Let me tell you something, folks. The very fact that I am sat here today, typing this review, as the title screen for an officially localised version of The Great Ace Attorney sets my Switch screen aglow beside me is a source of continuing disbelief.
When Dai Gyakuten Saiban hit Japanese shelves on the 3DS in 2015, precisely no-one expected it would ever see a Western release. Whereas the localisation group at Capcom has busied themselves since the mid-2000s with convincing American players the Ace Attorney franchise is set in the US – apparently clinging to the idea that folks in that market can’t conceive of anything occurring beyond the Atlantic – this new prequel put paid to that thoroughly. It’s a period piece featuring Phoenix Wright’s ancestors, set in a very specific time in Japanese history, starring Japanese characters that are wearing Japanese clothes and upholding Japanese customs. While Janet Hsu and her team might have been able to spin assistant Maya Fey’s penchant for ramen into one for burgers, and to dismiss the Fey clan’s holy village as a ‘remote spirit medium immigrant dwelling’ in the mountains, there was no backing out from this one.
The choice was simple: either acknowledge the Japanese-ness of Ace Attorney (which, frankly, had begun to force itself through the veneer of Americanisation in recent titles) or just don’t bring the darn thing to Western shores at all. And for a time, the latter option seemed to be the one they were going with. Tangentially, it’s these frustrating attitudes that continue to deprive us poor Brits and Yanks of English releases of such personal ‘never-evers’ as Yo Kai Watch 4 and Mother 3. C’mon, Hino-san. I need me some buff Jibanyan in my life.
All of this was much to the chagrin of fans, who, eager not to see a repeat of Miles Edgeworth Investigations 2, clamoured for a translation. Hell, one dedicated (and kanji-literate) subsection of devotees even did the work themselves, completing the first outing in the DGS duology and a portion of the second before the bombshell was dropped earlier this year: the Great Ace Attorney games were coming overseas at last.
Apropos of nothing, Hsu and company seemed to have reached a solution, and it’s one so mind-numbingly simple it’s a wonder it wasn’t spitballed earlier – just change Phoenix Wright’s ethnic background. As she writes in her blog, why can’t Phoenix be Asian-American in order to reconcile the DGS backstory with the localisation? He already inhabits a surreal version of the USA littered with Japanese influences, after all. And so, just like that, the (non)issue was resolved, and the gavel could come down on the project. No objections from me.
An Impossible Franchise
As a raw concept, Ace Attorney is strange. There are very few professions more ill-suited to adaptation for a light-hearted video game than lawyering. The idea of turning what is oftentimes a dry, thankless, emotionally distressing job, that sees you deal with seasoned criminals and broken families on the regular, into a fun-for-all-the-family romp is an objectively terrible one. Awful. Like, comically bad. You would have to sit down and really think to come up with a career less conducive to the genre. Undertaking has more potential for a goofy simulation franchise than the legal world does. You can have that one for free, Ubisoft.
But this is Ace Attorney we’re talking about here, and as has been repeatedly demonstrated since its 2001 debut, Ace Attorney doesn’t play by your rules. Or, in fact, anybody’s rules. It’s quite content to make up its own, construct an entire world around the absurdity of them, and then routinely discard them in the name of humour and characterful charm.
This is a world in which complex court cases wrap up within three days; in which murderers make corpses fly and swing them across chasms Tarzan-style to hide them; in which defence attorneys and prosecutors are not only interchangeable from day to day, but often help one another and are permitted to cordially interact; and in which a woman wearing moon boots and using a tiny robot to deliver emotional therapy to witnesses is an admissible legal counsel. This is to say nothing of Phoenix’s protégé, Apollo, who has a special bracelet that lets him slow down time to perceive nervous tics, or of the insane crossover with Professor Layton, that saw Phoenix and the top-hatted gentleman visiting a fairytale world which turned out to be a government-funded mind control experiment. Yes, seriously. M. Night better watch his back.
