Professor Layton and the Curious Offline Experience

Tesh wrote this week about how losing internet access for three weeks nudged him into playing more offline games and breaking the online umbilical cord.

I enjoy feeling connected when I’m playing games. I’m the kind of nethead who thinks it’s great that connectivity is becoming more ubiquitous, but it can’t be denied that there is something very relaxing about just cutting the silver cord and immersing yourself into stand alone media.

So in the spirit of being unconnected, here are four cool offline things I’ve played, seen, or read this week.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Having Galactrixed out for the moment, Professor Layton is my current DS game of choice. It follows in the footsteps of handheld RPGs with a puzzle mechanic thrown in – so it’s not a million miles away in concept from Puzzlequest, or Phoenix Wright (another set of games I enjoyed very much). Like Puzzlequest, Professor Layton tells its story between bouts of puzzle solving. Like Phoenix Wright you get to explore areas, pixel bitch to find clues, and talk to suspects before coming to your conclusions.

Where the game really stands out is firstly that the story itself is convincing and utterly charming. It’s a bit offbeat but I liked it very much. Imagine a standard English/Agatha Christie style murder mystery with JRPG conventions thrown in and you’ll be on the right tracks.

But the reason the game has been so popular comes from the sheer variety of puzzles to solve. There’s everything from maths problems, logic problems, geometric puzzles, puzzles with a gotcha where you have to read the question very carefully, puzzles where you have to move blocks around on the screen, and just about anything else that you can imagine. The difficulty is not high, but I tend to welcome that in a game which you might want to play without a pen and paper handy to help. i.e. if you are expected to do most of the puzzle solving in your head. I certainly felt as though I was being given a good workout without being stuck for ages on any of the puzzles.

Some of the issues I had with the game are:

  • No verbal puzzles. This makes sense in a game that needs to be easily translated, but actually does bias the game very slightly towards male players. (Women are usually better at verbal puzzles, men excel at maths and spacial types puzzles.) I thought that was an oddity in this genre.
  • Some puzzles will need you to have a pen and paper handy. I don’t think all the maths ones could easily be done via mental arithmetic. And that’s probably not great design for a handheld game.
  • Not all the puzzles really used the power of the DS. The more interactive puzzles were definitely more fun. I enjoyed moving blocks around on the screen, for example.

Speaking of the internet connection, the game does allow for downloading further puzzles via the DS wifi connection. There are also extra puzzles which you can unlock as you make your way through the game. However, if you were to go straight to an internet walkthrough every single time you got stuck on a puzzle, you would lose a lot of your gameplay here.

I really think it benefits from being played on a train, or somewhere where you have no net access. It forces you to actually think, and get frustrated because a solution doesn’t work, and then try again, then finally solve the puzzle. And if you keep trying and then look it up, at least you feel you made a good attempt first.

I’m not quite at the end – saving it for train journeys this week –- but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Professor Layton and I’m looking forwards to playing the next installment in the series. I think they are onto a winner with this format.

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is in the running for this year’s Booker Prize, and I was so keen to read it that I bought it in hardback (it’s very cheap on Amazon at the moment).

Hilary Mantel is one of my favourite living authors, and one of her previous historical novels, “A Place of Greater Safety” is in the running for being my favourite book of all time (if you are at all interested in the French Revolution, read it, she brings the era to life like no one I have ever read.)

This time, she’s writing about the Tudor era, and in particular about Henry VIII and his chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell (and his cut throat rise to power).  The timing is perfect. We’ve had TV series recently about the Tudors, to tie in with the 500th anniversary of Henry VIIIs death. And C J Sansom’s amazing historical murder mysteries, set in precisely this era, have been huge best sellers in the UK.  (Also highly recommended if you are a fan of the genre.)

Mantel is a fantastic writer and I can’t wait to see how she’s treated the subject matter. I’m planning to work my way through the book this month and see how it goes. She made the Booker shortlist last year also but maybe this is going to be her year to shine.

In the Loop

The DVD of choice this week was a film I missed when it was in the cinemas. In the Loop is a smart political comedy about incompetent ministers, sweary scottish spin doctors, Anglo-American politics and war in Asia.

The Guardian called it the smartest, sharpest comedy of the year and they could very well be right. One of the least Hollywood films I have seen all year – it’s very sharp, surprisingly funny, and the characters are brilliantly drawn and characterised. Highly recommended if you like your satire razor-sharp and aren’t bothered by heavy swearing.

District 9

30 years ago, aliens made contact with Earth. And it’s been downhill all the way from there for the ‘prawns’. District 9 is real science fiction, all about ideas and speculation, rather than the flimsy excuse for high budget action scenes that Hollywood sci fi often presents.

It made me think. And that’s a common link with all of these games, books, and films.

Highly recommended, although it is rather visceral in parts (Peter Jackson’s influence, perhaps).