Monte d’Or, the City of Miracles, has in a short space of time gone from a desert oasis to a hugely popular tourist destination. With its many hotels, casinos and a circus, it is a round-the-year party town where everyone can just relax and enjoy themselves. But recently a pall has been cast over this haven of jollity. A strange figure known only as “The Masked Gentleman” has been performing bizarre, even threatening miracles around the town. As Professor Layton investigates these mysterious happenings in his fifth adventure, The Miracle Mask, he finds old friends and acquaintances and must face up to events from his youth. Whilst the setting leaps into the third dimension for the first time on the Nintendo 3DS, and the usual array of great production values, puzzles and minigames are on offer, some story elements strain credulity and the odd questionable new feature has been added to the mix.
If you simply enjoy the independent puzzling of the previous Layton instalments and have never really worried about the story, then you probably don’t need to read any further. Whilst you will want to have played at least the previous episode to follow the overarching story, the pattern of the series remains largely unchanged here. The Professor still faces a grand overall mystery – this time about a man with apparently magical powers – which is once more split into twelve sub-mysteries solved one by one as the story progresses. Advancing the story largely involves solving standalone puzzles, with the endgame requiring you to have solved a certain number to advance. The overall graphical look is the same fine art cartoon style as the previous outings. Series veterans will once again find magnificent buildings and varied characters, and the cutscene animations continue to be of movie quality.
The move to 3D involves largely cosmetic tweaks, but that’s not to say that the developers have simply made cardboard stand-ups of the buildings and called it a day. The scenery has a fully 3D look, from the gracious curves of the Montsarton gallery to the more functional facade of the local police station. Where an object is positioned at an angle to the viewer, the 3D effect representing one end as further back than the other also works well. The display is further enhanced by layers of scenery, with buildings in the background clearly placed behind the ones you are interacting with. Overall, the scenery represents one of the most impressive uses of the 3D effect I have seen to date. This is also evident in the cinematics; the release of a cloud of balloons in the opening scene demonstrates the new 3D effect to the full.
Sadly, the characters have not fared so well from the transition when they appear close up during conversations and certain cutscenes. Whilst still having an overall 3D look, the lesser detail mars the general effect, the characters appearing more like the people-shaped balloons that form part of the city’s parades, rather than living and breathing individuals. This is especially obvious with faces, where the expressions seem to have been painted onto otherwise smooth surfaces. The detailed backgrounds around them only serve to exaggerate this difference, making you try to focus on one or the other to ignore the jarring mismatch.
Navigation and interaction have seen some minor changes, the most notable being that whilst you still use the touch-screen to interact, this now moves a cursor on a scene reproduction on the top screen. The cursor highlights over interactive items, which makes finding those elusive hint coins easier. A new “zoom” option has also been added, allowing you to focus in on a particular area, but this seems a largely pointless addition. Had it allowed you to more closely examine the interesting details of a scene, this could have been something worthwhile. Instead, the zoom actually takes you to a new area, such as an alley between two buildings, and reveals items not even seen in miniature in the main view. Since opportunities to zoom are almost always blatantly pointed out, the only difference between this and normal travelling is that the zoomed locations do not show on the map.
On the sound front, the move to 3DS has not resulted in any major changes. The voice actors for the lead characters from previous games reprise their roles here, including Layton’s second assistant Emmy, and they continue to perform well. They are ably supported by a cast of new characters, such as some rough and ready clowns and the aristocratic Ledores. As in previous instalments, full voice-work is reserved for cutscenes and a handful of important conversations, but the acting standard remains high. The game also has the same quality orchestral musical soundtrack. Quiet strings back the gentler parts of the action whilst more lively pieces kick in for dramatic scenes.
The story continues from the The Last Specter/The Spectre’s Call, and you will come across more evidence of the ancient Azran civilisation over the course of the game. The Masked Gentleman makes for an intriguing antagonist, apparently imbued with powers that will make him impossible to catch. The possible supernatural nature of the mask he wears, and its place in Layton’s own history, prove interesting hooks. By the end of the game you will have brought closure to this mystery, but that sets up a grander quest to be covered in the next game. The town of Monte d’Or is also close to the Professor’s hometown, and there are several chapters which take place in the past as he tells tales of his youth. Many of the young characters you meet in these historical chapters also appear as adults in the present, linking the two parts of the story together well.Continued on the next page...