Professor Layton Is Back, but Can It Ever Reach Its Former Heights?

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Professor Layton Is Back, but Can It Ever Reach Its Former Heights?

I was introduced to Professor Layton the same way I was introduced to Pokémon: through my babysitter. I remember being bored at her house, so she gave me a bunch of videogames to try out. I played a completed save file of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and watched other kids play Twilight Princess, which kickstarted my fascination with the franchise. But the series she introduced me to that I most fell in love with was Professor Layton.

I was likely too young (or just stupid) to play the games as they were intended, as my small brain often had trouble solving the increasingly complicated puzzles. I had to ask my babysitter for help, or just look up the answers online. That might seem to some to defeat the entire purpose of a game entirely centered around solving puzzles, but to me, they were just an obstacle to the real enjoyment of the game: its story.

Professor Layton follows the adventures of its titular British, top hat-wearing protagonist and his young apprentice named Luke. The two of them run into all kinds of friends and foes, all of whom have the capacity to make you laugh and cry in equal measure. Each installment has a central mystery, which kept me hooked to the very end. While often silly, the games also have deeply emotional parts to them, with Professor Layton and the Unwound Future being the first videogame I ever shed tears over due to its heartbreaking ending.

As I got older, I began to play the games more as they were intended, engaging with the puzzles instead of immediately seeking the answers from other sources. I came to deeply enjoy them as well, as at least the story-critical ones always felt fair and novel. The solutions would often require outside–the-box thinking, such as one that requires you to ignore the complicated series of tubes out of which a foul odor is coming and simply use the two corks you’re given to plug the nose of the distressed person. Fun, clever puzzles like these are littered throughout the games, and I credit myself easily acing my college logic class to the practice the games gave me.

We have Akira Tago to thank for these ingenious puzzles, as he was credited as the series’ “Puzzle Master” for all six main titles. A psychologist and creator of the “Atama no Taisou” puzzle book series, which he started in 1966, Tago joined the Professor Layton team starting with its first entry, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, in 2008, and continued to create puzzles for the series until the final entry of the prequel series, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, in 2014. Just two years later, in 2016, Tago would pass away at the age of 90.

The next Professor Layton game, aside from a crossover with Phoenix Wright, would come in the form of Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires’ Conspiracy, which released for smartphones and 3DS in 2017 and was ported to the Switch in 2019. Starring not the professor but a new character we eventually find out to be his daughter, Katrielle, the game features all-new characters, including a talking dog, and a more episodic structure that contains a series of smaller mysteries instead of one big overarching story.

Not only did I find this new approach to storytelling disappointing, as the original games had deeply engaging, moving stories, but I also found the puzzles, now designed by a new puzzle master since Tago had passed away, lacked the same level of quality. They were either comically easy to solve, or too obtuse and unintuitive. There was also an anime series that aired between 2018 and 2019 starring Katrielle, but given my disappointment with the game and lacking any legitimate way to watch the series, I never did so.

That takes us to February 2023, where it had been six years since the last entry in the series, and nine years since the last main entry (and the last one that was actually good). Given that the series has been on its longest break ever, and that its developer, Level-5, announced in 2020 that it was effectively shutting down in North America, it seemed that Professor Layton was dead, and never coming back.

Then the Feb. 8 Nintendo Direct happened, and with it came a very brief cinematic trailer showing none other than the professor himself around a bunch of steam-powered vehicles, with the title Professor Layton and the New World of Steam. We know next to nothing else about the game, but it was easily the biggest surprise of the Direct for me, as I had believed the series was truly never coming back.

The question is, should it come back? Some might argue that a full story has already been told through both trilogies, and that the most recent title proved that the series had become stale, both through its inferior story and puzzles, the two elements that make up the entirety of what made the games so special. I have my reservations because of this, but after so many years of being starved for a Professor Layton game, I just hope that this time away from the series has allowed Level-5 to evaluate what makes their games so great, and return to the formula that worked.

Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and Looper. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.

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