My point is, this series is no stranger to surprises, nor to outlandish, bonkers scenarios. So it’s actually quite interesting to find that The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, while still off-the-wall silly, is rather grounded in places. It takes the core mechanics and tone that we all love about this iconic cross-examine-em-up, and marries them to a poignant historical yarn about prejudice and legacy. And pointing. Lots and lots of pointing. Natch.
Starting Off Wright
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles collects two games that were separate on their Japanese release, here subtitled Adventures and Resolve. You can choose either one to start with, but the second game presumes knowledge of the first and its characters – and, really, what kind of eejit starts with the sequel? You’re placed into the shoes of Ryunosuke Naruhodo (his surname being Japanese for ‘I understand’) a fledgling student in Meiji-Era Japan who finds himself accused of murdering a Dr. Wilson. In the original version, incidentally, this character was named Dr. Watson. That might sound familiar, and you’d be right. We’ll come back to that. Hang onto that niggling feeling for me.
Representing Naruhodo is one Kazuma Asogi, a friend who sort of fills the Mia Fey role from the classic games. Kazuma is about to be dispatched on an important exchange trip to the UK, representing Japan as part of a friendship accord signed between the two nations of late. Once it becomes clear the evidence – and the judge – is leaning towards a conviction, Naruhodo leaps into action in Kazuma’s place to safeguard his friend’s trip, thus beginning a long-standing family tradition of slamming desks and tapping papers. It’s an interesting spin on a tutorial case for one of these games in that you’re defending yourself, rather than some gormless bozo on the stand who just can’t shut up. Looking at you, Larry.
Once all this preliminary rearranging is dispensed with, the gameplay begins, and things soon settle into familiarity for veterans of the Ace Attorney franchise. A veritable conga line of wacky witnesses take the stage, and it’s your job to poke and prod at them until they slip up or spill the beans about some new piece of evidence. At any given time during a testimony you have two options: Press or Present. Pushing the L trigger will Press, which is intended to nudge the witness into elaborating on the statement they just made, but more often than not will lead to Naruhodo nervously yelling at them or calling them a liar, aggravating the judge. Oftentimes for your trouble, all you’ll earn is a reprimand or sarky comment from the prosecutor, and, in later trials, even a penalty. Five penalties equals a game over, so: ouch.
As the player, there is no way to see or even get a sense of what Ryunosuke will say to the interviewee when you choose this approach, so it feels like a bit of a gamble. It isn’t a huge deal, as this is at the end of the day a very linear text-based adventure that is difficult to get too far off-track in – but it is a tad disconcerting to Press someone, thinking that Ryu will just ask them to clarify the time they were at the crime scene, for example, only for him to leap down their throat. I’m reminded of Cole Phelps in LA Noire, and his oddly bipolar interrogative manner.
The Jury’s Still Out on Presenting
Things worsen when juries become involved, a first (well, second counting Apollo Justice) for the series; juries that are apparently made up of schizophrenics, as they change their minds every other minute based on the current mood of the exchange. When a juror decides upon their leaning, they slam a button and a burst of fire shoots up into literal ‘scales of justice’, which tilt toward guilty or not guilty. If it tilts all the way to guilty (outside of instances where it is scripted to do so) your client is declared culpable and it’s game over.
This makes the ambiguous nature of the Press ability sting all the harder, as the slightest act of aggression against a (clearly lying) witness may kill the trial where it stands. It adds tension, to be sure, which was absolutely the intent, but if I’m finding myself sweating over whether or not to quiz a knitting old lady concerning her whereabouts, something’s amiss.
Similar issues sometimes arise with the other option in Ryu’s arsenal – pushing the R trigger to Present. Again, this works much the same way as it has in the past: either straight away or after some Pressing, a statement may blatantly contradict something in the court record, and you can Present said evidence to rub the witness’ nose in it and progress your case. Most of the time, this functions perfectly fine. “I wasn’t there at 3,” someone might say. “That person was very much there at 3,” the evidence counters. Clear contradiction, satisfying takedown. Simple enough.
In past Ace Attorney titles, it wasn’t always clear what item needed to be presented, and often the correct statement to do so on felt arbitrary. I recall one instance in Trials and Tribulations where it had to be demonstrated a character was present at a particular time to commit theft, and there were multiple pieces of evidence on hand that could conceivably show this. However, only one was accepted as correct; less a logical deduction, more a guessing game.
