Professor Layton and the Unwound Future

There’s not a whole lot to say about this one. It very much sticks to the Layton formula, both in structure and style. Interestingly, this is the first Layton game I’ve played since I played Puzzle Agent, and it’s kind of amazing both how much of a direct knock-off Puzzle Agent is structural, and how much better (and more plentiful) the puzzles in Layton are.

This is not to say that the puzzles are perfect. While there are quite a few clever ones, there are a number that are let down by constraints of the DS. There’s one in particular that requires assembling fragments of a torn pieces of paper, and then interpreting the whitespace left between the pieces. It’s the sort of thing where there’s a high sensitivity to changes; moving a piece one or two pixels either way alters the answer entirely, changing a seven to a one or a four, but between the resolution of the image and the precision of the touchscreen it’s not at all clear when pieces are in exactly the right place. There are quite a few puzzles, in fact, that require squinting at the touchscreen to see what exactly is what. One of the last puzzles in the game involves aligning groups of gears, and this time they snap to a grid, but not in such a way that the pieces naturally align, and so again it’s very difficult to tell if things are in exactly the right place or not. Also, especially in the last half of the game, there’s an overabundance of sliding block puzzles. I don’t know anyone who likes sliding block puzzles, and yet there they are again and again. People complained about the matchstick puzzles (which I tend to like), and their frequency has been greatly reduced since the first Layton game (there’s only one in Unwound Future), and yet there are sliding block puzzles, over and over again.

The story is pure Layton. There’s the usual bizarre mystery that Layton and Luke are drawn in to. There’s an initial explanation that’s pretty farfetched but that everyone seems to just accept at face, even though there’s plenty of easy ways to verify or disprove it, and then there’s a truth underneath that’s even more farfetched in its own way (and this one feels particularly unlikely, even for a Layton game). There’s a nice, touching story at the core of the game, and I like that the game chooses to stay true to the central tragedy underpinning that story, even when it has a chance to undo it at the last moment.

The pacing is a little off. Lots of interesting mysteries get laid out in the first few chapters of the game, but then the game feels like it spins its wheels for the entire middle third. Luke and Layton are just endlessly running back and forth in search of evil Future Layton. For chapters on end they keep showing up at location after location, only to have just missed him, and so nothing new is revealed and no actual progress is made in solving the central mysteries of the game. Things do pick up again, certainly, but it just feels like there’s this long stretch where nothing happens.

I would feel remiss if I didn’t talk about the gender politics of the game. The two major female characters are Claire, who is the dead, perfect woman, the one who every male character in the story who knew her was apparently madly in love with and whose death ten years ago was the defining moment in all these men’s lives. Her life and death apparently drove all these men into fits of insanity, arch-enmity, top-hat wearing, and mad science. I’ve known some extraordinary men and women in my day, but this was all a bit much. It was tiring in Harry Potter and it’s no better here. At least Claire, this embodiment of womanly virtue, is not just a pretty face. She’s a research scientist, and so presented as an intellectual equal to Layton in her own right.

And then there’s Flora, the damsel in distress from the first game, and the closest thing the series has to a female counterpart to Luke, the Professor’s young apprentice. The game treats her quite shabbily. She’s either presented as an afterthought, someone who the Professor and Luke forget about entirely while they’re off on their exciting adventures, or as a wet blanket, someone who our heroes want to avoid because she’ll ruin the fun with her neediness. When they do finally relent and let her come along, they’re constantly worried about her safety, because she is a poor delicate innocent flower who must be protecting from the dangers of the world. And the game feels the need to justify their worries: Flora is gratuitously and unnecessarily kidnapped by the game’s villain in the last act. It just sort of happens, and the game makes no attempt to justify it storywise.

It’s a very male-centric world in general, come to think of it. Unless there’s a specific reason for a character to be female, it seems like every character in the game, and especially those of any story-import, is male by default. It’s kind of amazing, but I think the game only barely passes the Bechdel test. It’s disappointing given how kid-friendly the game is otherwise.

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