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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy- This is the End, Top-Hatted Friend

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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy- This is the End, Top-Hatted Friend

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.

They're just as happy to hear that as you are, trust me.

They're just as happy to hear that as you are, trust me.

Layton 7, or: How I learned to Start Worrying about Mobile Spinoffs

Layton 7, or: How I learned to Start Worrying about Mobile Spinoffs

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.

Hint: D doesn't have any tokens, so he'd really appreciate if he could bum one off you. He's good for it though.

Hint: D doesn't have any tokens, so he'd really appreciate if he could bum one off you. He's good for it though.

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.

San Grio, a gorgeous crossbreed of Venice and the Spanish riviera, is obsessed with eggs. Eggs as far the eye can see. Eggs.

San Grio, a gorgeous crossbreed of Venice and the Spanish riviera, is obsessed with eggs. Eggs as far the eye can see. Eggs.

I can't imagine there are many master thieves who also happen to be obsessed with math, Maybe in Gotham city?

I can't imagine there are many master thieves who also happen to be obsessed with math, Maybe in Gotham city?

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.

Why doesn't every game look like Professor Layton? Right, we can't have nice things.

Why doesn't every game look like Professor Layton? Right, we can't have nice things.

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.

"Quack."

"Quack."

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.

Remember kids, never except candy from strangers. Unless they offer you a puzzle first, then you know they're okay.

Remember kids, never except candy from strangers. Unless they offer you a puzzle first, then you know they're okay.

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.

This is the end, top-hatted friend. This is the end, my gentleman friend, this is the end.

This is the end, top-hatted friend. This is the end, my gentleman friend, this is the end.

VERDICT: Thumbs up!

(Built to Play uses a simple, binary rating system. These aren't product reviews, but we do want to tell you where to best spend your time and money. So, if something is worth your time, it gets a thumbs up, if not, thumbs down.)

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Has the Best 10 Seconds of Any Game Ever

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Has the Best 10 Seconds of Any Game Ever

[Major Spoilers for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, if you haven’t played it yet, DO THAT NOW. It’s a spectacular game.]

 

There’s a moment in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons that reminded me why I love videogames. In fact, it left such a huge impact on me that I’m pretty sure that it’s the single best 10-15 seconds of any videogame. Ever.

It’s a solo co-op game, with the left stick and trigger controlling the older brother, and the right stick and trigger controlling the younger. It requires some impressive brain gymnastics to get the hang of controlling two characters at once, both moving independently of each other and focused on completing different tasks. Games have trained us over the years to be excellent at controlling a single object, possibly with some subservient followers, probably because moving two figures at once, with no relation between their movements is hard.

 "Brothers is confident that it can teach you how to work as a team with yourself"

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Beyond just videogames not training us for this, I’m pretty sure the human brain isn’t wired for this kind of job. People who have never played videogames before often have trouble working a first person shooter, since it requires the player to operate two axes of movement independently of each other. The abstract task of controlling even a single figure on a screen is too much for most people. Not to mention the fact that we’re terrible at multitasking in general, even when it’s something as simple as patting our heads and rubbing our bellies at once. So when it comes to controlling two characters at the same time, it’s not surprising that the majority of the first chunk of the game is spent making your characters run into walls and stumble around each other.

But, Brothers is confident that it can teach you how to work as a team with yourself, and that confidence isn’t just bluster. As the game goes on, you get better and better at controlling the brothers, better and better at working in unison with yourself. It’s an impressive feat of game design, but what’s more impressive is how they tie it in to the narrative.

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Brothers tells its story with out a single word of dialog, at least not that anyone can understand. Characters speak a fantasy babble language that sounds vaguely like simlish. The only words I could make out by the end were (what I assume are) the names of the two brothers. It’s a simple story, two brothers go on a quest to find the water of life, which will save their dying father. The journey goes about as well as you’d expect for two children, with moments of triumph and wonder punctuated by loss and danger at every turn. It’s a story of love, brotherhood, and loss, but manages to get your to care about its characters without ever saying a single word to you.