Similarly, the first case in Justice For All has the prosecutor attempting to argue the victim wrote the killer’s name after his neck had been snapped, which I’m sure you’ll all agree would be quite difficult. The game did not call attention to this ludicrous contradiction and gave you no option to retort against it. Again, this is due to the series’ trappings as a visual novel, but the problem has enough precedent that I’d hoped Hsu and the writers would be able to avert it here.
Unfortunately, it’s present and correct, albeit less often. In the second case of Adventures, for instance, Ryu is framed for a murder on a ship that occurred while he was stowed away in a sealed wardrobe. The door to the cabin was locked, Ryu was asleep at the time, and the seal on the cupboard was unbroken when the scene was discovered. Short of Ryu committing the murder, clambering into the wardrobe, somehow applying the external seal to the door from the inside and then nodding off, there is literally no way he could be responsible given the state of the room, yet the characters insist on maintaining that he is. You are not permitted to call any of these insane holes into question, and the writing clearly expects you to go along with the suspicion for a good couple of hours before finally – finally – an alternative potential suspect arrives.
The same applies to the presentation of evidence on trial. In the opening case, the obvious culprit destroys evidence on the stand; not only does this not lead to an instant arrest, but the game insists that her doing so has terminated all possibility of you pursuing the angle that evidence pertained to (that she poisoned the victim). On the contrary, the medical report you are provided offers numerous alternative methods she could have used given the properties of the poison, but nowhere can you present this and you’re told off for attempting it.
Likewise, the same case spends an awful amount of time in its back half establishing the whereabouts of a coin, which has little to no bearing on the killing, can’t be sidestepped, and stretches on far past the point where the murderer has been ascertained beyond reasonable doubt. It ain’t often I’ll say “yep, this is filler” during an Ace Attorney chapter, but here we are.
We’ve All Been Framed
However, there is an added dimension to things this time around that can muddy the waters even further. Thanks to the glitz and glamour of next-generation hardware, you can now fiddle with evidence in the court record in a far more tactile way than ever before. There was a rudimentary attempt at this in the 3DS entries, but this goes way over the top: files to leaf through, boxes to unlatch, even entire carriages as evidence that you can wheel into the courtroom before climbing into and all over them.
This is all very technically impressive, of course, and the feature of being able to use the Joy-Cons’ motion sensors for some realistic evidence fondling is super cool. I also really love the witticisms dispensed by Ryu and Susato ‘Susie’ Mikotoba, this game’s answer to Maya, when examining all the suspicious-looking nooks and crannies. You could probably fill a book with the amount of fluff dialogue included here (and I’m sure fanfiction writers will).
The downside is that oftentimes a piece of evidence won’t be valid for presentation until you’ve checked it top to bottom and seen this cutesy back-and-forth, even if the actual physical state of the evidence hasn’t changed at all. I know I’m sounding like a bit of a pretentious nitpicker, but let me illustrate: an early chapter has you needing to highlight a picture in a frame to find out what the victim was looking at. If you try and select the picture before you’ve clicked on it independent of the scene, and witnessed Ryu and Susie chatting about the photo, the game won’t accept it.
Basically, it’s treating the frame itself and the picture therein as separate things, which I guess is technically correct, but a bit daft in practice. Surely the simple act of Ryu calling everyone’s attention to the picture frame would also, as a matter of course, lead them to see what’s inside it?
I understand all of this uncertainty when Pressing and Presenting is meant to highlight Ryu’s inexperience and to allow us to sympathise with his being out of his depth more. But this is a problem that reared its head occasionally in the old games (I never want to recall Moe the wisecracking clown ever again) and it’s disappointing to see it intact here all these years later.
