Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy review: Such Sweet Sorrow

Professor Layton games have always been all-consuming, everything-else-on-hold affairs. I vividly remember playing The Curious Village, the first Layton, as I was drudging through a dank November London. It was essentially a collection of puzzles tied together by a story, but on that day, that all-consumed day, the DS game was an umbrella made out of gentlemanly mantras and a scarf woven out of quaint mystery. I was lost to it, to its winking puzzles and the twists and turns of its narrative, and when the dots connected so elegantly at the end, it was like I'd awoken in the hand-drawn sunshine of its European streets.

The series has stuck to its groove five games on, and the puzzles still pop up almost rhythmically in the zigzagging country path of the narrative. That said, another day spent with the professor can only feel a bit samey, less sunny by now. The well of puzzles is all but dry in Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, the twists that impressed me years ago feel predictable now, and even a relatively major shift to the formula doesn't fully wow me. It's a testament, then, to the series' sweet, warm personality that throughout my time with Azran Legacy, that little smile that Layton sports matches a little smile on my face. There's enough left here, just about, for one last day in the sun.

Azran Legacy is the concluding chapter to the series' second trilogy, a prequel to the first, and it picks up where Miracle Mask left off. Layton is joined once more by the trilogy's new apprentice, Emmy, and schoolboy sidekick Luke, as the trio hunt down the secrets of the ancient Azran civilization. The just-as-gallant Professor Sycamore requests Layton to investigate a "living mummy," who turns out to be a teenage Azran girl called Aurora and a walking, talking enigma for Layton to solve.

As ever, the plot sets up an assortment of mysteries to perplex Layton and his pals, as they vie with the villainous Targent group to unearth the secrets of Aurora's past. Interspersing the story beats are the ubiquitous puzzles: the tile-sliders, math problems, and A's sat next to B's who are fibbing about C's. With Curious Village, I relished acclimatizing to its tricksy, specifically-worded logic puzzles. Five games later, and the sleeve is all but out of aces. That's not to say there aren't a few surprises, or that the remaining riddles aren't lavishly presented, just that the hundreds of puzzles have blurred into a single, brain-teasing amalgam, a Jabba-like blob of tiles, sums, and absurdly convoluted path-making.

At least Azran Legacy is self-aware, and it tries to mix things up by detaching the plot from its linear normality. Halfway through, the game requires Layton and friends to find five artifacts hidden in five destinations spread across the globe, destinations he can visit in any order the player chooses.

Beyond finding the things hidden there, each location has its own self-contained story that's removed from the main narrative, making them like miniature versions of a Layton game. Given you don't spend all that much time in them, each location feels different, fresh, and their stories grab me quickly. The Shymalan-esque village of Hoogland is a particularly dark delight, while the desert town of Torrido offers an absorbingly eccentric take on Red Riding Hood. There's a strong mix of mini-Laytons there, and playing them in any order is an interesting change of pace.

While it's interesting, it's not wholly effective. For one, selecting which order you visit the locations is something of a false choice, given you have to collect all the artifacts anyway to progress the story. More importantly, it's a great, big "Look This Way" sign diverting you from the game's main story, one that players are likely invested in given it's the conclusion to the second trilogy, and quite possibly to the Layton series as a whole, or at least the way we know it. Worse, the climax feels like it's been stuffed into the chapters afterwards, and the end result is a scattergun parade of revelations, a bouquet of balloons popping one after another so quickly there's not enough time to truly digest the humanity.

Recent Reviews

Yet the conclusion still had me wrapped around its little finger, a finger wagged knowingly just when I began to worry that the end might not satisfy. The Azran Legacy starts with Emmy announcing that this will be her final adventure with Professor Layton, and the game pays fine homage to a character who added mischief and rivalry to the Layton entourage. Knowing she isn't by the professor's side in The Curious Village, and the series' penchant for being unafraid, her end-story is of course far from straightforward.

Nor - very much nor - is the professor's. Whatever and however the Layton series goes, it's the soothing tones and chivalrous principle of its scholarly hero that's always been the star, and I've loved the endings that chink ever so slightly at his gentlemanly armor and shine a light on some of the sorrow residing beneath his big top hat - Azran Legacy has one of those endings. We've seen Layton go through heartbreak, death, and betrayal across a series that outwardly looks like it wouldn't spot the darkness even if you turned out all the lights. There's a willingness in developer Level 5's stories to not stay to the safe ground, and to provide some subtle depth to a character who can't stray too far beyond his dimensions. Maybe that's enough reason to forgive what is, in truth, as contrived and ridiculous a sequence of events as any that have closed off a Layton game.

As much as I enjoy this series, I do hope this is the last Layton of this kind - legal crossovers excluded - at least for a while. There isn't room for much more in this format, and at the same time a Layton game without that rhythmic pattern of puzzle and story beats would be hard to adapt to. Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy feels like as good a way to sign off as could be expected, and the right time to maybe wish the professor a fond farewell, watching sadly as the sunshine follows his little red car into the distance.

This review is based on a retail copy of Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, purchased by the reviewer. Images: Nintendo.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.