Professor Layton and the Last Specter review: The weakest game in the series is still a blast to play

This puzzle adventure had some pretty big shoes to fill, yet I’d hoped Professor Layton and the Last Specter would somehow top the excellence of last year’s Layton game, Unwound Future. That didn’t happen. What I experienced was 15 hours of great puzzles (with more content available for extended play), charming atmosphere and top-notch production values. The only thing missing was a truly compelling, surprising story to tie it all together, and that’s where this game stumbles a bit in comparison to the first three Layton games.

I know Unwound Future’s a tough act to follow; it’s on my top 10 list of favorite games, and it featured an amazing, emotional powerhouse of an ending…and a great epilogue as well!

Before I start venting on Last Specter’s story (in a spoiler-free manner), I’ll say this: Last Specter delivers fantastic puzzle gameplay, beautiful artwork and music and the wittiest dialogue the series has seen to date. You can purchase this game secure in the guarantee that you’ll meet quirky, lovable eccentrics, be stumped many times by imaginative puzzles and lose yourself once again in the unique, charming, sometimes creepy world of Professor Layton. If you’re already a fan, by all means pick this up. If you’ve never played a Layton game, don’t start with this one; go straight to the best and get Unwound Future.

The problems with Last Specter’s story begin with the opening two hours of play, in which absolutely nothing thrilling or intriguing happens. I believe the game’s creators were aware of the problem, for they chose to start things off with a preview cinema of the game’s first specter attack. This succeeds in getting you curious enough to plow through the game’s sluggish first chapters, but it also ruins the big reveal and removes any kind of suspense regarding the game’s central boogie man as you eventually catch up and watch that same cinema for the second time.

I hate to say this, but’unlike the first three Layton games’there’s a definite “Scooby-Doo” feel to Specter’s central plot. A giant phantom keeps attacking the town! Jinkies! All the mysteries in the game’s first half are predictable and obvious, which shouldn’t happen in a Layton tale. I remained patient, knowing that eventually we’d get to the big “Laytonesque” moment where things get really weird, fun, exciting and unpredictable. When the big moment came…Well, I can’t give it away, so I’ll just say that Last Specter is, by far, my least favorite Professor Layton story. I found the ending supremely unsatisfying, and that’s a Layton first for me.

Yet, everything else about this game is great! The mini-game extras are excellent, though a bit too much like the bonuses from Unwound Future. My favorite is actually playable within the main story as you help a police officer catch rodents in a shooting gallery-style tap challenge.

A big new addition is a complete separate game that’s included on the cartridge: Little London. It’s an Animal-Crossing style game set in Layton’s world. It’s well done, but the simple (and tiny) 16-bit style characters don’t convey the main game’s charm, and I can’t imagine many people pouring too much time into Little London before moving on to something grander.

I realize this has been a slightly odd game review where all the major complaints revolve around the story. Gameplay comes first, right? But all the Professor Layton games play exactly the same. At this point, we know the puzzles will be fantastic. We know the minigames and bonuses will be fun. The only real variable is the story, which makes up half the content of these wonderful adventures. When the story has major problems and loose ends, the motivation for playing starts to unravel, the characters become less believable, and you’re just left with a series of awesome puzzles in a nicely painted environment.

That said, sub-par Layton still beats 99% of every other game on the planet. So, here’s the bottom line: Professor Layton and the Last Specter is a solid game full of the series’ charming style, but the story lacks the creepiness of Curious Village, the dark Hitchcock-like mystery of Diabolical Box, or the mindbending fun and knockout ending of Unwound Future. Pick it up if you’re a fan and you’ll have a blast.  Just lower your expectations if you played last year’s masterpiece.

If you’re currently playing or have finished Last Specter, what do you think? Am I judging the story too harshly? Am I way off base’Did you really enjoy what happened there in the last acts? Please try to keep any comments spoiler-free!