Saturday, April 5, 2014

Surely Someday


"It's amazing... Laputa really does exist!"

Have I ever mentioned that my favorite movie is Studio Ghibli's Laputa, the Castle in the Sky? I don't mean animated movie, or movie from Japan. Just my favorite movie of all time. I'll admit that a lot of that is nostalgia talking, but no matter how many times I watch it, the movie never bores me, with romantic elements like air pirates, girls falling out of the sky (literally) and grand castles floating in the sky. I probably watch the movie at least once a year, but I still get all excited when the movie shows the legendary floating island of Laputa for the first time.

Young Luke Triton finds a similar legend in his "Legendary Mysteries", a book on legends from all over the world. The wandering castle is said to be floating in the sky, appearing all over England. And also, right above Luke's head. The castle disappears just as fast as it appeared though, and puzzled by this, Luke hopes his mentor, the famous archaeologist Professor Layton, will be able to explain this mystery to him. However, it appears that more people have seen the castle: Layton is asked by his old friend Andrew Schrader to find out what happened to Thomas McLuhan. McLuhan disappeared while on his way to his family home up in the north of England, leaving only a letter saying he saw the wandering castle and plans to go there. Layton, Luke and Layton's somewhat bumbling friend Jeremy Campbell decide to travel to the north to unravel this mystery in Layton Kyouju to Sayamoeru Shiro ("Professor Layton and the Wandering Castle").

Level-5's Professor Layton franchise is one of the more surprising hits of the last few years, as the games starring the English gentleman professor are built practically entirely out of puzzles and riddles. Sure, Layton and Luke are always on a different kind of adventure, be it investigating a curious village, or being aboard of a spooky Orient Express-esque train, but in the end, it's always about the puzzles. You see that, Luke? That reminds me of a puzzle. You shall not pass! Unless you solve this puzzle! It's too late, I switched on the Doomsday Device! But you can switch it off with a puzzle! I wish the real world worked like this. And despite the games being essentially big compilations of puzzles, they have been consistently extremely succesful all over the world, and have also spawned other media like theatrical releases and novels.

(And while I am describing the games as puzzle collections and thus may sound dismissive, I have enjoyed all six of them. Well, all except Miracle Mask. Sorry. Heck, I even played the spin-off game)

The games consists mostly about puzzles, but the story is basically a mystery story, in a very broad sense of the word. The world of Professor Layton is a steampunk end-of-century England, with a dash of fantasy, so as myseries, the stories are seldom fair to the player, but they are presented as detective stories. One could say that Professor Layton is more about a detective (Layton solving puzzles and mysteries), rather than really being a fair detective story itself. That didn't stop the professor from doing a fantastic crossover game with one of the greatest detective game franchises ever, though.

But back to the Professor Layton and the Wandering Castle. It's obviously a spin-off novel (set after Professor Layton and Pandora's Box, for those interested), written by mystery writer Yanagihara Kei.  The book is aimed at younger readers (children~young adults), something facilitated by the narration by the professor's young apprentice Luke. As a boy's adventure with a bit of mystery, a bit of science fiction and a bit of fantasy, Professor Layton and the Wandering Castle is really amusing.  The professor and Luke act like they do in the games, and the mystery they try to solve (the floating castle), is definitely something that fits in with the rest of the series. It's a fun adventure, and like the games, things keep moving and new story developments are presented to you constantly as other wind up, keeping momentum right until the end. You don't need to have extensive knowledge of the games either to dive into the book (you could even do without easily), so a lot better than something like Danganronpa/Zero (also a spin-off of a game). Like the Layton games however, you shouldn't expect a fair play orthodox mystery: expect science fiction and fantasy-esque twists and turns, but that's part of the package.

And Professor Layton wouldn't be Professor Layton if you weren't presented with a puzzle once in a while. At certain points of the story, the reader is presented with a puzzle like in the games (for example, one early puzzle is a coded message). This is fun in theory, as it feels like one of those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style stories, but you don't actually need to solve these puzzles to continue with the story and they feel kinda artificial in the story. Granted, that's also the case with the puzzles in the games ("Thanks for opening the door. Hey, that reminds me of a puzzle"), but in the games, you have to solve at least some of them to continue. Here you can just turn over a page, and you'll have Layton saying "every puzzle has an answer!" (but not really commenting on the puzzle in detail).

But what am I complaining about? As a Professor Layton novel, and as a children's mystery novel, Professor Layton and the Wandering Castle is quite fun, doing every thing you'd expect from something with the professor's name on it.

 Original Japanese title(s): 柳原慧 『レイトン教授とそまよえる城』

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