The recent influx of popular franchises from Nintendo consoles hitting mobile devices hasn’t exactly produced anything as game-changing as the possibilities that we may have dreamed up after the initial announcements and partnerships were first revealed. Super Mario Run was good, but didn’t exactly revolutionize endless runners, Pokémon GO ended up being a fad whose most interesting aspects didn’t involve the actual game and Fire Emblem Heroes didn’t light any fires. But if there’s one franchise associated with Nintendo that would be a perfect fit for mobile devices, it would be the Professor Layton series. Much like the Ace Attorney series before it, its point-and-click gameplay and visual novel aspects make it a perfect fit for iPhones and the like. And now not only do we have a new Layton game debuting on mobile platforms (with Layton Brothers Mystery Room being more of a spin-off with a genre twist), but it’s one with a whole new generation of characters, symbolically ushering in this new era for the series with an enjoyable new face…but sadly not with the bang Level-5 may have been hoping for.
Our new leading lady this time around is Katrielle Layton, the apparent daughter of Professor Hershel Layton, who has set up own detective agency while trying to track down her missing father, carrying out investigations with the help of her lovestruck assistant Ernest and Sherl, the talking amnesiac dog who hires Katrielle to help uncover his identity, and whom can only speak with Kat and Ernest. That may sound a bit weird, but given how completely bonkers the plots in these games get (Unwound Future possibly being the best example), it’s barely a blip on the weirdness radar, something Kat herself even points out. Eventually our motley crew encounters the Seven Dragons of London, a group of the city’s richest individuals, and find themselves hired for more than a few cases involving them.
In terms of basic gameplay, Layton’s Mystery Journey doesn’t change things a whole lot. Follow a story, head to new areas, talk with people in them to get, solve any puzzles these leads throw at you, tap around to uncover hidden puzzles and hint coins…if you’d played any other Layton game, you should know the drill. But where does this game improve quite a bit is allowing you to revisit cases past and present at any time, complete with counters telling you how many puzzles and coins you’ve found, and which areas you still have yet to uncover things in. This means no more having to constantly backtrack and tap on every single piece of scenery just to avoid missing anything, now you can hunt down brain-teasers at your own leisure.
Speaking of backtracking, things do feel more linear due to the new changes, but not in a bad way. It actually allows for a steadier pace as you go back and forth between locations, chatting with the various cast members involved. And the new class is thankfully an enjoyable bunch, from Katrielle’s cheerful, excited, and optimistic personality to the snarky Sherl, adorkable Ernest, brash profiler with a heart of gold Emiliana, gruff but lovable Inspector Hasting, and many more. The humor they provide is definitely charming, and the dialogue is enjoyable, making each story a treat. Of course, like previous games, you can always take a break from the story and try some mini-games you may have unlocked. These range from mazes to having to deduce restaurant orders or even just decorating Katrielle’s office, and all of them are pretty fun, but the real meat is still in the cases, naturally.
The case-based structure is a bit of a blessing and a curse, though. On one hand, it allows for some well-written, standalone mysteries that are particularly fun, and lets you see about swapping to another set of conundrums if something has you stumped at the moment. But this bit of non-linearity also ends up meaning that there’s no real overarching mystery (heck, the conspiracy the title mentions doesn’t rear its head until the final case), so the stakes feel significantly lower than in previous games. At one point they even resort to a big-lipped alligator moment just to shoehorn an action scene for the trailers, in a moment that makes the game feel desperate for tension. It probably doesn’t help that any culprits in these cases are easily forgiven to a ludicrous degree, lowering the stakes even further.
But yes, despite less on the line, the characters and writing are still as highly enjoyable as the old crew, as mentioned. Unfortunately, Layton’s Mystery Journey also makes a rather hefty misstep in the one area that’s the most important to this franchise: The actual puzzles. The puzzles this time around just don’t feel as satisfying as those in past entries, and on the surface, it may take a while to figure out why that is. For some reason, all the conundrums felt easier this time around, and while I’d like to wish that it was simply due to me having a massive IQ, there was just something off compared to past games. Eventually, though, it became clear: While the individual puzzles were still very well-designed, the collection as a whole suffers from predictability due to having too many trick questions.
Now, trick question with unexpected answers aren’t new for the franchise (the garlic puzzle from Diabolical Box immediately springs to mind), but Layton’s Mystery Journey really loves its trick questions more then ever. And while a curve ball may be an effective pitch, throwing nothing but curve balls eventually results in a ton of easy hits. Possibly the best example of this came from a puzzle later on where you have to calculate the minimum amount of ice cubes needed in order to keep a freshly-caught fish fresh. After going after all of the information given concerning the ice cubes and doing some calculations, I came up with a logical, straightforward answer…and then realized that there was no way in hell it could be the correct solution. It became obvious the answer was zero.
So, why was zero the minimum amount of ice cubes needed? I honestly had no idea. Then why did I assume it was the correct answer? Because the game had already thrown what felt like half a dozen other “What is the absolute minimum needed?” questions at me by then, and the answer always ended up being zero or one. So despite having no reason for giving it as an answer, I punched in zero, submitted it, and what do you know, it was the correct answer (you apparently need zero ice cubes to keep the fish fresh because you can just put it in a fish tank, despite neither the setup or visuals really suggesting it as a possibility).
So yes, in its attempts to come across as clever and to fool the player, Layton’s Mystery Journey ends up revealing too much of its hand, with several riddles solved in mere seconds because outside-the-box thinking quickly becomes the norm. There are still several good puzzles, of course, and ones that can put up a challenge, but a lot of them come across as being groan-worthy or frustrating. In particular, there’s the final puzzle in Case 5, which actually lies about one of its instructions in an attempt at creating cheap misdirection (or it could just be a bug, but it’s an issue either way). When you end up resorting to stuff like that in attempt to stump people, you may indeed have done something wrong.
Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires’ Conspiracy is a solid first step in crafting a new generation of adventures for the franchise, but future installments had best concentrate more on crafting a better bunch of puzzles to be strung together, as well as a deeper narrative, in order to match the glory of the earlier games. And future installments we should indeed hope for, because the charming art, characters, and dialogue all help to create an interesting world that deserves more love (that, and the fact that the game ends on a rather mind-blowing sequel hook). It isn’t the greatest journey a Layton has taken, but it’s still an entertaining one nonetheless.