40 years into the digital revolution, most people think they understand what a video game is. When they think of a video game they mostly think of two extremes: Mario jumping on things or bloody violence. In the popular imagination, gaming still struggles to advance to anything that has any amount of storytelling or challenges their mind in any way beyond twitch gaming.
Of course, those of us who play regularly understand what a video game truly is and it’s power to make us look at things in new and exciting ways. We understand the thrill of victory. We understand what it’s like to cry at something that happens onscreen (don’t laugh, you probably cried when Aeris died). We understand gaming’s ability to connect on a different level than merely the part of our brain that makes us happy when we’re doing something fun. How can we explain that to non-gamers without sounding totally ridiculous?
Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box may be a great way to get that reluctant gamer in your family to understand why we play. It might also convert them into devotees of our hobby as well, which is something that’s always welcome. What makes the new Professor Layton game better than it’s predecessor and a better launching point for someone than the first one?
In the latest adventures of the titular Professor Layton and his sidekick Luke, Professor Layton’s mentor is found dead after opening an artifact called the Elysian Box. The box is missing, and the only clue they have is a train ticket aboard the Molentary Express, one of the most opulent trains in all of England. What killed Layton’s mentor? Where does this train ticket lead? Along the way, Layton runs into different people from the first game, like the daft Inspector Chelmey and the girl with a secret, Flora.
I played the first Professor Layton and did not come away impressed. Sure, there was a good story underneath it all, but I felt much like Penny Arcade did: In order to walk from one side of the freaking town to the other side I was accosted by all manner of ridiculous puzzles. On top of that, I found many of the puzzles so difficult that I ended up setting The Curious Village aside and never playing it again.
Maybe I was in a different frame of mind with The Diabolical Box, but the puzzles, while still a little forced, felt a lot more natural. Plus, the puzzles in this one seemed easier for some reason. Some of the puzzles in The Diabolical Box also expect you to overthink them, which makes catches you off guard at first. You’ll think, “The solution can’t possibly be that easy,” and then you’ll find that it is. That’s why they call them riddles, I suppose. I think that another main cause for this game seeming easier is because I was concentrating on this game more, which made the puzzles easier because I could actually think about them. This is not a game for twitch gamers; The Diabolical Box is a game, appropriately enough, for a quiet tea-time with a crumpet at your side. (Whatever a crumpet is.)
The Diabolical Box also benefits from much higher production values than the first game. There are more animated cutscenes, more voice acting (which is top-notch), and more interesting locations to visit. Instead of confining you to one village (however curious it might be), Professor Layton takes you to several different locales, from the opulent Molentary Express to the mysterious town of Folsense. Everything is rendered very lovingly, with a lot of detail.
In fact, sometimes, there’s too much detail for the little DS screen to handle. I found myself wishing for an in-game magnifying glass, especially on some of the more detail-oriented puzzles. There was one in particular that vexed me. It asked me to put four photographs in order from oldest to youngest. I had to use all of my hints in order to figure it out since the photos were each so small that you could barely see any differences. Still, if the problem is that the designers are putting too much love into their product, I think I can handle that.
The music is also enchanting. That sounds like a ridiculous word to use, but it fits with a game like The Diabolical Box. The music is full of mystery and excitement while being incredibly classy. I haven’t even touched on the story yet, which goes into places you wouldn’t expect and will take about 8-10 hours to play through. It’ll keep you guessing throughout. The room actually got a little dusty at the end of the story, which is a rarity in gaming.
That’s not to mention all the extras that they’ve thrown into the Professor Layton mix. There are a bunch of minigames, like a fat hamster that you have to exercise by placing various items around his cage. There’s a tea-making game where you mix various ingredients to create teas, where Layton and Luke’s hilarious exchanges about bad teas are worth reading. Put another way, after finishing the 150+ puzzles that The Diabolical Box has to offer there’s still more to enjoy, not to mention that they’ve seen fit to include new weekly downloadable puzzles once again.
With all that being said, why am I touting this game as a great entry point for non-gamers? For a couple of reasons. One, it combines some of the best qualities of point-and-click adventure games. You can’t die. You’re not stressfully mashing buttons. You can take your time and think about where to go next. Secondly, the puzzles are clever but also easier than the first Professor Layton. That won’t turn off people who might have been put off by the original game like I was. Thirdly, it’s all wrapped around a very interesting narrative which will allow non-gamers to see that games are more than just a guy in a red hat stepping on things or an angry man with a chainsaw killing aliens. It’s not an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride, but a quietly contemplative tea-fueled mid-afternoon diversion for gentlemen and ladies of good breeding and manners. I mean that in the absolute best way possible, and I should also note that my wife has been making me watch far too many Jane Austen movies.