tattered remains of a mysterious painting. And if that isn't enough, you can download a new puzzle every week via Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.
It would be easy for more hardcore gamers to dismiss Professor Layton and the Curious Village as yet another puzzler for a Nintendo platform full of bare-bones puzzle cash-ins, but I urge you to try it out. It's not an epic adventure, like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, or polished platformer, like New Super Mario Bros., but in many ways it's better than both those games. The story gets more mature with the solving of each puzzle, the puzzles themselves will have even the brainiest flummoxed and the art design is up there with anything, and I mean anything, on the console. It's the perfect DS game, it's the perfect puzzle game, it's what everyone should be playing on the tube instead of Brain Training, or some generic Sudoku clone. And, however improbably, it pretty much vindicates Nintendo's focus on casual-friendly gaming.