Professor Layton and the Balanced Hint System

by Arthur B

Can a game which depends on solving puzzles allow stuck players to progress without becoming unchallenging? Yes! Professor Layton and the Curious Village shows how it's done.
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Let's not mince words. There is an awful lot of shovelware on the Nintendo DS, and by far the majority of it is in the puzzle genre. Ranging from Brain Training rip-offs which wrap stale puzzles in a thin veneer of being good for you to Sudoku and crossword collections that don't really offer many more puzzles than their paper equivalents, the DS catalogue is groaning with games which don't really offer any functionality that you couldn't get from a pencil and one of those puzzle books you can buy in the newsagents'. It's easy to see why there's so many of them - I can't imagine your average Sudoku program takes much more than a week to program the interface and an afternoon to program a routine for generating the puzzles. And even if only a fraction of the DS audience is idiot enough to use a £100 handheld console to perform an activity you could do with a 10p pencil and the puzzles page of a free newspaper, it's still worth doing if you're likely to earn back more than the pitiful amount of money you invested in the thing in the first place.

This is why Professor Layton and the Curious Village is such a surprise. It's a puzzle game where the actual puzzles could have been presented as a straight-up list at a fraction of the cost. However, developers Level 5 have refused to cut corners and instead invested time, money, care, and attention into the game, with the result that it rises above a simple puzzle collection.

If your standard DS shovelware puzzle game is the equivalent of a cheap crossword book, Professor Layton and the Curious Village is the closest thing we've got to a videogame adaptation of the Usborne Puzzle Adventures series. It's an adventure story with a puzzle-based economy: through solving puzzles, the player advances the story, which in turn unlocks more and more puzzles. The plot itself is carefully constructed to have a reasonably universal appeal; Professor Layton and his young assistant Luke are called to the village of St Mystere, the Baron of which has passed away. Supposedly, the Baron's treasure is hidden away somewhere in the village - but can only be found by the person who solves the mystery of the Golden Apple. Although Layton insists that he's not a detective, his reputation for solving enigmas makes him the ideal man to get to the bottom of the mystery - especially when murders, kidnappings, and strange activities surrounding an ominous tower at the centre of town complicate matters.

Most of the puzzles in the game come about as a result of the townsfolks' fixation on such things, which may be a completely artificial way of shoehorning them into the plot but does at least mean the various riddles come in the context of conversations with NPCs, so there's some nice dialogue to read and fun characters to interact with as you explore the towns. The puzzles themselves by and large fit into the various classic moulds that populate this sort of thing - chess problems, logic riddles, those funny puzzles where you have to rearrange matchsticks, sliding block games, and difficult river crossings involving sheep, cabbages, and wolves - but they're more varied than, for example, the offerings in Brain Training, and they're always charmingly and interestingly presented. In fact, "charming presentation" seems to have been the guiding principle of the game, from the beautifully animated cut scenes to the design of the various locations in the town.

The inherent difficulty of games such as this and Braid, in which your progress in the game depends on solving puzzles, is whether or not to provide a hint system. Too generous a hint system, and all challenge will be leeched out of the game - players will get hints on any problem which is causing them difficulty rather than persisting and perhaps finding the answer themselves. On the other hand if you take Braid's approach of sticking two fingers up and saying "Fuck you, solve it yourself or you're not getting anywhere", you end up with extremely frustrated players who might go and play a game which doesn't stonewall them instead. Professor Layton finds a useful compromise between these two positions with a nice "hint coin" system. By collecting hint coins hidden throughout the game, you can spend them later on on puzzles that you're having difficulty with in order to get past them. You'll normally have to spend multiple coins (up to three) to get the maximum possible help with a puzzle; a few puzzles (usually the ones, like the sliding block puzzles, where you can sooner or later get the answer through trial and error) won't even yield a complete answer even if you buy all the hints - they'll just put you on the right track. The fact that the hint coins are available means that if there's a few puzzles which you just plain hate, you don't have to engage with them too much. (I don't like the matchstick puzzles, for instance, so I just bought the hints and breezed past them). The fact that the hint coins are a limited resource means that the player has to be careful about how many they spend; I found that in practice this meant I would usually attempt to solve a puzzle without hints for as long as I could rather than spend the coins which might be useful for puzzles that I would genuinely struggle with on my own.

If you combine a charming visual style, a fun and light-hearted plot, and puzzles that manage to be challenging without becoming an insurmountable barrier to progression, you've got a winner on your hands in my book. The only downsides to the game are the fact that it's really quite short (I got through it in 8 hours), and some of the plot twists go beyond being mysterious-but-guessable and become downright obvious by the time they are revealed, but these are mere blemishes. It's been out for long enough that the price has come down a bit, which is probably a good thing - the brevity of it means that I can't quite recommend buying it or any of the other Professor Layton games at their release price - but those DS owners who haven't yet experienced it would be well advised to track down budget-priced or second hand copies.
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Comments (go to latest)
Melissa G. at 16:05 on 2010-02-17
I just bought this game the other day and started playing it. It's really fun and somewhat addictive! I'll keeping playing it and then maybe..."something good will happen"!
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