It's not often game franchises get to die with dignity. Guitar Hero didn't get to die until Activision bled it dry and killed the entire plastic- instrument genre with it. Final Fantasy, once a bastion of quality in a sea of ho-hum RPGs, is something like fourteen-and-a-half tortured installments deep into a series whose glory days are long past. It took the combined threat of three mostly-lame games to kill the Mana series, only for it to rise again as a free-to-play mobile game. So when Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy was announced as the last Professor Layton game, I took notice. A series I love was about to end on its own terms, and I was ready to hate. There was no way this wasn’t a last ditch attempt by Level 5 to avoid driving Layton into the ground.
Turns out they were just proving that he could still soar, one last time.
For those new to the Layton series, there have been six games, as well as a mobile spin-off over the last seven years, starting with Professor Layton and the Mysterious Village in 2007. They’re pretty simple affairs, point-and-click adventure games in the classic Lucasarts style, but stuffed to bursting with logic puzzles. Every character in the world is ready to drop some creative math problems on you, just you wait. Azran Legacy is the sixth Layton game, the end to a trilogy of prequels that take place before the first game, and purportedly the end of the series. To be fair, this isn’t actually the last game, technically speaking. Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney is miraculously coming to western shores next month, but that came out before Azran Legacy in its native Japan. Also, there’s Layton 7, but that looks like some sort of mobile-based farmville knockoff for now, not the top-hatted puzzler I know and love. Azran Legacy is the end of the Professor Layton series as we know it though.
As you’d expect, when you make six games in seven years, there’s not a lot of room for innovation. The formula hasn’t really changed much since 2007. In fact, longtime fans might start the story thinking they’re suffering from a bout of deja-vu. Professor Layton and his entourage (earnest apprentice Luke and butt-kicking assistant Emmy) receive a letter from a fellow archaeology professor who’s uncovered a “living mummy”. From there, they go on an adventure wherein they save the world, mostly through solving ludicrous mysteries and finding out exactly how many sheep an absent minded farmer has.
Speaking of mysteries, Layton is renowned for its insane eleventh hour plot twists and Azran Legacy does not disappoint. The writers are in top form on this one, with not one, not two, but six bonkers Layton-signature plot twists for each of their main mysteries. For those keeping track at home, Professor Layton once resolved a plot by explaining everyone was high on mine gas the whole time.
So why six mysteries? Well, in what sounds like a design choice made while desperately trying to understand what appeals to westerners, Azran Legacy is an open world game. After a few hours, Layton and company have their choice of five areas to explore, each hiding an Azran Egg, the magical macguffins you’ve been sent to find. You can tackle these areas in any order you like, or hop between them at your leisure with the fast travel provided by your airship. It sounds sort of pointless, but it manages to solve two of the series’ biggest issues in one fell swoop. First, it takes away the one massive area you navigate throughout the game. One of my biggest complaints with the last game, Miracle Mask, was that by the end of the game you were spending 5 minutes just trying to get around its enormous city. Having a handful of smaller areas lets each be tighter, more navigable, and cuts backtracking almost entirely out of the equation.
The other bonus is more themed puzzles. Part of Layton’s charm has always been theming its puzzles around the areas you play them in. Card and gambling puzzles in the casino, boat puzzles by the lake, that sort of thing. Each area is a different part of the world, so Spanish riviera-style San Grio is going have significantly different puzzles than Torrido’s take on Texas. It’s cute and fixes the issue that it was often hard to tell if you were getting any better at certain puzzle types in previous games. Segmenting puzzles like that gives a real sense of progression, where you’ll find three puzzles of the same type in one area, not scattered around the world so far from each other you forget how to solve them. Of course, you'd be hard pressed to solve them all, since Azran Legacy keeps up the series tradition of stuffing the game with something like 200 puzzles, plus free daily downloadable puzzles for the next year. This one's going to last you a while.
