The way franchises like Layton introduce change between entries is by expanding the game's universe and deepening the player's connections with its characters. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future does so swimmingly -- but wow, does it take its sweet, gentlemanly time in doing so.
Much like Curious Village and Diabolical Box before it, the third installment in the Layton series possesses equally gargantuan amounts of polish and charm. Level 5's crisp, Miyazaki-esque visuals and dreamlike, accordion-centric melodies return, reminding players that not all AAA titles on Nintendo's platforms require the participation of plumbers, Hylians or interstellar bounty hunters.
The premise for Unwound Future is arguably the series' most intriguing to date. The top-hat tutor is asked to help solve a mystery set 10 years in the future -- a request purportedly sent by the futuristic counterpart of his stalwart apprentice, Luke. This chronologically unsound mystery seems to have connections to a disastrous event witnessed by the puzzle-solving duo a week prior, as well as a similar accident from 10 years ago -- one which had particularly tragic consequences for Layton.
The mystery unfolds through a series of conversations and beautifully animated cutscenes, which are peppered across a veritable ocean of increasingly difficult logic puzzles. While most of these conversations are endearing enough, the series still suffers from some of the worst segues in human history when transitioning to a puzzle. "Welcome to town! Do you like dogs? Here's a puzzle about a dog," an acquaintance might say, apropos of absolutely nothing.
This formula has remained intact since Curious Village, and the only changes come in the form of a few new mini-games tucked away in Layton's ever-accessible trunk. Still, these should be familiar to fans of the series -- much like the camera-building game from Layton the First or the tea-mixing game from Layton the Second, these little bonuses do little else but encourage players to seek out every single puzzle in town, collecting components for their mini-games along the way.
You'll need that extra encouragement, because around the five-hour mark, both the storytelling and puzzle variety takes a turn for the monotonous. The middle third of the plot line develops at a positively glacial pace, with hours of backtracking, red herrings and ... more backtracking (re-tracking? plain ol' tracking?). Puzzles at this point become repetitive, a disappointing number of which can be solved once the player realizes that a six, when turned upon its numerical ear, is also a nine. (I know, crazy, right?)
Also, while Layton and Luke's most recent case is a delightful adventure -- particularly in the story's final, explosive act -- it doesn't score very high on the mystery meter.
There's plenty to deduce, sure, and a healthy amount of plot twists along the way -- but these turnabouts are either broadcast miles in advance or come completely out of left field. Solving mysteries before they unravel is most of the fun in games like Layton -- but certain surprises in Unwound Future couldn't be predicted by Pinchot, Holmes or Hooker. (What? T.J. Hooker. Get your mind out of the gutter.)
Ultimately, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is a pretty uneven experience. Most casual fans of the franchise might not feel particularly compelled to venture past the game's sagging midpoint -- but the diehards will be rewarded with a satisfying conclusion that finally shows that, yes, the titular pedagogue has (gasp!) feelings. Behind that snappy orange sweater and gentlemanly veneer beats a real-life heart.
See, and all this time, I'd just assumed his ribcage housed a second brain.
This review is based on the retail version of Professor Layton and the Unwound Future provided by Nintendo.