The Dark Age of the Law. The low point of the nation’s legal system, where the end justifies the means, false arrests and fake evidence run rampant and the line between prosecutor and criminal is heavily blurred.
…According to the Ace Attorney series, at any rate. Capcom’s point-n-click courtroom drama has been a cult favourite in both the East and West; firm proof that this breed of narrative-heavy game still suited the current generation. With the 3DS as fertile ground, the Ace Attorney series has stepped things up. The result is sharp and streamlined – both aesthetically and mechanically.
Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is the fifth main Ace Attorney game (the Ace Attorney Investigations games are spin-offs), set nine years after Apollo Justice. Phoenix Wright and Apollo Justice have formed their own law agency, and have taken on a new lawyer, Athena Cykes.
For Ace Attorney veterans, it may seem a little strange that Phoenix and Apollo have to share limelight with a third character (especially with the ‘Dual’ in the game’s subtitle), but Athena’s inclusion is definitely to no detriment. Having a woman protagonist is always refreshing in a gaming landscape where they are seldom seen, and unlike the series’ female leads before her, she’s directly competent in law.
The team are up against a new prosecutor – Simon Blackquill. Jailed for murder seven years ago, his skills are so respected he’s still allowed to appear in court, albeit in chains. Compared to previous prosecutors Simon is incredibly brooding, but there’s a black humour in how he deals with others.
The game is split into five cases, with each case being a handful of chapters and the player’s perspective switching between protagonists. The pace and tone are pitch perfect for a TV courtroom drama; steadily raising the stakes for both the characters and the player. With the extra clout of the 3DS, all the characters and the majority of the backgrounds are rendered in 3D, carefully styled so the art direction perfectly matches the prequels. Some of the more dramatic scenes are even fully animated, done by Studio BONES (Wolf’s Rain, Soul Eater, Eureka Seven).
The game plays identically to the previous Ace Attorney main games – meaning a regular switch between a point-n-click environment where you gather evidence and statements for a case, and courtroom scenes where you use the evidence to poke holes in flawed testimony.
Each of the protagonists have their own special game mechanic to add to the mix. Phoenix can see ‘Psyche Locks’ around people who harbour big secrets, and Apollo can perceive physical tells on people who are lying. These systems were present in their own games, but aren’t so focused on here. Possibly because we’ve seen them before, but more likely to make way for Athena’s special mechanic – the Mood Matrix.
Athena is an analytical psychologist in addition to being a rookie defence lawyer, and every so often notices when a witness is expressing discordant emotions. To get to the root of the matter she has a gadget that highlights four key emotions (joy, anger, fear and surprise), letting the player hunt out contradictory feelings, rather than presenting evidence.
It’s no surprise that this mechanic has a lot of scope for puzzles. Not only do you search for emotions that shouldn’t be there, but also ones that should, or how strong they are. The puzzles are all logically demonstrated, but if one does trip you up, you’re free to try again.
A gentle approach towards failure is present across the whole game. While Dual Destinies takes on the framework of the series note for note, its streamlining has meant that it’s harder to get stuck, and will only punish you for the most serious errors – presenting the wrong evidence in court. There is now a ‘text log’ button that will let you scroll a conversation if you’ve missed something, and during the investigation sections there’s a to-do list that will prompt you to finish talking to someone or check an area if you’re missing key information.
This could be argued as being overly hand-holding, but similar to how the story is about escaping the Dark Age of the Law, the game play is doing its best to escape the Dark Age of Adventure Games. Pixel-hunting a screen for a key item or blindly using every item in your inventory in the hope of progress are ideas systemic to the Sierra and Lucas Arts games of old, but in reality do little other than waste the player’s time. Capcom have put a lot of effort in telling this story, and damn it they’ll get you to the end of it if you need the help.
Said efforts aren’t only from the original Japanese script writers, either. Despite the hefty time gap between the Japanese and English release of Dual Destinies, it’s been stated that the localisation was done at least partially alongside the original development. The series as a whole has had interesting challenges with localisation, as the wordplay, characters and locations have always been very Japanese. The localisation has always insisted on setting the game in the US, giving the game an eclectic culture that fans have described as ‘Japanifornia’.
That definitely hasn’t changed; there’s a whole Case where the Yokai – Japanese supernatural beasts that are not quite ghosts or demons – are heavily involved. However, instead of just ignoring the culture shock, they integrate it with some careful handwaving. Someone just happens to be personally interested in Japanese culture or has relatives who are Japanese immigrants. Fortunately, the culture clashing is also intentionally reflected in the character design. Simon Blackquill is the biggest example, wearing an outfit that’s half European tailored suit and half samurai robes.
The localisation isn’t perfectly polished – there are a handful of obvious typos – but the dialogue is delightfully hammy and cleverly phrased throughout. In particular there’s dialogue regarding mistaken gender identity that I’m told is handled with much more tact in the English version than in the original.
I played through the five-case campaign in about four evenings, which is generally how long the Ace Attorney games last. Selling the game only via the eShop has resulted in a pretty attractive £20 price point, too. There’s a bonus DLC case soon to be available (plus alternate costumes available right now, free to early adopters). Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is more straightforward than its predecessors, but the experience holds just as much content in a way that doesn’t bog itself down.