Not only that, but as you play the game, you get better and better at controlling the two brothers in unison, to the point where it becomes second nature. The game is teaching you how to do it through practice, but what it ends up looking like is that the journey these two brothers go on brings them closer and closer, until they don’t make mistakes, they know what the other is thinking, and they become a perfect team. It’s as if they share a brain. Of course, they do. It’s your brain they share. But there’s a little more to it.

At the beginning of the game, there’s a cutscene which shows the younger brother on a boat, trying to save his mother from drowning. The scene ends with him woken up by the older brother, calling him away from their mother’s grave to help carry their father to someone who can help.

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Later on, you encounter water, and the younger brother refuses to go in. At first I thought it was because he couldn’t swim, but I realized very quickly it was because he was afraid of water, because he watched his mother drown, and the concept of being in water now terrified him. In order to get him to swim, the older brother has to enter, then the younger brother has to walk near him and grab his back. You hold down the right trigger to have the younger brother hold on, and then swim with the left stick. It’s a pretty simple action, all things considered, but it means something a little bigger. The younger brother relies on his elder, he’s useless without him, he needs him to help him get over his fears and contribute. It’s an extremely subtle moment of character development, and amazing that it’s told almost entirely through player interaction.

Later in the game, the older brother dies. The brothers make it to the tree where the water of life is kept, but the older brother doesn’t hold out long enough for the younger can make it back with the water of life in time to save him. Thus, the younger brother, now the only brother, has to head back to save his father alone.

Brothers_Hero.jpg

On the way back, the younger brother comes across a river. Walking up to the river elicits the same reaction from the younger brother as it always did He shakes his head no and tries to turn away. He still refuses to walk into the water, no matter how many times you try to press his action button. Ever since the two brothers separated at the tree of life, the game only has you use the right stick and trigger, the buttons that once controlled the older brother are useless. But now, standing in front of the river, you realize that they do have a use.

Pressing the left trigger, the older brother’s action button, makes the younger brother jump in the river and swim across as fast as he can. It’s stormy, the waters are choppy, but he swims across, crying the whole way.

It doesn’t seem like much, I know, but it’s those ten seconds of swimming across a river that drove home every single one of the game’s themes. Every leg of the brother’s journey is about love and how it changes people. A troll helps you along your way, but then throws you into mines in order to save his beloved. You free another troll only for her to run away, forcing you to deal with her captors. She returns and offers her help, realizing you were sent by her husband. You free a strange-griffin like creature, which in return for your help, flies you across a chasm before dying, loving freedom until its last breath. The older brother falls for a girl you save, and stops listening to his younger brother, the person with which he essentially shares a soul. Ignoring his brother’s advice costs the older brother his life. His love for the girl made him ignore his love for his brother, and changed him for the worse. I could write essays upon essays about all of the individual thematic moments in Brothers, and why they’re all so spectacular. They’re all little parables, almost fable-like in how they express their themes without any dialog, just gameplay.

"Hitting a button reminded me why I love videogames."

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In the end, pressing that trigger to make the younger brother swim is the final point the game has to make about brotherhood, love and loss. Love can make you stronger, it can change you, but it can also ruin you, in the case of the older brother. Loss can make you weak, and useless, like the younger brother who can’t even swim without help. But brotherhood is stronger than any of these forces, a permanent bond that ties two people together, through love, loss, death and anything else the world can throw at them. In ten seconds, the game throws all of that at you. With one button press, the game puts you in charge of putting the thematic conclusion on the entire game. Hitting a button reminded me why I love videogames. Why a medium that can affect you through your own interaction with a story is worthwhile. Why interactivity can enhance a story.

 

Ten seconds reminded me that videogames can be amazing, and that makes them the best ten seconds of any videogame ever.

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