Fear not, though, as these are basically the only issues I have with the trial gameplay in TGAAC. Everything is tried, true, and tested, and blasting morons who misspeak under oath remains as fun as ever. There is no feeling quite like nailing one of these klutzes on such an obvious point, and the ‘aha’ moment when things click is something reserved for Ace Attorney that’s never been replicated elsewhere to this day. Nothing beats you suddenly finding a use for what seemed like pointless evidence, or discovering that a piece of junk cluttering up your inventory is axiomatic to the entire trial. What’s that, sir? You say you only had four people in your carriage? Well, the fares here appear to add up to there being five passengers. Take that!
Returning here, in addition, is the Pursue mechanic that debuted in Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright, whereby you can have a gander at other witnesses in the courtroom while one is talking. If they react to a statement, you can question them to try and find out why. One trial had my Irish-accented client let out an absurd “well, d’ere y’are!” as another witness rambled, which naturally I then homed in on.
New angles of attack can be opened up like this, and it makes cross-examinations feel animated and energetic, keeping you on your toes while spotting a moment to strike. You are even given the opportunity to grill the jury themselves at certain points, which adds a whole new dynamic as you seek to overturn a verdict that’s basically already been passed. Bet there are a lot of criminals in the real world who wish things worked like this. “Actually, no, I don’t agree with the jury, ta.”
A Variety of Victims, An Array of Allies
It helps that the procession of cartoony dolts who occupy the stand are more diverse and creatively designed than any we’ve yet seen in the franchise, with the requisite punny Ace Attorney names to boot. A soldier named ‘Yesa Nosa’ who brings his pinwheel-toting child along to a murder trial; a simpering weakling named ‘Lay D. Furst’ who can’t even keep his own hat on; and the Cockney pickpocket Gina LeStrade are just a few examples of the eccentric cast. A few recognisable faces from Layton VS Ace Attorney even pop up here and there, suggesting that the folks at Capcom really enjoyed that project. I spotted Mary the lamb keeper and Mrs. Primstone the teacher as jurors, to name a couple.
Some new characters do kind of venture into vaguely insensitive territory, which I suppose is to be expected from an Americanised look at Japanese history – the antique shop owner ‘Kurio Korekuta’ has a name and mangled syntax that feel like a 1950s Mickey Rooney creation more than anything else. It’s all in good fun, though, and Hsu herself is Asian-American, so we know there was some level of cultural vetting going on, which is reassuring. It’s kind of like how the Mexicans love and cherish Speedy Gonzales; they may be stereotypical, but their hearts are in the right place and there’s no malintent.
The core cast are also very likeable, and the beneficiaries of Hsu’s years of experience adapting Ace Attorney’s Japanese sensibilities for us uncultured Westeners. Ryunosuke himself is unmistakably Phoenix Wright’s great-great-grandaddy, from the way he sweats bullets under pressure, to his utterly majestic point when he’s ahead – even the way he walks is a direct mirror of Phoenix’s pacing animation from Spirit of Justice. It’s funny to think there was ever a doubt that English audiences would accept a Japanese man as Wright’s ancestor, as it now seems so natural and makes total sense when you just look at the guy’s demeanour.
The same goes for Susie, whose inclusion initially feels like a cheap attempt to replicate the successful Phoenix-Maya rapport from the previous titles, but who quickly comes into her own. While Maya is quirky and irreverent, Susie is calm, collected and has the reserved demeanour of a refined gentlewoman. Remember how I said things are more grounded this time? Susie epitomises that. She’s book-smart, not hesitating to whip out a weighty tome from her kimono sleeve and supersonically flip to the right page. We’ve seen smart girls in this series before with the Skye sisters, but somehow she still feels fresh. She’s a martial artist, and in one of the game’s coolest visual flairs, she’ll flip the entire screen over when she judo-tosses Ryu in annoyance. Her animations are fluid, vibrant and downright adorable, giving past assistants like Athena and Kay a run for their money. Sorry, ladies.
The Great, Lawsuit-Free Detective
Rounding out the protagonist cache are a handful of recurring faces, like Detectives Hosonaga and Gregson. The former mostly shows up in the Japanese-set portions of the adventure, but a chunk of the way into the first game, the action shifts to London, England where we meet the latter, fish-and-chip munching bobby. It’s also in dear old Blighty where we get to know tritagonist Herlock Sholmes. Yes, he is supposed to be who you’re thinking of, and no, that’s not a typo. Recall, if you will, Dr. Wilson/Watson from earlier; the same deal applies here.
