Professor Layton games are, typically, about three basic things: puzzle solving, story and artistry. The thing about this franchise is that Level-5, the series developer, has their formula for success down pat. These games all work. In fact, after trying the first in the franchise, I've become a big fan. They're perfect as time wasters, distractions or full-on gaming experiences.
Before we get down to the specifics for Last Specter, understand that I already recommend this franchise for just about every type of gamer out there. I've played the games with other gamers, and I've whipped them out during long flights with family. Everyone gets them, and everyone appreciates them.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter is the fourth game in the series. It's been out in Japan since 2009; however, that big delay between their reception and ours is typical with the franchise. The only negative thing about that here is that a lot of gamers may have moved beyond the DS and onto the 3DS. This is a DS game, and, as such, it may actually be ignored by the population looking to enjoy only 3DS games.
It is, of course, playable on the 3DS.
Where the story is concerned, Last Specter stands as the prequel to the original Layton. The professor meets Luke, his trusty sidekick, during the first bit of this new game. He also works with a young girl named Emma throughout the tale. Basically, the plot centers around a mysterious, giant specter that's destroying one English town. There is an oracle that predicts its comings. Layton and Emma must find the oracle, sight the specter and figure out what, exactly, is going on. As Layton games go, Last Specter slowly unravels from start to finish in a manner that only gets more complicated before it becomes transparent. You'll be solving this mystery right up until the conclusion.
Last Specter is filled to the brim with the great characters that make this franchise so strong. Nearly every new screen will sport a quaint character worth talking to. All of them are unique, and a lot of them deliver strong puns and puzzles. This is, of course, one of the most charming aspects of the series.
When they come up, the cutscenes within are just as strong as they've always been. Now, I recognize that video is a big hog on space in physical media, but I always find myself wishing there had been more cutscenes by the time I'm done with any Layton adventure. Last Specter is no different. The art is fantastic, the animation looks good and the voice acting is top-notch. You'll finish one and find yourself begging for another.
Last Specter also seems to have a lighter emphasis on math-based puzzles. In the past, some of the more tricky teasers required a spot of mathematics. I can't do them. Really, mixed fractions give me headaches. I found myself stumped less by math-based puzzles in this game and more by riddles with either wordy or spatial problems. In fact, dealing with spatial puzzles like mentally rotating a cube in order to find a solution is one the biggest hurdles in this game.
As with all Layton titles, solving puzzles is only 100% necessary when the moment lies between the characters and the next plot point. If you miss a puzzle, you'll be able to head into a creepy cabin in the woods (not kidding), talk to an old woman's cat (not kidding, again) and revisit those lost or unsolved teasers. That goes a long way towards making this game playable for really long stints after the story's conclusion.
Finally, there's a bonus that ships with this game. Straight from the launch menu, without beating the story, players will be able to enjoy Professor Layton's London Life. This is a basic RPG that has the looks of a top-down, toonish, SNES game. You'll create an avatar, move into London, be given a flat and complete basic fetch quests for roughly 100 hours. It sounds boring, but for people that get into these types of experiences (trust me, there's lots of them), this is perfection.
Had it not been for Professor Layton's London Life, we would have been fine with floating Last Specter an eight out of 10. However, for those that want to take part in the simple distraction, London Life is lengthy, rewarding and simple fun. It wouldn't really win any awards on its own, but as a free bonus with this already strong game, the total value of this package goes up a lot.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter is a work of refinement. It doesn't necessarily do anything noticeably new. Level-5 found a mold with the Laytons before this one and have unabashedly stuck to it.
With that in mind, this franchise doesn't really need fixing. Good characters, a great story and loads of puzzles are what make any Layton game strong. If you've played one, you've played them all, but no series is quite as good at scratching an itch as Professor Layton. The Last Specter meets and exceeds that demand.
Full Disclosure: CraveOnline was sent a review copy of Professor Layton and the Last Specter a few days before its retail release. We played the game's story to completion, tested a few hours of London Life, revisited some of our unsolved puzzles and completed the train mini-game.