Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

Developed by Level-5
Published by Nintendo

            Professor Layton is one of those series that just keeps going on, not reinventing itself, just adding new puzzles, and continues to be a joy each time a new installment comes out.  With the 5th installment, and the first 3DS installment, Layton still shows no signs of slowing down, even if some of the new features don’t work out.
            Layton (Christopher Robin Miller) along with his apprentice, Luke, and assistant, Emmy (both voiced by Lani Minella), have come to the desert town of Monte d’Or, which, in a fairly small amount of time, has gone from nothing to a thriving tourist city.  Unfortunately, a mysterious figure known as the Masked Gentleman has appeared, and is performing “miracles” that involve things such as turning people to stone.  Naturally, Layton has to solve the mystery—and it all connects back to a tragic event from his past.
            The story continues to be one of the strong points of the Layton series.  It’s intriguing, making you want to find out the answers to the mysteries, and full of good characters who you like to see pop up.  Even the characters who you talk to just to get a puzzle to solve are interesting characters.  The story’s real twist here, as opposed to other Layton games, is the flashbacks to Layton from 18 years ago.  Layton’s past has been touched on before, but we get to see more of him and his childhood here, at a time when he didn’t even like puzzles.  And, just like in Unwound Future, bringing the plot to something that personally affects Layton gives it more of a human touch that the Professor can sometimes be missing.  Also, don’t worry if you haven’t played any Layton games before: even as the second game of the second trilogy, the plot stands well on its own.
            As always, puzzles are the currency of the day in the Layton world.  From sliding puzzles and a variation on the block-jumping solitaire to brainteasers and logic problems, Miracle Mask is filled with plenty of the usual suspects, but they are enjoyable as usual.  There’s some of the old hat that should surprise nobody, but there’s also some new tricks, like dividing a chessboard of pawns, that haven’t been seen before.  The game does try a few new things along the way, and, well, it’s a bit mixed.  For one, there’s some puzzles that seem too focused on the new 3D graphics rather than actual difficulty.  Guiding a ladybug through a maze is hilariously easy, and its variation doesn’t get any harder.  But there’s also new gameplay entirely.  An early part has you riding through the city on a horse, and an action-oriented scene like that doesn’t have any place in the calming Layton universe.  Some of the other puzzles also rely on things that are moving while you’re trying to think, which generally just makes things unnecessarily difficult.  There’s also a chapter that focuses entirely on dungeon-crawling, with the puzzles involving defeating mummies and pushing blocks around.  It’s entertaining for a while, but starts to wear out its welcome by the end of the chapter.  When the characters wonder if there could be 100 floors, you’ll probably reel in terror.

            Still, Layton with a couple problems is still Layton, even with its problems.  Longtime Layton fans can mark this as a must-buy, and those new to the series can consider this a good place to start.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monsters University

Directed by Dan Scanlon
Written by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert L. Baird

            I think it’s pretty obvious from my Cars 2 and Brave reviews that Pixar’s work post-Toy Story 3 hasn’t quite matched up to their finest efforts, and from all the trailers to Monsters University, it looked like they were going to continue down the road of unremarkable work.  I’m happy to say I’m wrong on that one, as Monsters U is a definite return to form.
            Mike (Billy Crystal) has wanted to be a scarer since an elementary school field trip, and is willing to do whatever it takes to become the best, studying hard at one of the best schools, Monsters University.  Sulley (John Goodman) is planning on coasting through scare classes on his father’s name and his natural scariness.  When they both get in trouble, they make a wager with Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that if they win the college’s Scare Games, they get to stay in the scare program, but their egos end up clashing along the way.
            One of the things the movie really does well, especially comparing against Cars 2, is a successful perspective shift.  Monsters Inc was about Mike and Sulley in a sense, but really, Sulley was the main character.  Monsters U transfers the main character status over to Mike, and manages to bring him past the basic neurotic/sarcastic image from the first movie.  Instead, we really see the road that led Mike from wanting to be the best scarer to simply being the assistant to the best.  And it’s satisfying.  The big trick with a prequel, any prequel, is giving the audience something they can’t figure out from the start.  So of course Mike and Sulley are going to end up as best friends, they’re going to work at Monsters Inc, Randall is going to hate them, etc.  But Monsters U actually makes that journey worth seeing, especially thanks to a series of plot developments in the final act that leverage the predictable-looking plot into something better, with a strong moral that should successfully resonate with those who saw Monsters Inc as a kid and are now in college.  Maybe not Toy Story 3-strong, but it’s still a wise case of knowing how the audience has and hasn’t changed.
            And one way that nobody’s changed is the sheer joy at being in the monster world.  Maybe it’s because most of the other Pixar movies take place in a human world that might peel back a layer, but doesn’t really take us to an absolutely unnatural world.  And while Monsters U is certainly a familiar atmosphere, the monsters and their lives are so different that the small details of the world Pixar has put in are always great.  And Pixar also uses their different lives for the best effect in gags.  A multi-armed monster during exam week is holding several cups of coffee.  The fraternities and sororities in the Scare Games are filled with memorable monsters and jokes, even with their fairly limited individual screen times.  In general, there’s just a great new cast of characters here, with very little reliance on Monsters Inc cameos.  The members of Oozma Kappa, the lame fraternity that Mike and Sulley end up joining, are equal parts pathetic and likeable.  You start out laughing at them, and by the end of the movie, you’re laughing with them.

            Monsters U isn’t quite Pixar’s best, but it’s back to the level where Pixar’s less-than-best was still great.  It’s a good sign, to be sure.