Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is everyone's favorite top hat-wearing, enigma-solving archeologist's first adventure to be released on the 3DS, and the game's developers, Level-5, have accordingly taken advantage of the system's enhanced capabilities, improving on nearly every aesthetic element of the beloved DS installments. By fundamentally leaving the already time-tested, successful story and character elements completely intact and focusing solely on augmenting the series's previously primarily 2D visual interface, Miracle Mask represents, perhaps, the most fine-tuned entry in the Professor Layton canon to date. Sure, there's not a whole lot that's breathtakingly cutting-edge here aside from the upgraded visuals, but the entirety of the gameplay experience is still nearly unmatched in the puzzle genre; it's increasingly intuitive, alluring, and, once the narrative shifts from a casual waltz to a full-on, accelerated foxtrot, Miracle Mask achieves a degree of gaming bliss that only appears every so often.
Miracle Mask's illuminated, lively setting stands as a breath of fresh air after the ghostly, gloomy canals of last year's Professor Layton and the Last Specter. Picking up where that game's story left off, Miracle Mask finds Layton and company moseying about the twinkling vacationist destination city of Monte d'Or. This is the best-looking locale in Professor Layton's repertoire, even in standard dimension; flick on the 3DS's 3D switch, though, and the town's many passageways, filled with dangling lights and glowing signage, simply pop off the screen in the most non-abrasive manner possible. Character models have also been fully reformatted in 3D, their slightly cel-shaded appearance intermingling with the pre-rendered active backdrops seamlessly, flowing in and out of in-game cutscenes without slowdown or glitchiness. Additionally, Level-5 caters to longtime fans of the series by generously including a handful of those alluring 2D cinematics that do well to further flesh out both the environment and the characters.
Gameplay-wise, Miracle Mask shakes things up, but not enough to cause a real stir. The ability to probe the surroundings by frantically tapping the actual explorable venues, as in the DS chapters, is replaced by a control scheme that has players sliding the stylus around on the touch area while a magnifying glass cursor scans the selected zones for desired clues and the like. Initially this may feel mildly imprecise to series veterans, be it that the tappity-tap stylings of past Professor Layton endeavors was so meticulous by design, but the routine soon reveals itself as the preferred option, leaving the wider top screen unobstructed by pointing instruments to display the game's intensified graphical polish.
Along with Last Specter, Miracle Mask is a prequel episode in the Professor Layton chronology, and its ever-interesting and simultaneously rewarding to continuously see details of Layton's clouded history slowly being disclosed.
Miracle Mask's central tale is perchance a little anemic when compared to the entertaining outlandishness of Last Specter; it really takes its sweet time getting to any sort of meaty, mysterious substance, but when it does it begins to methodically soar above its DS predecessors. An eccentric sociopath dubbed the Masked Gentleman is the villain this time around, periodically terrorizing Monte d'Or and prediction the total destruction of the shimmering metropolis by his ancient mask. As you deconstruct the miraculous mysteries surrounding the artifact, the story swaps back and forth between present-day Monte d'Or and the on-goings of a much younger Hershel Layton. Along with Last Specter, Miracle Mask is a prequel episode in the Professor Layton chronology, and its ever-interesting and simultaneously rewarding to continuously see details of Layton's clouded history slowly being disclosed. The flashback sections give ample weight to the current shenanigans in Monte d'Or as well as other memorable sequences from the DS lineup.
Then, of course, there's the puzzles themselves, the majority of which will be familiar territory for Professor Layton connoisseurs, but there's enough newly implemented variances and escalating difficulty levels to keep everyone satisfied. The emphasis on 3D in certain conundrums (typically involving some sort of rotation component, like directing a ladybug through a cylindrical corn labyrinth or analyzing a tubular banner) adds denser layers of ingenuity and extra necessary steps to tickle the brain for hours on end. More traditional ciphers are also here to enjoy (card tricks, block rearrangement, tests of memory, etc.), a definite treat for those who have never played a Professor Layton game before, though I would recommend starting with the DS games for continuity's sake, or at least doubling back eventually. Miracle Mask's mini-games are also quite enjoyable, if not all that inventive. There's one where you reorganize shelves in a store in order to get the best price from customers, another where you lead a crazy robot toy around a track, and, silliest of all, a Nintendogs-esque trifle that has you training an adorable rabbit who wants to be in showbiz.
It's interesting how Miracle Mask uses its lack of absolute originality to its supreme benefit. By bringing the artistic value of the series to a place it's never been, scoring high marks with its 3D presentation on all fronts, Level-5 is able to cleverly distract even the most vehemently critical eyes away from the fact that this is, at its heart, another predictably well-made, comfortable-in-its-category Professor Layton game with a spiffy new exterior. Due to the different controls, however, it's not quite a bait-and-switch maneuver, but it comes painfully close. Nonetheless, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more addictive, worthwhile puzzler currently available on the 3DS.