Five games, and one handheld system later, Miracle Mask was a huge statement on the consistent quality of the Layton series
With Miracle Mask, the Professor Layton series reached its fifth installment in as many years, and – differently from many other famous franchises of its day and age – the professor somehow managed to stumble upon a weird formula which combines constant releases, and little to no gameplay changes, and mixed those two ingredients to form games that are seemingly immune to criticism.
It might be awfully easy to negatively point out how Layton offered us over a hundred hours of eerily similar gameplay, but – as a contrast – it is just impossibly hard to ignore the glorious strides the folks at Level-5 were able to take in creating settings and stories that turned every one of the Layton games into odd mysteries that delicately floated in the border of the realms of the plausible and the outlandish. Miracle Mask followed that tradition and delivered one of the finest gaming adventures of the Nintendo 3DS’ early life.
Two elements are key in pushing the Professor Layton games beyond the label of glorified puzzle packages: setting and plot, and in Miracle Mask, especially aided by the 3DS’ powers and capabilities, they were more impressive than ever. This time around, the picturesque location of choice is Monte d’Or: an entertainment oasis located in the middle of a bare desert. Mostly populated by the marveled tourists who stay in the city’s many luxurious hotels, the place is a delightful clash of the European vibe and architecture that is so vividly present in the Layton series, the lights and colors of Las Vegas, and the French-influenced carnival celebrations that take place in New Orleans. The combination turns Monte d’Or into a believable confluence of styles, and, in the meantime, places the city into an nonexistent earthly geographic location. A match of tendencies that plays right into the hands of the Laytonesque plots that so often combine the possible with the far fetched.
Monte d’Or is not just bizarrely interesting, it is also gloriously beautiful. Visually, with the Miracle Mask, the Layton series went through an incredible overhaul, and the result comes in the form of scenarios and characters that pop out of the screen in full life, and not solely because of the game’s wonderful use of 3-D effects. Some players may be disappointed to learn the pure cartoonish sprites were replaced by cell-shaded 3-D models, but truth is that at no point the game loses its charm.
On the contrary, the visual leap forward is extremely beneficial to the title both in its storytelling, and – even more strongly – in the development and growth of its setting. No other location ever explored by Layton offered so many details, people, and life, and for that reason players are instantaneously drawn into the many wonders of this paradise in the middle of the dunes. While the fully hand-drawn past of the series provided very remarkable locations to explore, the new blend of drawing and polygons introduced in Miracle Mask was a welcome change that made it stand out from the get go.
As alluring as the usual Layton locations might be, one thing is always certain: if the professor is on site, it means that something wrong is going on, and thankfully this is no exception. Built by a childhood friend of his, Monte d’Or has been under attack. A masked man in an impeccable white suit has been making public appearances in crowded places and executing dark miracles right in front of the tourists’ eyes. A town that thrives under flashy shows and casinos is suddenly being threatened by a twisted man who enjoys putting on shows himself, such as turning passersby into animals. Watching as the economic health of this tourist wonderland is in danger of turning into dust, Angela summons the professor to investigate the happenings.
The story is as well-told as expected. The game alternates silent dialogues, voiced exchanges, and full-blown drawn cutscenes, depending on how crucial the moment is to the plot as a whole. Comparatively, the game’s plot offers as many twists and unexpected turns as all the other Layton games do, which brings a great balance between the puzzle-solving and the story development. That equilibrium makes the two factors complementary to one another, instead of turning one of them into a little accessory, and hence highlighting the brilliance of both the storyline script and the puzzle design. However, differently from the Layton game that preceded it – The Last Specter, Miracle Mask as a whole has developments that are more grounded in feasible reality, even if it is some sort extravagant view of what is real and what is not, which makes the whole quest for truth much more satisfying for players.
From that point onwards, the game is Professor Layton as fans know it. In point-and-click fashion, the professor must wander around the streets of the city, talk to its residents to gather either random information or new important leads, and solve a handful of puzzles along the way. As usual, the city is populated by quite an assortment of curious and unforgettable characters that start being missed by players as soon as the credits begin to roll. The game’s dialogue remains as sharp as ever, turning every little character interaction into one enjoyable experience that further adds layers to the remarkable Professor Layton universe. Though 3-D models are used in place of straight cartoons, the designers were still able to pull off some likable but bizarre designs that seem to have come out of a Saturday morning cartoon.
The puzzles remain very solid. For those who are familiar with the series, the first few riddles will certainly be quite a breeze to figure out, as more experienced players are already quite high in the scale of true gentlemanliness, but as the game progresses, puzzles grow truly challenging and some of the adventure’s many hidden puzzles can take quite a while to figure out.
Though most of the puzzles follow the traditional structure displayed in the previous Layton games – where static text and a charming little goofy image are all that is shown to players, some of the puzzles here offer brand new interactive interfaces, such as a few occasions where a little sprite of the professor must be moved around in order for him to defeat threatening enemies in a very logical way.
All in all, the game comes packed with 150 puzzles, with an additional set of riddles made available through the Nintendo Network. If players just want to blast through the story and get to the bottom of the Masked Gentleman mystery, the game will last for about fifteen hours, but anybody who wants to become a true gentleman and solve all puzzles will find a game that will deliver over thirty hours of very satisfying gameplay. Once the case is solved, after many mind-blowing happenings, there isn’t much reason to replay Miracle Mask, such is the nature of a story-centered game, but its gigantic collection of puzzles and the already traditional extra mini-games, which contain dozens of puzzles within themselves, will certainly make it last for long.
In the end, the Miracle Mask undoubtedly stands out among the Layton series due to its visuals, while its gameplay and plot remain true to the series’ traditions, which is not bad at all. Five games, and one handheld system later, Miracle Mask was a huge statement on the consistent quality of the Layton series, and it is quite amazing that the professor still astounds players as strongly as he did when he ventured into one curious village with an equally curious secret.
As veteran gentlemen, experienced gamers have come to expect and nearly foresee all the amazing turns that the plot and puzzles will take, but even in the face of those trained brains Level-5 simply never fails in pulling off surprising tricks. Players have grown mentally addicted to asking their favorite gaming franchises to change and transform, but, after playing Miracle Mask, they will become even more certain that, when it comes to Layton, all they should ask for is: keep coming, and stay the same.