Those puzzles, by the way, are pretty much spectacular. The puzzlemasters at Level 5 have really outdone themselves here, with clever, challenging puzzles that rarely overstay their welcome. Also, there seem to be less math-focused puzzles, which is a welcome boon to my number-numb brain. If brain teasers and logic puzzles don’t set your heart afire, Azran Legacy isn’t going to win you over, there’s nothing new here. After six of these games though, you’d expect them to really nail puzzle design, and Azran Legacy doesn't live down expectations. There’s not one gimmick puzzle focused on closing the 3DS lid, or blowing into the microphone, or viewing something in 3D in the whole game. They’ve cut out the more irrelevant minigames from Miracle Mask, like horse racing, and top-down dungeon crawling. No puzzle type gets more than three or four uses, and even those permutations get real clever. There’s a puzzle about seals balancing balls that can really throw you for a loop the last time it pops up. The game isn’t necessarily innovating, but it is refining. It’s polishing bone.
As usual, the art is beautiful, with that unique Triplets of Belleville meets ligne claire style that no one seems to be able to replicate. They also managed to knock 3D effects out of the park on this one, if that’s your bag. Some of the areas, like the waterfall in Phong Gi, the jungle area, look absolutely incredible with the 3D slider on. I often found myself poking around environments, then turning on 3D just to see how they looked. Also up to par is the dialogue, which remains charming and well written, if occasionally poorly voice acted. Characters from pretty much every game in the series pop their heads in to say goodbye here, so long time fans will get a nostalgic kick out of seeing old Inspector Chelmey bumbling around the world again, though some cameos don’t really serve any purpose.
There are moments when Azran Legacy shines even brighter though. Moments when you realize how special it all is. At one point, Layton and Luke take it upon themselves to make a tribal chieftain laugh, so the professor puts on a duck bill, and in a lavishly animated cutscene, belts out a deadpan “quack”. Then, for the next few minutes of game time, Layton is still wearing the duck bill on his model. They not only prioritized a full anime cutscene for a one-off gag, they also made sure to model the prop for the game proper. It’s ridiculous and silly, but altogether charming in a refreshing way. Layton cares so little about being a “mass market appeal” game. You solve all your problems with puzzles, you talk to squirrels about their day, you never even harm a fly. The graphics are a PlayStation 1-style mix of 2D and 3D that work because of how gorgeous the cel-shaded art style is. Layton makes no overtures to capture the Call of Duty aesthetic everyone is going for these days, nor does it care about courting the Candy Crush players who everyone’s after. It knows that it’s all coming to an end, but since it gets to end on its own terms, it isn’t changing a thing about itself for anyone.
Other than the parade of cast members from games gone by though, it was often easy to forget that its the last Layton game, because it never really made a big deal of it. While it wraps up the lingering plot threads of the previous two games (as well as brings the movie into canon), and ties it all together with a suitably epic finale, it doesn’t really require you to know any of that. It could be a standalone game if it really wanted to. Maybe because it has to directly lead into the first game in the series, it never lingers too long on a melancholy note. Azran Legacy doesn’t really seem to mind dying very much. It doesn’t relish it by any means, but it feels like the designers took a special sort of dignity in getting to go out on a high note, and they don’t waste it on pointless call backs.
After six games, there’s not much left to do, and Azran Legacy refines the Layton formula down to the bone. There’s no fat left here anymore. There are no flaws left to fix. It’s unapologetic in its finality, almost as if to say “this is it, this is perfect Layton, and if you don’t like it now, then you never will.” And, it basically is the perfect Professor Layton game. It’s not quite my favourite, Unwound Future’s plot twist is hard to beat, and I could listen to its puzzle duel music all day, but Azran Legacy is better than any of its predecessors in almost every conceivable way. The puzzles are spectacular, the world is finally manageable, the script is wonderfully charming, and even though the art style already made the polygonal jump perfectly in Miracle Mask, Azran Legacy ups the ante with incredible 3D effects and beautiful backdrops. It’s not going to convert any haters, but Azran Legacy is perfect, pure, Professor Layton. No frills, no gimmicks. I can’t think of a more fitting send off for a true gentleman.
VERDICT: Thumbs up!
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