Review: Offbeat Video Games Succeed With Charm

Video games are all about action: shooting aliens, slaying dragons, crashing cars.

But the industry's focus on high-octane mayhem means a lot of other genres — romance, say, or comedy — are neglected.

Imagine that Hollywood released nothing but Michael Bay films, and you'll have some idea of the state of video-game storytelling.

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Thankfully, game designers are starting to look beyond violence and explore different kinds of challenges.

The success of Nintendo's Wii and DS has shown that games appeal to a lot of people beyond the hardcore crowd, and developers are looking for fresh ideas that will attract that newfound audience.

Nintendo has led the charge with lower-stress games like "Nintendogs" and "Brain Age." Activision's nonviolent "Guitar Hero" series has infiltrated the mass culture in a way that even a best-seller like "Halo 3" could never manage. And even the most trigger-happy gamer needs a change of pace every now and then.

—"Professor Layton and the Curious Village" (Nintendo, for the DS, $34.99): In the "curious village" of St. Mystere, no one seems to be able to give a straight answer.

Everyone you meet wants you to solve a puzzle — a maze here, a math problem there, and just about every other sort of brainteaser you can imagine in between.

Professor Layton and his earnest assistant Luke drive to St. Mystere to help a rich family decode the will of an enigmatic baron.

The challenges begin well before the guys can even take a look at the will; you can't even enter the town without solving a little visual puzzle.

The puzzles range from easy to unexpectedly thorny, but you can buy hints that will help you crack all but the toughest nuts.

The beautiful animation, reminiscent of "The Triplets of Belleville," is worth watching even if you're eager to dig into the puzzles.

With more than 100 challenges — and more to come through Nintendo's Wi-Fi service — there's enough to keep you busy through several long plane trips.

If you're a puzzle fanatic, many of the brainteasers here will seem familiar, but the fresh presentation makes them feel brand-new. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

—"Endless Ocean" (Nintendo, for the Wii, $29.99): A hardcore gamer diving into "Endless Ocean" might expect it to turn into "Jaws," "Open Water" or, heaven help us, "Into the Blue."

But anyone looking for fast-paced action here is bound to be disappointed; it's one of the most laid-back console games ever released.

Your character is a scuba diver who's bumming around the fictional waters of Manoa Lai.

Occasionally, a mysterious benefactor asks you to go underwater, perhaps to look for sunken artifacts or to escort another diver to a coral reef.

You can take pictures of exotic fish for nature magazines, or you can frolic with dolphins and penguins.

If you like, you can just swim around and take in all the lush scenery.

I actually dozed off the first time I played "Endless Ocean," and I don't mean that as a criticism. It's refreshing to come home on a wintry day and relax in its sun-soaked waters. Three stars.

—"Downstream Panic!" (Atari, for the PlayStation Portable, $29.95): "Panic!" isn't quite as mellow as "Endless Ocean," but it isn't as frenetic as its name suggests.

It is an inventive puzzle game with echoes of 2006's "LocoRoco" and the classic "Lemmings," though it has a style all its own.

Each of the 80-plus levels is a sort of vertical maze, with a fishbowl or two on top and a shark-filled lake on the bottom.

As the bowls begin pouring fish and water into the maze, your job is to alter the landscape so that the fish are guided safely into the one safe, shark-free zone of the lake.

You have a variety of tools — bombs to blow up parts of the land, plants to block the water flow, harpoons to take out evil piranha — but your resources are limited.

You need to plan your strategy carefully before each level begins, and there's a lot of trial and error involved.

And while the later stages do get insanely difficult, you'll feel unusually rewarded when you solve one. Three stars.