His faithful assistant at his side, Jean-Pierre Lautrec, Doctor of Archeology at the Musée d'Histoire Natural in Paris, scanned the horizon for a hidden fleur-de-lis. Beyond that indelibly French symbol lay a labyrinth, one of countless labyrinths hidden underneath the Parisian streets. Within each were puzzles to solve and Treasure Animatus, ancient relics inhabited by dangerous and invisible magical spirits, to battle.

The premise of Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights – part Indiana Jones, part Professor Layton, part Pokémon – hints at adventure and discovery flowing like the Seine beneath 19th century Paris. After teasing a MacGuffin about a mysterious treasure connected with Louis XIV, you're informed that you're far too weak to charge toward the main quest and, in typical video game fashion, side quests are in order. A few hours later, it becomes obvious that Lautrec prefers to focus the overwhelming majority of your time on these scattershot odd jobs.
The formula is simple and unwavering. After accepting a riddle-infused treasure map from a masked blonde in a dive bar in the Paris opera house (obviously), Lautrec and anyone who accompanies him proceed to discuss to which locations the map might refer. They perform this waltz for several minutes as you hammer a button like a windup monkey to advance every half-line of dialogue.

Once they've solved the riddle for you and settled on a handful of locations, it's your job to traverse the map and investigate each. Upon arrival, you may talk to some stock characters, or you may be treated to yet another cut scene in which you're told that there's nothing to see here. Exactly none of this first handful of locations will ever be your final destination. Instead, just when all hope is lost, someone suggests another set of locations, the waltz begins anew, and the second leg of your wild goose chase commences.

In utter disregard for the player's time and attention, accepting a quest invariably means that there's no way to avoid the next 10 or more minutes that you'll inevitably waste walking straight into guaranteed dead-ends during which the developers pepper the game with ancillary characters and mountains of exposition so high that they'd make Hideo Kojima blush.

As a reward for finally reaching your destination, you'll enter a labyrinth. Like the structure of the preamble that preceded it, every dungeon looks and plays the same. You'll sneak past various enemies, collect gems from treasure chests and solve puzzles to open doors. Many of the rooms include (stop me if you've heard this one) block-based puzzles that you need to push across the room. For no earthly reason, a few of the rooms in any given labyrinth are empty.

Your goal is to acquire Treasure Animatus, each of which is locked behind doors that can only be opened by solving puzzles. Lautrec boasts over 250, but that's true in the same way that a book of crosswords contains 250 puzzles. There are, in fact, about half a dozen total types in permanent rotation, none of which is ever more ambitious in scope than those you'd find in any issue of Highlights for Children (spot the differences between two pictures) or Windows for Workgroups 3.1.1 (a minesweeper clone).

The path is clear: Solve a puzzle, unlock a door and then battle the spirit-infested treasure hidden within. You defeat or capture enemies in turn-based battle by placing the Treasure Animatus that you've previously defeated onto surrounding pedestals. Weaken the enemy's total HP within a certain range, and you tame it and add it to your inventory. Fight well, and by the time you're done, you'll have three new Pokémon treasures at your disposal. Kill them, and you have to buy an item to resurrect them.

It's an intriguing premise, but one ultimately hindered by Lautrec's cardinal sin: a single-use and absurdly brief tutorial that disappears as quickly as Inspector Gadget's orders. All nuances of combat – how the various species of Treasure Animatus work with and against each other, the precise nature of cracked and conjoined pedestals – is left to pure speculation. Unless you'd like information in three different languages about how to avoid seizures, the instruction booklet is equally unhelpful, so combat tends to feel like a blindfolded live fire exercise.

You can bluff your way through most battles, but its basic nature is so obfuscated that it's entirely possible to play through most of the game without stumbling upon its core mechanics. For example, if you haven't accidentally invoked Synergy Effects by your 20th hour, it's nothing more than a meaningless phrase and an empty, unexplained menu. In a cruel catch-22, Lautrec will only explain its existence after you've accidentally discovered it.

Lautrec is ambitious but maddeningly limited in scope. This is heartbreaking because it's obviously a labor of love. The art direction, while über-Japanese with triangle chins and full-moon eyes everywhere, is perfectly realized. The voice acting is ubiquitous and superb but squandered on history lessons at every turn. The sheer volume of information available for what appears to be hundreds of buildings is staggering but absolutely useless because populating an in-game log with historical facts about Notre Dame Cathedral but not the fighting mechanic makes about as much sense as the monkey that Lautrec keeps under his hat.

What little Lautrec does, it does competently but not compellingly. It doesn't take a degree in cryptography to realize that Lautrec is a misadventure. Even Lautrec seems to know it. His brilliance exceeded only by his arrogance, he's prone to complaining upon completing quests. When he says, "This latest quest was very unsatisfying," he might as well be speaking for gamers.

This review is based on a retail copy of Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights purchased by the reviewer.

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