Essentially, the gist is that in the Japanese version, Ryu and Susie solve their cases alongside Sherlock Holmes and (a) Watson themselves, correctly spelled names and all. However, that was only possible in the Land of the Rising Sun, where the Holmes stories are in the public domain – over here, Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate has a habit of suing the pants off any media that features the great detective which they didn’t personally sign off on. So, for the English version, a simple reshuffling of a couple syllables was necessitated, and that’s all it took to blast a loophole so wide you could drive a truck through it. Bit ironic that a series about lawyers had to find ways to dodge copyright.
Silly names aside, Sholmes behaves exactly as his predecessor did. People have an image of the OG Holmes as being a flawless, almost saintly force for good that never faltered, but that simply isn’t true. Read the stories and you’ll find Holmes is a bit of a loon: violining his way through deductions, indulging in heroin and fisticuffs for sport, and frequently allowing his ego to get the better of him, falling for traps as a result. Those traits (sans the heroin, sadly) are migrated perfectly into Takumi and Hsu’s interpretation of the character, and he’s very entertaining, twirling about the screen as he delivers erroneous breakdowns of crime scenes.
A major mechanic is that Ryu (i.e. you) must interrupt Sholmes’ speeches with corrections, and it’s oddly empowering to put one of the most legendary characters in English literature in his place. As Ryu’s confidence grows, he begins to mimic Sholmes’ movements, and it almost feels like naughty revisionism on Capcom’s part: Sherlock Holmes was only great because Phoenix Wright’s ancestor was there to help him! True story. Video games wouldn’t lie.
The Purah Problem and a Parasitic Prosecutor
Accompanying Herlock is Iris Wilson, daughter of the now-deceased Dr. Wilson/Watson that we’re all familiar with, and she’s… fine. Honestly, maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always had a despicably low tolerance for child characters, especially precocious ones that act three times their age, so Iris rubs me the wrong way. I felt the same way about Pearl Fey and Trucy Wright in the previous games, which I’m aware is sacrilege, but I’m sorry, I can’t shake it. Something about her smirking face as she shoots you with her powder guns and spouts scientific techno-babble feels so sickeningly smug. I like her dynamic with Susie though. There. Now you can’t kill me.
Sholmes and Iris both suffer, however, from not being introduced properly until several hours into the first game, leaving them with little time to make a real impact before Resolve. If it were me, I’d have shaved a few hours off that interminable tutorial case, and brought Iris’ introduction forward a smidge. Would have helped.
What would an Ace Attorney game be, though, without a choice selection of baddies to occupy the opposite side of the courtroom? As is tradition, things kick off with you facing down a member of the endlessly-humiliated Payne family. This time, it’s the Japanese member of the clan, Auchi. My sides left the planet for a moment or two when I read that name. He’s dispatched pretty easily, but before long we’re in Britain and dealing with a far steelier foe, one Barok van Zieks. If that name wasn’t Transylvanian-sounding enough for you, he also has pale-white skin, wears a cape, and drinks blood-red wine. Dracula, is what I’m getting at. He’s meant to look like Dracula.
If I’m being honest, he feels like a discount Edgeworth at times, in both appearance and manner, and his reputation of being ‘the Grim Reaper of the court’ feels ill-earned in places given the ease with which we curbstomp him. Still, he’s an effective enough foil, and his true cunning does reveal itself as the games progress, with more complexity beginning to show beneath the cartoony vampire shtick. Nobody will ever beat Klavier Gavin’s rockstar act, though. Sorry.
I Apologise On Behalf of Britain, Ryunosuke
Van Zieks’ characterisation does evince one of the core themes of the narrative, though: that of racial prejudice. I won’t dwell on this as I’m aware it’s potentially upsetting for many, but it’s refreshing to see such a real-world issue dealt with so soberly and in the correct historical context. Being from Japan, Ryu and Susie are subject to preconceptions from the moment they set foot on English soil – heck, even a bit beforehand too, as the murderous Jezaille Brett makes comments about ‘you filthy Japanese’ in the opening act.
