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Games that give your gray matter a workout

Both "Professor Layton and the Curious Village" for the DS and "Downstream Panic" for the PSP have much to offer gamers looking to give their gray matter a good workout, and both are well-worth sinking your hard-earned coin — not to mention your precious time — into.
Image: Professor Layton and the Curious Village
Don't be fooled by the cute, cartoony style of "Professor Layton and the Curious Village." This is one tough puzzle game. Nintendo
/ Source: contributor

Riddle me this: If two puzzle games are traveling on two trains, one coming from the north, the other arriving from the south, the former chugging along at 33 mph and the latter zipping along at 103 mph but weighed down by a car full of wet ferrets, which game will be more fun to play — the one that stars a man in a fancy top hat and a boy with an adorable British accent, or the one that features a bunch of wayward fish trying to make their way to open water?

Hint: Each ferret is wearing a tiny red fez.

Give up? Not to worry. Riddles are hard!

As it turns out, the answer is: Both video games are equally engaging and fun to play.

Yes, recent weeks have found two very different puzzle games arriving on two very different handheld systems. But both "Professor Layton and the Curious Village" for the DS and "Downstream Panic" for the PSP have much to offer gamers looking to give their gray matter a good workout, and both are well-worth sinking your hard-earned coin — not to mention your precious time — into.

And sink your time you will.

Curiouser and curiouser
"Professor Layton and the Curious Village," in particular, has a curious way of making hours of one's life disappear — poof — in a puzzle solving haze.

Puzzle fanatics — especially traditional puzzle fanatics — will enjoy this endearing and unique little title, one that gives something of a modern makeover to some age-old brainteasing traditions.

As the beautifully animated opening sequence reveals, the famed Sherlock Holmes-esque puzzle master Professor Layton and his apprentice, a young lad named Luke, are on a mission to solve a mysterious inheritance dispute. A wealthy baron has died and hidden a treasure within the eccentric village of St. Mystere. You, the player, must help this duo get to the bottom of where the treasure is hidden while also uncovering and then solving some 130 puzzles secreted throughout the town.

Overall, the game plays out in point-and-click adventure style (or rather, point-and-tap — since this is the DS we're talking about). That is, you'll search the town and question the townsfolk (a truly oddball cast of characters), looking for clues to help you solve the various mysteries doled out as the story progresses and things get curiouser and curiouser. What exactly is the treasure known as the "Golden Apple" that Baron Reinhold hid before his death? What is the mysterious noise that shook the entire Reinhold Manor upon Professor Layton's first visit? And who has stolen the crank to the drawbridge sealing Professor Layton and all of the townsfolk in?

Meanwhile, you'll also dig up the dozens of brainteasers hidden in every nook and cranny, and it's these puzzles that are the meat of the game.

The puzzles themselves are of varying difficulty and of varying styles — logic puzzles, geometry puzzles, perception puzzles, card tricks, riddles, mazes and more. One puzzle, for example, will ask you to figure out how to get eight wolves and eight chicks across a river on a boat, two at a time, without the wolves eating the vulnerable little birds. Another will ask you to separate seven pigs each into their own pen using only three ropes.

Meanwhile, one riddle goes like this: The first letter of the alphabet is A, and the letter B comes after the letter A. However, the letter you need to worry about is the last one. What's the last letter of the alphabet? Here's a hint: it isn't Z.

Here the DS's touch screen gives players a truly hands-on puzzle-solving experience. In the wolves and chicks problem, for example, you'll use the DS's stylus to move the animals onto the boat and across the river, trying to get the combination right without leaving too few chicks on shore with too many ravenous wolves. In another puzzle, you'll use the touch screen to move eight different weights onto and off of a scale, trying to figure out in only two moves which one of those weights is lighter than the others.

If you find yourself, perhaps, staring at the screen for who knows how long, struggling to figure out how to get a bunch of wolves and chicks to live happily ever after together, never fear, there is help to be had. Coins are hidden throughout the town, and this loot can be used to buy hints should you need them.

Beyond the puzzling itself, "Professor Layton" features some beautiful animations and a lovely art style that delivers a town full of colorful imagery and even more colorful characters. The music and sound design is equally top-notch. And the balance between story and puzzling (not to mention the great variety of puzzles doled out apace) keeps things constantly interesting.

Ultimately, this is a really enjoyable brain-training game that, thank goodness, doesn't play like yet another "Brain Age" knockoff.

Don't panic, more puzzles on the way
If "Professor Layton" goes old-school on the puzzling action, "Downstream Panic" offers up a more modern take on the puzzling genre.

This fishy title for Sony's handheld PSP thrusts players into a colorful world where a tornado has whisked the aquatic life up into the atmosphere and trapped them there. Your job: Help the stranded critters get back to safe waters below.

To do so, you must manipulate the flow of water and the landscape it washes over to get this adorable school of fish flowing downstream past various barriers, hazards and predators.

Each level starts with your fish caught in a water bubble or two at the top of the screen. Once you hit start, the bubbles open and the water and the fish begin rushing toward the bottom of the screen, tumbling ever downward through the bright landscape.

To keep the water going in the right direction, you might use a bomb to blast a hole in a wall that blocks the way or you might grow a plant to shift the fish down a new path away from danger. To keep your fish safe, you can use a harpoon to kill a ravenous shark lurking in a pool.

As each level is presented to you, you're given only a certain number of tools to use. And you must use these tools wisely or the water runs the wrong direction and your fish get washed straight into the jaws of the giant predators lying in wait at the bottom of the screen.

That means planning is a must. Before you hit the Start button, you have a chance to scroll around the level, scoping out the lay of the land and laying your plans. Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans? Often times it takes a couple of tries before you figure out exactly how to play the hand of tools you've been dealt and manipulate the landscape in a way that ensures the requisite number of fish survive.

Meanwhile, once you set the fish flowing at the top of the screen, timing is key. For example, you may have to let enough water out of one area so that the fish don't spill over a ledge to their deaths while, at the same time, you make sure you don't allow too much water to spill into another area where it might unleash a hungry shark on your fishy friends.

As the game progresses, the tools at your disposal grow in number and variety while the landscape, hazards and environmental elements change. You'll have to save your fish from moray eel, orcas and seagull. You'll be able to carefully manage the speed of the water flow by turning shell-shaped valves. You'll be able to use clouds to catch and move your fish. And you'll deploy attractors to help keep your fish in an area you need them to stay. 

Though the uber-cute music gets a tad repetitive, there's nothing quite so satisfying as seeing your little fish make their way home safe and sound as you triumph over some cleverly-designed levels.

All in all, "Downstream Panic's" bright and bubbly surface hides a marvelously unique and deep puzzle game that will keep you wanting to see what each new level has to throw at you and your Piscean pals.