Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is another strong installment in the charming Professor Layton series of puzzle games for Nintendo DS. The premise this time begins with a scientist named Dr. Stahngun who is working on a time machine. When he demonstrates his machine at a publicity event, something goes wrong: Stahngun and his on-stage volunteer, the Prime Minister, have both vanished. Shortly after, Layton and Luke receive a letter from Luke from ten years in the future requesting the Professor’s help. The pair are transported to a Future London and begin their new adventure.
Gameplay hasn’t changed from the last two games, and the puzzles are definitely of the same breed as the rest of the series. You won’t find anything terribly new or innovative here, which is perfectly acceptable for this franchise. A couple hundred traditional brain teasers are what fans expect when they pick up a Layton game. The designers did get a little bit creative with the puzzles in key moments during the game, using the kinds of puzzles that make you feel real clever when you solve them. Unwound Future also gives you a fourth unlockable hint option, the Super Hint, which pretty much gives you the answer. I admit to using a couple of these on puzzles that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. The density of the puzzles is right on target, and players won’t go too long without encountering a puzzle at any point in the game. And, as always, a solid batch of bonus puzzles await players at the end of the game.
Since this game takes place entirely in London, the settings are a little bit less enchanting than those of St. Mystere and Folsense, but you’ll still have fun exploring new places like a Chinatown area and a casino. One frustrating element of gameplay was the navigation. It’s still the same system as the previous two games (click the navigation icon and your movement options are displayed), but I found myself getting disoriented at times. Since I rarely referenced the map on the upper screen, and I tend to click through screens really quickly, that meant a lot of accidental backtracking after I went in the wrong direction. I think the map could have been laid out in a more intuitive way. Also, the game’s map is pretty large, and players have access to almost all of the locations they have already traversed throughout the entire game. Personally, I didn’t like having that much area available to me at all times. I had a constant nagging feeling that I should go back and check all those previous areas for new puzzles or clues (especially with the subway feature in this game, letting you move between areas easily). I think I would have preferred some unnecessary plot element blocking me from returning to those areas. Besides these minor frustrations, all gameplay is simple and intuitive, and exactly as you would expect from a Layton game.
Unwound Future introduces three new mini-games: Sticker Book, Parrot, and Toy Car. Sticker Book is a mad-libs type of game, where the player must fill in the blanks with stickers they collect along their journey. This one is definitely the weakest of the three, and isn’t very entertaining. Parrot is a maddening time-based challenge, where the player guides Luke’s pet parrot to a destination using a limited amount of ropes. Some of the solutions come easily, some only by outside-the-box thinking or the process of elimination. Although some of the parrot rounds were really tough, it was a new type of game for me and I enjoyed it for the most part (I even felt that I was improving near the end!). Toy Car places an automated car on a small grid map and players must use a limited number of directional tiles to get the car to its destination. These weren’t too tough and overall Toy Car was appropriately satisfying and challenging for a mini-game.
Story-wise, I felt Unwound Future was on-par with the previous two games. Fans of the series will know that the games usually start off appearing to deal with supernatural or fantastical elements, but reveal a big twist near the end bringing things back to reality. With the game immediately starting off with a concept as shaky as time travel, the player has the joy of spending the rest of the adventure trying to work out the truth behind all the mysteries. Of course, the Professor is always two steps ahead and has made most of the connections long before they are explained to you (that all-knowingness is part of his charm, you know).
I only have two complaints for this installment of the series: music and character development. Although its signature, romantic, accordion-filled soundtrack has always been a strong point of the Layton series, after three games I felt that some of it was due for an update. A great number of the songs were used heavily in the previous two games, including the puzzle-working music, and while there were some new tracks I thought the old were used too frequently.
Second is character development, primarily the female characters and the “main villain” of the game (I won’t get too specific, to avoid spoilers). Flora joins your team part-way through the game, but her contributions are mostly restricted to complaining that she doesn’t like being left behind, and commenting on how cute this or that looks. She does get to solve a few puzzles, but her voice acting makes you wish you had left her behind. And, for the third time in the Layton series, Flora is kidnapped. Yes, the only female character that has anything close to a leading role in the series has been kidnapped in every game so far. I suppose since the first game was “her story”, her character doesn’t need to be developed any further than the meek, naive, damsel-in-distress stereotype.
The only other prominent female character in the game is a very strong and interesting character, but unfortunately we don’t get to hear much from her as she is part of the big mystery. This is where the main villain of the game also loses out when it comes to character development (something that happened in the previous game as well), as their whole story has to be told in about one cutscene during the climax of the game, making them seem a bit one-dimensional. The villain and Layton’s stories are intertwined a bit, however, giving the player a bit more sympathy and understanding for them.
The development for the rest of the characters was outstanding. We get to see a bit more to Luke than his plucky sidekick positivity (which also possibly explains some of his abrasiveness towards Flora), and even Don Paulo’s backstory gets rounded out as we learn how he and Layton became rivals. The Professor himself definitely gets the most development in this installment. We get a glimpse into his past as a young man and student, his first love, his insecurities, and finally we watch his heart break. In Unwound Future, the gentleman professor, always calm, composed, practical and perfect, finally shows the audience his humanity. The weight of his emotional burdens finally becomes too much to carry, and the player can only watch helplessly as it breaks him down completely. It’s a powerful moment, and one that is likely to stick with players long after they finish the game.
Overall, Unwound Future is another satisfying adventure with all your favorite characters. Puzzle fans will enjoy what the game has to offer, and fans of the story and characters won’t be disappointed either.