One of the most remarkable things about Level-5’s Professor Layton series – which has always made it a perfect fit for a Nintendo console, really – is that it has never allowed itself to become cloying or twee. The primary target audience is a young one, and the central master/apprentice relationship is something that a band of lesser talents would have unceremoniously milked for the sake of some cheap melancholy… but Professor Layton’s escapades have always been so much better than that. Consequently it’s no great surprise to discover that this latest instalment – the fifth, with a climactic sixth game well on its way – is more than up to snuff.
Whereas Professor Layton has mostly been portrayed as a boundlessly patient Sherlock Holmes type up until now, Miracle Mask colours him with a palatable shade of Indiana Jones. It’s spoiling nothing to reveal that the central villain may or may not be an old university comrade of the professor, and it’s very subtly suggested at one point that the old school friend whom you interact with at the beginning – now a wealthy socialite – is also an old flame. Part of the story is told in flashback, which (appropriately enough) calls Naughty Dog’s most recent Uncharted adventure to mind. But despite all of this, Miracle Mask is still fundamentally a Professor Layton game.
The 3D visuals are utterly sumptuous – impeccably blurring the gap between the anime cut-scenes and the interactive stuff – but anyone expecting a raft of newfangled 3D puzzles will be left a tad disappointed. Broadly speaking the formula is the same as it always has been, save for a brief horse-riding set-piece and a stretch where the game turns into a real-time dungeon crawler. The blend of logic problems, mathematical teasers and visual conundrums continues to be a peerlessly well-arranged mix, and coming across the odd puzzle that seems unnaturally obtuse or taxing is less of a problem than ever: hint coins are everywhere.
Almost all of the action now takes place on the top screen of the 3DS, so rather than physically tapping on parts of your environment constantly, here your manoeuvre around it as a small magnifying glass icon. Examining your surroundings is no less involving than it was before – if anything the buzzing, lived-in feel of the three-dimensional world makes it more absorbing – and the impeccable functionality of it all feels, at times, almost state-of-the-art. The usual raft of engaging (and occasionally off-the-wall) mini-games are present and correct, and every day for the next year will see the release of a brand new puzzle, available to all as a free download. Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is fantastic fun and, as ever, uncommonly engrossing for a puzzle game. Roll on the finale.