The story is set against the backdrop of the Anglo-Japanese accord, and there is constant pressure on our heroes to be good ambassadors in a nation that clearly wants nothing to do with them. The otherwise kindly Inspector Gregson is derogatory about the duo’s appearance, and, as mentioned, Van Zieks constantly belittles Ryu’s mannerisms as ‘Eastern’ and calls him ‘Nipponese’, a sarcastic term of respect. Again, I won’t push the subject, but I just wanted to mention it as it is a pervasive undercurrent throughout, and folks may not expect it from the usually jovial Ace Attorney series.
Outside of the courtroom, you can mooch about London in the other half of the gameplay, investigation sections. Historically, these have often been a nightmare to complete, wandering in circles and hoping in vain you’ll examine the right thing or head to the right spot at the right time to trigger whatever arbitrary progression flag is required. Anyone remember hours of pacing up and down Gourd Lake, or Global Studios? Because I sure do.
Thankfully, those roadblocks are few and far between here, as there’s a hint system in the form of Susie, who’ll pop up to inform you when you’ve examined everything of note on a screen. That’s not to say you shouldn’t still indulge your curiosity, though, as there are still amusing animations and arguments about stepladders to uncover for the inquisitive eye. My favourite background gag is Iris’ constantly evolving blackboard notes, which she updates with a new story every time you check in on it. It’s a cheeky little nod to the actual Holmes books – a legally distinct nod, of course.
New Suit, New Badge, New Graphics
Beyond the gameplay, the overall package is, as you’d expect from one of Capcom’s darling IPs, solidly presented. Menus are well laid-out and simple to navigate, with satisfying gavel noises accompanying your every toggle and selection. The music is crisp and, on the whole, spectacular. The voicework is about what you’d expect for something like this; the British actors perform a bizarre accent that hovers somewhere between Asian and Canadian, but very rarely convinces. I’m also not sure some of the soundbites have been translated altogether properly, as Ryu will often shout ‘yes!’ (a literal translation of the Japanese ‘hai’, used as an interjection or hailing) in place of ‘objection!’ even when this does not make sense in English. Multiple times he appeared to be agreeing with the prosecution that he was either wrong or responsible for the murder itself. Not the best approach there, mate.
On the bright side, the 3DS visuals have been wonderfully uprezzed, and things look nice even in handheld on the Switch. Everything animates fluidly, and I can recall no noticeable framerate drops, unlike Spirit of Justice which disintegrated the poor handheld with its elaborate multi-witness breakdowns. Takumi’s visual creativity can finally be set free as the hardware has caught up with the madcap spirit he’s been going for, and it’s great to see in motion. Also included in the game are a selection of bonus escapades and costumes to dress the cast up in, as well as the mandatory sound test and art gallery, so there’s ample extra guff to poke around in for folks who want to. If you’re aching to see Susie in a steampunk outfit, you’re covered, you weirdo.
Well, much like our favourite oafish, Santa-Claus-esque judge, it’s time for me to render a verdict. Overall, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is (are? Curse plural titles) a triumph. Above all else, it’s a demonstration of the fact that more seemingly Japanese-centric titles can and should be brought overseas, and that with the right creative mindset, any cultural barrier can be overcome. Not once during my playtime have I felt alienated or confused; it’s a simple matter of companies needing to give us Eengleesh a wee bit more credit. Of course Phoenix is Asian-American – the man’s a Steel Samurai addict, for chrissakes!
Combining a lush artstyle with the comfortingly basic gameplay and top-notch writing we’ve come to expect, these are two spectacular adventures that both fans and newcomers owe it to themselves to check out. Not even a few logic issues borne of the visual novel genre can mar this globetrotting experience. Throw in some great new mechanics, wonderful characters, a dash of social commentary and some truly revolutionary steps for the franchise, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
Now, on the subject of recipes; I’ll have my ramen with ketchup and no pickles, please.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is now available for all major platforms. The copy played for review was purchased with my own money and was not provided by the publisher.