If you were of the opinion that the Professor Layton games suffered from a criminal lack of sonic screwdrivers, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, then Doctor Who: Evacuation Earth is here to make your day. Borrowing Level 5′s gaming formula outright, Evacuation Earth drops time-travelling duo The Doctor and his fetching redhead assistant Amy Pond in the roles of Layton and his chirpy cockney boy-pal Luke as they solve brain-teasing puzzles to get random strangers to help them in their quest.
Off on a time-hopping trip to the Lake District in the distant future, The Doctor and Amy arrive just as the population of Earth is being bundled onto spaceships and evacuated in preparation for a solar storm that’s due to roast the planet (an event mentioned back in early season five of the show, where the two visit Starship U.K. – one of the escaping refugee ships). As they wander around to explore the area, the TARDIS is nabbed and bundled onto the salvage heap somewhere on board the last ship due to escape Earth. The Doctor and his feisty Scottish assistant are forced to board the ship before the Earth is boiled and help the crew survive ship malfunctions, a Silurian invasion and Dalek attacks, all while trying to root out the location of their beloved time machine.
Again, if you’ve played Professor Layton, the interface for Evacuation Earth won’t seem unfamiliar; you’ll explore cartoon locations, using the stylus to click on interesting-looking items and people around the room, triggering a jokey observational comment, a conversation or a bonus puzzle dotted around the scene. Chatting to folk will nudge the story along as you gain new information or – because the noble art of bribery knows no time or galaxy restraints – find an item or solve a problem in exchange for their help. If someone can’t close their suitcase properly, a jigsaw-type puzzle will begin where you’ll have to rotate and move around their oddly Tetris-shaped clothes until they all fit together perfectly. Get the puzzle right and you’ll gain credits (which can be exchanged for a trio of hints) as well as getting what you need to progress and further the plot, but get it wrong and the credit reward will lessen with each consecutive try.
Strangely, the puzzle-centric quid pro quo makes more sense here than it does in Layton – here you’re putting together circuity, planning space flight routes and picking locks with the brain-bending riddles as opposed to doing villagers’ long division just for the hell of it. There’s a suitably diverse selection of puzzles and mini-games offered, though they’re mostly of the jigsaw, maze, spot-the-difference and brain-teasing riddle variety with an Oblivion-esque lockpicking mini-game and a Pipemania-style ‘divert the flow of power’ game thrown in, amongst other fun diversions. You’ll also occasionally be called on to do a little point-and-click adventure style combining of inventory items and using them on the environment to access certain areas. Thankfully the game keeps things varied and fresh throughout, and though a few moments can be naturally frustrating (like the dreaded sliding tile puzzles, which are thankfully in short supply), things never get stale or boring, with the option to replay any puzzle or cutscene from the main menu should you choose.
While the puzzles are frequent, diverse and entertaining, naturally it’s the story that’ll be of most interest to Who fans. The plot and dialogue written by Doctor Who novel author Oli Smith is engaging, funny and captures the tone of the show well, with plenty of incentive to trawl each location to check out the off-hand lines and a few fun nods to the series thrown in, too (one jigsaw puzzle is of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, complete with ‘For Amy’ inscription). Series leads Matt Smith and Karen Gillan provide the voices for their characters, and as with the previously-released tie-in game Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, they both relish the chance to play their characters again, bringing a massive amount of charm, life and enthusiasm to their roles; the voice acting from them is superb and makes the story infinitely more engaging. Their animated likenesses don’t fare quite as well, though – the usually gorgeous Gillan’s cartoon doppelgänger looks scarily like a character from Fraggle Rock.
Unfortunately, awkward presentation and some inherent glitch-laden flaws in game design are the cement shoes keeping Evacuation Earth from swimming to the heights of Professor Layton. Minor graphical glitchiness is abundant, with character sprites and text often flickering or background characters popping in and out of the frame, while the stylus controls aren’t especially tight or responsive, often resulting in frustratingly glitchy puzzles. A frequently recurring mini-game has you guiding an orb through a maze, holding the stylus on the screen to pull it in that direction. Blinking laser grids and revolving fans aim to block your progress and destroy the orb, but a tap of the stylus on switches next to them will slow their rotation, allowing you to pass through. The dual use of the stylus poses a problematic control idea though; tapping on switches also pulls the orb in undesirable directions and into obstacles, awkwardly hammering your health as you activate necessary routes.
Jigsaw puzzles can be even more glitch-laden; hold the stylus on a stack of jigsaw pieces to drag the top one away and you’ll often find one of the pieces underneath or on the other side of the screen suddenly jerking into your grasp, but rarely ever the one you actually tapped. One brain-teaser has you organising the work rota of starship employees, with a check-list of rules stating who can’t work next to whom, and so on. Thanks to a lazy error, the puzzle is fundamentally broken; the game won’t accept the right solution, while following the purchased hints to the letter results in a “correct” answer that doesn’t match the outlined criteria of the puzzle’s initial clues. It’s an optional puzzle, and none of the above issues spoil the game outright, but even so, it serves to highlight that the game really could’ve used an extra month or two of playtesting and polishing.
The glitchiness and awkward controls are especially unfortunate considering the care and quality that’s been afforded to the rest of the game. Like Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, there’s a refreshing amount of effort paid to ensuring that this is a licensed tie-in that doesn’t feel like a cheap cash-grab trading on a brand name, it’s just a huge shame that the same attention wasn’t paid to ensuring that the presentation was as polished and worthwhile as the game and story at its core.
Evacuation Earth is the best Doctor Who game yet, and though that may sound like faint praise considering the slim and not-exactly-stellar competition, it’s genuinely a worthwhile, fun game replete with entertaining, diverse puzzles, a well-written story and some superb voice acting. It’s just unfortunate that overly glitchy rough edges and some incredibly lazy design keeps the game from being the Layton-beater it could’ve been. All the same, it’s a fun game and an incredibly enjoyable mini-chapter in the Doctor Who saga that kids, casual gamers and fans of the show are sure to have a blast with.
Doctor Who: Evacuation Earth is available to buy on Nintendo DS from November 12th 2010.
Click here to order the game from Amazon.co.uk.