With the Professor Layton series from Level-5 reaching its conclusion with Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy in Europe now (until its resurrection in a different form with the mysterious Layton 7), Cubed3 delves back in time to look at Konami and WinkySoft's attempt at barging in on the extremely popular brain-teasing puzzle-cum-adventure genre. However, is Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights a game that 3DS owners should seek out even today?
Welcome Paris at the end of the 19th Century, a place that houses various 'Treasure Animatus' - living treasures - that are being sought out by a group of adventurers gathered at 'Le Repaire,' a bar beneath the Palais Garnier opera house. However, they need the assistance of Doctor Jean-Pierre Lautrec - a cockier version of Professor Hershel Layton - who loves solving mysteries, but has a certain trouble-seeking edge to his personality. His trusty assistant, Luk…Sophie, is a student that tries (in vain) to act as his conscience, as well as helper on the various treacherous missions he undertakes in the quest for danger and excitement. This leads the duo to start searching for a "fantastic hidden treasure belonging to Louis XIV of the House of Bourbon, a dynasty that had collapsed nearly a Century earlier and gone unfound for decades."
This paves the way for what is an unusual mixture of puzzle-RPG-adventure-action, with developer Winkysoft trying to meld together all manner of styles. It almost seems, at times, like different members of the development staff were at odds with each other in terms of what direction the game should go in. The story is full of intrigue - and lashings of dry humour - and the action takes on a puzzle style in terms of finding the safest way through the numerous underground 'dungeons,' finding all manner of items required for successfully overcoming the end-of-stage battles.
It may not be the Professor Layton-killer that many thought it would be, but in its own right there is a certain charm to proceedings, helped by the great visuals for story progression and the impressive voice acting. Controls are somewhat clunky at times, but just about work well enough to help guide Lautrec through the catacombs, dodging guards, toppling walls, and then figuring out how best to tackle the living spirits with the collection of weapons at his disposal. The more treasure found, the greater the chance of beating a dungeon and eventually discovering the hidden treasure of Louis XIV.
The way things tend to flow is that Lautrec and his cohorts visit the Opera House, which acts as the game's main hub, where quests can be undertaken (of which there are 50, in total) that deviate from the main story to add more meat to the title. There is then the chance to roam around a map of Paris on foot, cracking riddles to figure out exactly what location needs to be visited, before then attempting to uncover the secret access point to underground labyrinths. Once within the deep, dark, dank locales, mazes must be navigated with some guard avoidance and block pushing/pulling as necessitated, all with the aim of finding useful treasure and gems (from the 142 available overall) that can be used against Treasure Animatus - the Guardians that must be tamed (weakened, not defeated, if wanting to 'catch' them, just like in the Pokémon series). Before reaching the Guardians, though, Puzzle Doors must be passed through, which is where some of the Professor Layton series parallels stem from (since it does not come from characterisation as Doctor Lautrec himself is nothing like the mild-mannered Hershel Layton, instead being rather brash and sarcastic, with a no-nonsense demeanour, always wanting to get his own way no matter the consequence or objection made). With only 12 types of puzzle, though, and this formula being repeated so frequently, it grows tiresome quickly. Being a handheld title, however, helps its fortunes, as in short bursts it proves to be extremely palatable.
There are more than 250 brain-bending teasers (255 puzzles, to be exact), ranging from word puzzles, to spot the difference, drawing objectives, and more, all of which grow increasingly more difficult as the game goes on. The problem is that there are times when they become slightly too obtuse for their own good, which will undoubtedly turn casuals away and test the perseverance skills of others, especially with around 30 or so hours of content crammed in (if wanting to collect all the treasures). Those hooked by the story and witticisms throughout will be able to cope, though.
Another aspect that will test the patience of the majority, however - and this is more important - is how the battle mechanic is not explained in a very clear manner. To 'Tame' a Guardian, a turn-based Pokémon-esque battle format is used, with gems and treasures placed around a special board to inflict damage upon the Treasure Animatus, which is in a central position. The aim is to use a rock-paper-scissors technique to know what crystals to place where for the maximum damage, yet figuring this out is very tricky due to the unintuitive nature of the game's (lack of) tutorial system. Deciphering the meaning of various battle symbols becomes more of a trial-and-error approach, with many battles likely being restarted due to mistakes that should not be happening. If a battle cannot be completed using all gems in tow at that time (a hint to a dungeon's difficulty if given before entering, at least) then the whole thing must be started from scratch.
It is this last aspect that sucks some of the enjoyment factor out of Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Battle Explanations…, sorry, Forgottten Knights. One blessing is that there is no real need for grinding, as treasures collected further into the adventure are appropriately stronger to match the requirements for battle. It is more the placement of crystals around the battle board that remains a mystery until some playing around has been done and replays undertaken. On the whole, Konami and Winkysoft have a great core concept that is sadly let down by a few unnecessary drawbacks that could easily be ironed out in a sequel...if one ever comes to light.
The puzzles included can range from being too simplistic to rather obtuse, and on top of that the actual underground exploration element feels slightly clunky, dragging down the otherwise engaging experience with too many 'hide from the guard' situations, and it is only thanks to a witty script that players will keep plugging through some of the more awkward moments. Persevering is the key, though, as labyrinths become more complex further into the game, making for an intriguing mix of puzzle-adventure-RPG action!
Doctor Lautrec is a graphical masterpiece for the most part, with delightful flat 2D cut-out characters for the dialogue sections, and impressive 3D worlds in which the good doctor can wander around. There are some bland moments, but for an early 3DS release, this is impressive indeed.
With a pleasing mix of serene and rousing tunes throughout, placed appropriately throughout the adventure, it would have been easy to forgive a lack of voice acting. However, Konami has excelled itself by including an extraordinary amount of voice work during the majority of the outing, not merely for the main cut-scenes.
It is quite surprising just how much is packed into Doctor Lautrec, with the adventuring aspect definitely upping the longevity stakes. Whilst the majority of puzzles included are actually not that tough, going on all the extra quests to build up enough strength to tackle all the Treasure Animatus takes a long while, as does questioning locals for clues on where to go next.
Whilst not the superb Professor Layton competitor that people were expecting, Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights is a pleasant surprise, proving to be an intriguing prospect on its own merits. Mixing a lot of puzzles with adventuring and even a touch of the RPG genre, Konami's 3DS original is one worth checking out if even just out of sheer curiosity, especially at its now bargain bin price point.