With the Nintendo 3DS finally seeming to establish itself with some proper titles, Professor Layton and the Last Spectre is quite possibly the final major release for Nintendo's beloved handheld system, the Nintendo DS. It's perhaps fitting in a way, as the Professor Layton series was born on the system and has been able to build itself up as one of the system's most beloved franchises.
Though in part the game may feel familiar, there have been some delightful additions to Professor Layton and the Last Spectre that lift the game into the territory of the amazing. It's a love letter to the Nintendo DS and represents everything that handheld gaming can and should be about to the highest level.
It's kind of amusing that the last Professor Layton title to hit the Nintendo DS is actually a prequel to the entire series. Professor Layton and the Last Spectre tells the story of how Layton and Luke first bonded via a series of improbable events in the town of Misthallery. When the Professor receives a secret letter from Luke asking for help in ridding his hometown of a horrific spectre that once protected the town but now destroys houses and terrifies people, Layton naturally answers the call. Aided by his assistant Emmy, Layton realises quickly that something very odd is afoot - Luke's father is acting strangely, while his mother seems to have disappeared. As the story unfolds, many more strange elements are added - greed, suicide, corruption, and, of course, the spectre hell-bent on destroying town every single foggy night. The themes that it deals with make it the darkest yet also the most plausible Professor Layton story yet.
As far as puzzles go, again there are quite a few new ones, but all once more involve your mind as the most potent weapon in solving them, as opposed to reflexes or thinking on the spot. The Last Spectre seems to have a bit more of an emphasis on puzzles using spatial awareness skills, in addition to a lot of riddles and pattern recognition. The gulf between puzzle difficulty seems to be a lot larger this time around and you'll be glad that you have a bunch of hint coins at your disposal. One significant tweak of puzzles is that there are quizzes every so often that must be solved to progress through the game which also serve to refresh players on the story so far. If you've played Hotel Dusk or Last Window you'll recognise a similar format to those two games and their end of chapter reviews. On top of the puzzle there are three new trunk minigames to try out in The Last Spectre - a train track laying game, a coin collecting game using fish and a puppet theatre. Out of the three the puppet theatre gained the most laughs. The puppet theatre has you input collected words into a play's script to make a performance flow as it should, and the results when you put in the wrong word are often hilarious to behold. Another addition to the trunk are unlockable episodes - cinematics that fill in some plot points from various parts of the game, many involving secondary characters but others fleshing out bits of the tale when the likes of Luke, Layton and Emmy become separated.
There are two other minor but welcome additions to Professor Layton and the Last Spectre that fans of the series are sure to appreciate in terms of improving basic gameplay. You can now move around the trunk and the footstep icon on the main screen by simply pressing and holding onto them with your stylus and dragging them to your desired position. This allows players to not only soak in every pixel of the beautifully rendered backgrounds but also allows for a greater area to be searched when it comes to collecting hint coins and seeking out elusive hidden objects and puzzles. As well as this, the memo screen now includes more colours, which makes tracing puzzles a much easier task.
The biggest new addition to Professor Layton and the Last Spectre is undoubtedly the add-on RPG London Life. Apparently European copies of the game won't include it due to the difficulties in translating into so many languages, but Australia somehow managed to snare what is essentially the US version of the game, hence its inclusion for us. To say that it's expansive is a gross understatement. Touted as having 100+ hours of total playtime, London Life would please many as a standalone download game in its own right. London Life features a plethora of characters from all the Professor Layton titles to date, including the movie Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva. After creating your own avatar, you progress through the game via a series of tasks aimed at increasing your overall happiness rating. If you've played any of the Animal Crossing games then the format will ring familiar. All of the characters in the game have their own unique things to say, and even clicking on the many objects to be found in the town will result in various descriptions coupled with a deadpan witty script.
Professor Layton and the Last Spectre is as visually sumptuous as all of the other games in the series thus far. The navigation sections are given their usual level of detail, with a greater emphasis on objects that move of their own accord, as well as a greater range of things being done by NPCs which give them a bit more character. One particular character has a habit of trying (and failing) to hide in amongst the general scenery, and it's fun to watch them bob up and down in anxiousness. The fog effect whenever the spectre is due to attack within the game is also quite impressive for a handheld console. And, as always, the cutscenes themselves are like watching a movie in their own right, with the final scenes of the game revealing a location with amazing detail and beauty. Meanwhile, London Life is largely sprite-based and reminiscent of a 16-bit RPG of old. It's not of the same visual splendour as the main game, but it is still very much charming in its own way and detailed enough that characters are easily distinguishable and recognisable. Likewise, the sounds of Professor Layton and the Last Spectre remain of a very high calibre. Voice acting is solid all around, with the professor himself being the standout, though all of the supporting characters are voiced with clear fun and enthusiasm as well.
There is a wealth of content in Professor Layton and the Last Spectre that makes it one of the best value games on any console at the moment. Not only are there over 150 puzzles to track down and solid minigames, the usual wealth of unlockable content is also present, alongside free weekly puzzles that can be downloaded via the Nintendo WFC. All of this extra content is, of course, nicely augmented by London Life. If it was ever on a home console, a lot of these extras would likely end up being acquired as paied DLC, and the fact that they're all 100% free here makes them all the more joyful to play.
Professor Layton and the Last Spectre is truly the last great game for the Nintendo DS released in this region. A prequel that works just as well as other entries in the series, The Last Spectre is most certainly Layton-esque through and through - it's funny, moving and pure charm and class all the way. The London Life RPG is a worthy addition that could stand on its own, and the extras outside of the main game are astonishingly good. The controls, sound and visuals are the apex of what the DS is able to offer. Long live the Nintendo DS, and long live Professor Layton