How many other games can wear the badge "formulaic" as a compliment? The fourth game in the franchise, but the first chronologically, Professor Layton and the Spectre’s Call isn't very different from the previous games in the series. You have the same go-there-solve-puzzles-save-the-day format as always, but when a series has found such solid footing, is there really any need for drastic change? As always, the cut-scenes and voice acing would feel right at place in a feature-length animated film. The soundtrack is by turns soothingly familiar and exciting. And the story...well the story could use some work.
Like any graphic adventure, Spectre's main draw is in the puzzles and the narrative. And like the previous games, Layton's adventure yo-yos between pulp mystery intrigue, cartoon antics, and out-of-nowhere plot twists. The red herrings feel a little cheap when they involve characters and events never previously alluded to, but the foundation is still enjoyable. You get to learn how the Professor met his ever-present apprentice, and you get quite a bit of set up for the Layton animated film, The Eternal Diva. At times, the story's genuinely moving and heartfelt, while other times you meet plot twists that are so painfully obvious you want to smack the characters around.
But Level-5 has perfected the balance of narrative and puzzles. Do they try to integrate these puzzles into the story? Sometimes. But it's more about the suspension of disbelief that everyone you meet will want to challenge the Professor's world-renowned puzzle-solving skills, and that any obstacle can be overcome by moving a few wires around. Sure, one or two of the puzzles might be worded in ways that lead to a wrong answer, but it's impossible to get frustrated when the game is so generous with hints. As always, you'll find coins hidden around the game world that can buy you clues (and eventually answers) to any quandary blocking your way.
But just so you know, that's cheating. Real gentlemen solve their puzzles without using Hint Coins.
If you've played every previous game, you'll find familiar puzzles and variations on past themes. But Last Specter has a much more balanced overall puzzle roster. With rare exception, few puzzles repeat, and even then you won't see some of those variations until you get to the extra puzzles at the end of the game.
Of course, Last Specter holds plenty of new extra minigames to pass the time as well. You'll find an annoying train game that takes too long to reset when you mess up, a simple fish one that's low-key fun, and a word-matching puzzle that's way too easy for the amount of time it eats up (though it contains some adorable art). But like always, these aren't central to the game; they just unlock even more puzzles. Sadly, the substantial and well-written RPG sub-game London Life available in Japanese and US versions of the game has been excised from the UK release – it’s a terrible omission, and it brings the score down.
While it doesn't change much from Layton's previous adventures, the small tweaks (and the generous extras) make this my favourite Layton game to-date. The series is one of the few remaining champions of the graphic adventure, and, fortunately, they're doing a damn fine job of keeping that genre relevant for a modern audience.