What makes for a good mystery? It’s an inherently subjective question with no clear cut answer, but general guidelines have existed for as long as the mystery genre itself. At the most basic level, the goal when creating a fictional mystery is to entertain an audience by inviting that audience to solve the mystery for themselves alongside the detectives in the story. In practice, this involves striking a delicate balance when it comes to respecting the audience’s ability to reason, to intuit, and to problem solve. Make the answer too obvious, and there’s no fun to be had in cracking the case. On the other hand, if the conclusion can only be reached by making drastic assumptions or leaps of faith, an audience may feel cheated out of a satisfying resolution. Of course, the willingness and ability to solve any mystery varies drastically from person to person. A conclusion that one person arrives at effortlessly may not even be a consideration for someone else. At the very least, ideally, an audience should have all the same information as the mystery’s protagonist. That way, even those who couldn’t put everything together on their own can still respect the paths of deduction once they’ve been revealed. Not everyone will try to figure everything out as the story progresses, but even those who are merely along for the ride will feel cheated out of a good story if the resolution comes entirely out of left field or if the narrator withheld any amount of essential information. Perhaps above all else, everything should make sense, from the perpetrator’s motive down to the very laws of nature. There’s no foolproof way to create memorable mystery fiction, but most good mystery fiction abides by these general guidelines.
As mystery fiction, the Professor Layton games are absolutely terrible. As video games, they’re still largely enjoyable – and The Last Specter is no exception to either of these rules.
Every Professor Layton game consists of the same basic gameplay elements. These are visual novels – mystery novels, of course – interspersed with puzzle-solving asides. Professor Layton – who’s a professor in name only, and a detective by trade – sets out to investigate an occurrence troubling one town or another, aided by his trusty apprentice, a young boy named Luke. The mysteries at hand often appear to be supernatural in nature, and elements like time travel and giant monsters play directly into some of these cases, but Professor Layton is unfettered by such phenomena. He’s determined to get to the bottom of everything; as his oft-repeated catchphrase suggests, “every puzzle has an answer.”
This applies not just in the macro sense, but on a micro-level as well. In the world that Professor Layton inhabits, puzzles and solutions are the most valuable form of currency. Ask the townspeople for information, and they’ll usually ask you to solve a little riddle or brain teaser for them first. Some puzzles manage to fit into the narrative organically, like those that have Layton trying to figure out which key to use or how to decipher a password in order to access a new location. The rest range from every far-flung corner of whatever could broadly be considered a puzzle: mazes, tessellations, guessing games, pattern recognition, math problems, traveling salesman questions, and so on. The only aspect of gameplay that elevates this series from point-and-click adventure status is the inclusion of these puzzles, and the sheer quantity and variety of these puzzles is the entire reason for playing through these games. Even after this fourth entry to the Professor Layton series, the puzzles still don’t feel stale or repetitive at all. In fact, the universally-held puzzle obsession in Layton’s world is one of the most charming aspects of the games; everyone just loves sharing and solving puzzles!
The charm doesn’t end there, either. The setting of the Professor Layton series can best be described as a timeless England. Everyone is polite and proper and so unmistakably British, and the series could almost take place at any point during the early 20th century, from Downton Abbey times right up until the 1960s. The clothing, attitudes, and technologies are all loaded with enough anachronisms to prevent any possible accuracy, but the general tone of the game and its many characters betrays a certain quaintness that makes the experience delightfully old-fashioned.
Most impressive of all is the character of Professor Layton himself, who prides himself on two things alone: solving puzzles and being a gentleman. Layton is so dedicated to proper gentlemanly procedure and decorum that in the hands of a less talented writing team he’d come across as an insufferably stuffy boor. Instead, his earnest enthusiasm for puzzles shines through his otherwise prim and strait-laced exterior. I had to check twice in order to verify that Iain Glen was not the voice of Layton; that’s how much the beady-eyed detective sounds like Jorah Mormont giving grave warnings to his khaleesi. Layton’s apprentice, Luke, is a great character in his own right. He’s smart, polite, and unwaveringly loyal. There’s no hint of arrogance or attitude coming from him; he’s a textbook “good kid,” complete with a newsboy cap, a messenger bag. and a positive attitude. Rounding out the crew is Emmy, introduced here in The Last Specter as Layton’s assistant. She’s energetic but not brash, deferential but not subservient, and clever but not cheeky. She is, by all accounts, the perfect tritagonist for the Professor Layton series – a rare female video game character who is neither a love interest nor a damsel, and who exhibits her own agency over the course of the game without ever coming across as domineering.
Unfortunately, beyond the fun puzzles, charming atmosphere, and endearing characters, Professor Layton and the Last Specter is a woefully bad mystery story, just like every other Professor Layton game before it. Its resolution involves a previously unseen culprit, a boatload of unreliable witnesses, a boy who can communicate with an animal, and the sudden existence of a Loch Ness Monster-type creature. Specific details and spoilers are unnecessary, but suffice it to say that the end-game villain had no motive, the climactic showdown was a nonsensical supernatural battle, and Professor Layton was slow to share some pivotal information.
The core narrative in Professor Layton and the Last Specter is a real turd of a mystery. There’s no feasible way for a sane person to predict the ending – much less solve it – and by introducing new characters and developments at the proverbial eleventh hour, the game doesn’t really earn its own conclusion. Nonetheless, spending time solving brain-teasers and riddles with Layton, Luke, and Emmy out and about in who-knows-when England is an unexpectedly enjoyable and positive experience unlike many others in gaming. Anyone who spent time flipping through activity books as a kid would do well to check out a Professor Layton game or two.
Reviews of previous games in this series can be found at back-blogged.blogspot.com, where in addition to video games the bros occasionally discuss books, movies, and television.