Product Type: Nintendo Nintendo DS games
Newest Review: ... your way through the game puzzles. The second feature is even better. Pandora's Box has a fairly open structure. If you can't s... more
Perplexing Puzzling Popularity
Professor Layton and Pandora's Box (DS)
Member Name: SWSt
Professor Layton and Pandora's Box (DS)
Advantages: Lots of puzzles and good variety, well structure to stop you getting totally stuck
Disadvantages: Plot is not particularly satisfying with contrived links to puzzles, big difficulty spikes
The Professor Layton series has proved to be an insanely popular title for the DS/3DS with developers Factor 5 turning out several titles to both critical and public acclaim. The whole phenomena had passed me by, until I acquired a couple of titles last year and got to see what all the fuss was about for myself.
This time around, the Professor and his apprentice Luke are investigating who killed his mentor Dr Schrader. They are also on the trail of the mysterious Pandora's Box, said to kill anyone who dares open it. Before they can solve either mystery, however, there are lots of puzzles to be solved.
Pandora's Box is essentially a series of puzzles held together with a loose storyline. It takes its cue from the old point and click adventures that were popular in the 90s (solve puzzles to gradually unveil the storyline) but updates the format for a new audience and new machines.
In particular, the game is very well structured and gets around the traditional frustration that afflicted most old adventures where getting stuck on a particular puzzle effectively prevented any further progress. Instead, the game implements mechanisms to prevent this. If you get stuck on a particular puzzle, you can "buy" up to three hints using puzzle coins that you discover as you move through the various locations. Each hint gives you a bigger and bigger clue as to what you need to do, but stops short of providing the full solution. Even when you have bought all clues, you still need to work out what to do, so you can't just "buy" your way through the game puzzles.
The second feature is even better. Pandora's Box has a fairly open structure. If you can't solve a puzzle, you can simply carry on and then return to it later. This has a double benefit: you never completely stuck and unable to progress; and you will often find that when you return to a puzzle, something clicks that you had missed previously and you are able to solve it. The combination of hints and free roaming gameplay goes a long way to removing the standard frustration with this type of game.
There's no doubting the long-term gameplay of Pandora's Box either, with around 150 different puzzles to solve, plus additional ones that can be downloaded. Solving puzzles also unlocks additional features or mini puzzles, so there are a lot of challenges ahead.
There's also a nice variety in the type and difficulty of the puzzles. Each puzzle is worth a certain number of points (the higher the points the trickier the puzzle). Some logic-based, some are maths-related, whilst others require spatial awareness (like those old-style block-sliding puzzles where you have to move particular piece to a particular location by shifting the pieces around). This stops the game from becoming too repetitive or dull.
The difficulty level of the game is perhaps a different thing. Puzzles range from incredibly easy to brain-scratchingly difficult and there's no knowing what you will get next. Traditional puzzle games tend to get harder as you progress; here you can come up against a really easy puzzle and then the next one you encounter is one of the toughest. This does mean that you sometimes feel that there are massive sudden spikes in the gameplay (although the ability to leave a puzzle helps with this, of course).
Some puzzles may also cause issues for younger gamers. Although they are generally clearly explained, there were a few occasions when I had to read the instructions several times before I fully understood what I had to do. Even when I understood, actually solving them still represented a real challenge and there were more than a few times when I was reduced to trial and error. Younger gamers might need the help of an adult but in a way, that adds to the appeal since people of all generations can play together.
The really disappointing aspect was the story. Although there is a running narrative linked by the puzzles, some of these have only the most tenuous of links to the plot and are integrated in a very clumsy way. The very best adventures seamlessly weave devious puzzles into the fabric of the plot, meshing the two together carefully. In Pandora's Box the links are often quite contrived and (for me) destroyed some of the atmosphere reminding you that you were, after all, only playing a game.
Presentation is generally very good, although it's not without its annoying aspects. Graphics are bold and cartoon-like with a slightly quirky look and feel. They reminded me of the old cheap French cartoons that BBC TV used to show during the summer holidays. That's not a criticism, by the way, since the artwork is of very high quality. Cut-scenes are well-rendered and help to break up the monotony of puzzle solving (although they were a little too numerous and lengthy for my liking at times).
Sound is similarly strong, with a series of tunes playing throughout. These are fairly innocuous so they don't break your concentration, but there were a few nice ones that you could hum along to. Sound effects were OK, although I find the voice work little short of embarrassing and actually quite patronising. Again, this is perhaps because this aspect of presentation is aimed at a younger audience.
Despite its obvious appeal, I did find Pandora's Box a bit of a mixed bag. I enjoyed the puzzle-based gameplay, but did find that I couldn't play the game in long bursts. After a while (despite the nominal plot) I did start to feel like I was simply moving mechanically from one puzzle to the next, with no real engagement with the story. As such, I find that I only play the game in bursts of 30 minutes or so before I lose interest and move onto something else. This possibly tells you more about my preferences as a gamer than it does about the game itself, but I did find it rather too slow-paced at times.
I guess it boils down to this: if you like puzzles and slower-paced games, this title will have real appeal; if you're an adrenalin-junkie that prefers shooting and racing you're likely to find it a bit dull. If (like me) you sit somewhere in the middle, then you'll enjoy Pandora's Box in small bursts. I have to say, however, having now played it, I can't for the life of me see why the series is so popular. It's fun enough, but it wouldn't even make my top 100 of best games of all time.
© Copyright SWSt 2013
Summary: A game for the whole family to enjoy... if you have the patience