Parting Is A Sweet, Sweet Sorrow In Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy

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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is the last game to star Professor Layton.  Level 5 made that clear when they announced the title, and this reality hung over and colored my entire experience with the game.  I find it nigh impossible to separate the contents of the game from my personal feelings about saying goodbye to the professor, but maybe that’s okay.  This final Layton game hardly deviates from the formula iterated on over the previous five games, and nobody needs a thousandth Layton critique on the Internet describing the mixture of puzzles, side games, and narrative that defines the franchise.  Let it be enough to say that Layton did not reinvent himself for his final adventure, and really I don’t feel like it would have been appropriate if he had.


Layton has always been good at send offs.  The conclusion to his prior trilogy, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, has stood as a high water mark for the franchise.  Even going back to The Curious Village these games have possessed an air of melancholy that, while never overwhelming, has grounded the characters through even the most absurd plot twists.  This feeling became more pronounced when the franchise moved to the 3DS and the more powerful hardware allowed Level 5 to realize their aesthetic more vividly.  When appropriate these games elicit a wistfulness, and never more so than in The Azran Legacy.  This is a game about parting, both within the plot and within the franchise, and I’ve never played a video game that said goodbye better.


Professor Layton is one of a kind in the video game space—not the games (although they are, too) but the character.  Since the games themselves eschew the standard crutch of constant open conflict to engage the player, it was possible for the leading role to go to a character quite unlike other videogame protagonists.  Professor Layton is erudite, charming, and polite.  He is always composed, and always happy to help others when the opportunity arises.  He has a super uncool name that would NEVER get past committee in most studios (I mean, Hershel?) and he wears a dull orange shirt to match.  He is, perhaps, the very best role model in video games.


It’s worth considering that this franchise shares a name with the main character.  Though once upon a time games like Sonic and Spyro and Klonoa let their protagonists give name to the franchise, that practice fell out of favor before Layton ever began development.  It’s Uncharted, not Drake.  It’s Yakuza, not Kazuma.  But Professor Layton games are all called “Professor Layton”.  I think that’s appropriate.  Would you want to play a Professor Layton game without him?  Without Layton present to meet every deformed NPC and nonsense plot twist with a smile and a puzzle solution, I feel like there wouldn’t be much to tether the player to the universe.  Considering that these games could be reductively called nothing but short puzzles tethered together by dialogue and tapping static environment screens, having the investment in the characters who do that talking and places where you do that tapping is vital.


Basically, what I’m saying is that I cried.  Just a little bit.  Not because the script is some revelatory jump beyond what other Layton games have provided. No, it’s still quite silly.  It was because when it came time for the characters to say goodbye at the end of their adventure, it was time for me to say goodbye, too.  And for all that I get mad at the puzzles, for all that the six games probably released more rapidly than they should have, I didn’t want to say goodbye to Professor Layton.  Not yet.


I’ll miss you Professor.  Through video games I’ve come to know a double handful of patriotic soldiers, dozens of loose cannons with nothing to lose, and probably a hundred Japanese teenagers tasked to save the world by now.  Some of those characters I have affection for, some I actively avoid, most just get lost in the shuffle.  But you, you are in a class of your own.  Goodbye.


Random Thoughts:


1. Probably the biggest change in The Azran Legacy specifically is that there’s a broader selection of places to visit than ever before and the player can visit them as he or she sees fit.  This makes the game feel a little bit episodic, as the bulk of the game is in six different locations each containing its own little arc.  There are connections between them, but they can be enjoyed independently and in any order.  I chose to interpret this as a microcosm of the Professor Layton franchise as a whole, going through the whole thing one last time before the grand finale.  I would respect the opinion that I’m reading a little further into it than I really ought to though.


2. The music in Professor Layton games is and always has been fantastic.  This new game does not disappoint, and key tracks in the final third really drive home the important emotional notes.  For all that Layton looks great on the 3DS and 3D made hint coin hunting more fun, I think the improved audio quality benefitted the franchise even more.  I will probably always associate the accordion with the strange faux London where Layton lived these past seven years.


3. Even if it isn’t quite the same thing, I will absolutely be tracking down Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney.  I guess that’s the power of the crossover— at this point, I would probably be first in line for Professor Layton X Devil May Cry 2.

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