Professor Layton and the Curious Village
For: Nintendo DS
From: Level 5/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)
The Nintendo DS’ library is in no danger of slowing its growth in the near or seemingly distant future. And yet, it is almost tantalizingly arguable that the curiously-named “Professor Layton and the Curious Village” represents the culmination of whatever experimental mission Nintendo set on when it first unveiled the device four years ago.
Classification-wise, “Village” is overwhelmingly a puzzle game first and anything else second. In this case, though, the puzzles are of the pure brainteaser sort — true riddles that speak more to Nintendo’s “Brain Age” games than anything in the “Tetris” vein.
The diverse nature of “Village’s” 120 or so riddles is enough to give the stylus-only controls a flexible workout. The riddles ramp up in challenge fairly quickly, and each incorrect answer penalizes your reward for cracking the case. Fortunately, an optional hint system and the complete absence of time limits mean you can take as long as you need to find a solution. That eliminates any temptation to revert to guesswork, which in turn lets you reap the tangible satisfaction that comes with taking down a particularly daunting brainteaser.
Compounding this satisfaction is the way these challenges are packaged. That “Village” dresses its riddles inside of a back story is nothing revolutionary; games do that all the time. But the amount of care and quality that went into this particular story — we’re talking cut-scenes, complete with hand-drawn animation sequences and terrific voice acting — elevates it to another other level in that regard.
In fact, at least to the eye, “Village” is as much a point-and-click adventure game as a collection of riddles. The story moves ahead linearly, but you almost always can skip puzzles that have you stumped and return to them later. Like any good game in the point-and-click genre, “Village” hides plenty of surprises among its attractive environments, and uncovering every last puzzle is easily as much fun as seeing the surprisingly lengthy story to its end.
“Village’s” only possible knock would be the inability to replay it, but that’s an unavoidable problem. Once you solve a riddle, you simply aren’t likely to forget how you did it. Amazingly, Level 5 neutralizes this problem by providing new, weekly puzzles that are completely free to download if your DS is online-capable. “Village” has been available in Japan for a year and the downloads haven’t stopped yet, so there’s almost zero doubt American gamers will inherit the same incredible generosity.
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Bizarre Creations/Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)
“The Club” is a fun game stuck in an obnoxious game’s body. And if you can will yourself into ignoring the obnoxious part — which, incidentally, is also the game’s purported selling point — you might find a way to enjoy what’s left.
At its base, “The Club” is a typical third-person shooter with a typical premise: stay alive and reach the end of a level — in some cases, before time runs out.
The hook, in this case, is that in addition to being shot at, you’re being scored as well. “The Club” rewards you points for stylish and impressive kills, and rewards you exponentially more for stringing those kills together. Achieving a target score is as paramount as staying alive. Total mastery means constantly sprinting through the levels, taking down enemies as quickly as possible without any thought to taking cover, finding secret areas, or doing other things that come naturally in other shooters.
Unfortunately, this mastery comes with a price, and that price’s name is fun. “The Club” is made well, with better-than-average controls, fun level designs and enough weaponry to make an army blush. But when excelling at the game means mindlessly scrambling through that well-made level, ignoring most of that weaponry and doing more to appease a combo meter that fades entirely too quickly while your character all-too-slowly reloads his gun, it goes mostly to waste. “The Club” would have been far better off prioritizing shooting proficiency over simple recklessness instead of vice versa. (See “Stranglehold” for an example of how much better that reverse balance works.)
Fortunately, though it’s obnoxiously noisy, the combo system can be ignored if you’d rather play at a more intellectually engaging pace. Achieving target scores is practically automatic if you play well enough to survive, so you can brush the whole system aside unless you’re bent on topping the leaderboards. Given the complete lack of back story in the tournament mode, it’s not clear why you’d even want that top score, though the pursuit does add some replay value to an otherwise short experience.
Things are a little more familiar on the multiplayer front, where a host of traditional modes join a mode that prioritizes the combo system over all else. “The Club’s” sound technical design translates well to the online arena, though only time will tell if the niche concept prevents it from achieving the level of community needed to give the multiplayer any lasting value.