Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies

Ace Attorney 5, a cheap eShop-exclusive, shows off some of the sharpest presentation in the series to date. The music and narrative highs of Trials and Tribulations might still reign, with Godot and Dahlia and everything else that game put on the table, but in all the other various little details, Dual Destinies takes the cake, even while I wouldn’t call it an especially ambitious title.

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Structuring and mechanics
While it offers nothing quite as ingenious as the recorded, colored, sortable testimonies seen in Umineko No Naku Koro Ni Chiru – Episode 8, and while to some people the return to the simple Visual Novel presentation style might be seen as a step back from the adventure sprites of Edgeworth’s spinoff games, the cases themselves are structured better than they historically have been. I didn’t find myself thinking that my evidence was ambiguous in its relevance to whatever conundrum was currently attacking my health bar, and I rarely felt like my opinions were underrepresented, which is the greatest risk of all in debate-based gameplay (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution).

While I occasionally still felt like the little prodding hints in Phoenix’s own mind were stealing my thunder before I got to present a piece of evidence for myself, I didn’t find it especially patronizing or babying, which is another common hazard in an interactive mystery. While I could be middling out because I’ve grown more accustomed to the behaviors of Ace Attorney’s writers while my mind also isn’t as quick on the draw as it was when I was 17, I’d sooner believe that they were just more careful this time around–whether it was an extra pass of QA, or something else, it seems to have worked.

Overall the game felt easier, partly because you can save anywhere and health bars aren’t a big deal, but that’s overwhelmingly a positive change: getting rid of artificial difficulty only. Applying a bit of Knox’s Decalogue and some good faith, I was even able to predict the culprit of the final case just slightly before the game started dropping the less subtle hints and asking me to identify that person. That felt good, especially given how absurd it was–it felt like the way a victory over a mystery novel is supposed to go. Sometimes guessing the culprit was pretty easy, but the whodunnit was clearly meant to be a lot more obvious than the specifics of the howdunnit, and I found myself impressed and thrown for a loop by the twists and absurd conceits of the cases, even when I immediately knew who to blame.

There’s a new attorney working under Wright, named Athena, and she comes with her own special power: the mood matrix, allowing you to try to empathize with how angry, distressed, happy, or surprised a person should be at a given moment and to identify contradictions, and I think this meshes pretty well with the existing mechanics, given how loose the Ace Attorney world has always been with real courtroom procedure anyway. In addition to this power and Apollo’s returning ability to identify a person’s tells when they lie, Phoenix himself is back in business, and it would be both difficult and embarrassing to overstate just how excited I was when I saw my first Psyche Lock (Psyche Locks!!). They might have been made too easy, though–in earlier games, you might start breaking one and end up not even having the evidence to finish it off.

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The new argument-forming segments at the conclusion of each trial are somewhat reminiscent of the flashier Dangan Ronpa games that have since appeared in our post-Ace Attorney world, and I like them as a relatively risk-free way of allowing the player to state things for themselves.

While there are more cases than ever before (6 including the DLC), investigations have been streamlined a bit. You only closely examine one or two rooms in a given case now, rather than everywhere, but with the shift to 3D, you get to turn the crime scenes around and see more of them. There’s less filler text about random objects in the scenery, but worry not; they don’t forget to work in a stepladder, and a higher concentration has been moved into regular dialogue–like Athena commenting on the signage outside of the Cosmos Space Center–so I’ve got nothing to complain about. If that’s not comforting enough, you can always present random evidence. I’d say you get a unique remark out of 90% of the people you show your attorney’s badge to, no matter which of the three lawyers is your acting protagonist.

I’ve always wanted the ability to keep my own notes in-game, so when I saw a “Notes” section in the court record during the first investigation segment, I was pleased, but in clicking it I realized that it was just an automatic To-Do List with some pointlessly sparse case background info, and not something I could write in or otherwise keep up to date with every theory and loose end I had in court. It might reduce guesswork slightly in presenting random pieces of evidence to every character (not that I would stop doing it, because there’s always an easily missable joke every now and again) in order to advance through those segments as quickly as possible, but I thought it was hastily implemented and generally useless.

Presentation, plot, etc.
Ace Attorney has transitioned from sprites into 3D about as wonderfully as Pokemon did, although Pokemon didn’t have nearly as much to lose. As a big fan of pixel art, I’m a little sad to see it go, but the change means that the new game animates better than ever, as Klavier’s beautiful air-guitaring in Ace Attorney 4 was way above what the games could be realistically expected to look like with any regularity. If this helps secure a budget for more games in the series, I’m all for it–the fantastic visual quirks of characters haven’t gone anywhere, and even the DLC case doesn’t let up.

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Some of the bigger moments get anime cutscenes, and I found these irritating, mainly because of the awkward voice acting, which is thankfully limited to “Objection!” elsewhere. If cutscenes were absolutely necessary, I would’ve much preferred something like what Fire Emblem Awakening did with its pre-rendered cel shaded stuff, or even something with the in-engine models, given how much I like what they’ve done with them already. And wouldn’t that be cheaper, anyway? The cutscenes didn’t detract from my enjoyment for more than 30 seconds at a time, but I’m hoping Ace Attorney 6 will drop them.

Text speed is deliberately timed, and its speed varies depending on the mood and action of the scene, but it felt torturously slow at times, and I say this as an already slow reader. You can manually skip to the end of a line, which is good when the game is punching out “10:30 AM – Courtroom No. 4” or whatever for the millionth time, but it can otherwise cut an animation short. There are also a large number of typos, so if wasn’t already obvious from the digital-only release that the English localization was on a tight budget, the lack of an additional proofreading pass makes it abundantly clear. The font was also a bit big for my tastes, and the backlog occasionally glitched up (fixed with a save & quit), but these are nitpicks.

As always, there were little oddities here and there in the story–the in media res opening was a bizarre choice, given how long it took to be resolved, and it meant that at the start of the game, relevant details from chronologically earlier cases were inexplicably ignored. I had trouble swallowing a twist at the end of the DLC case, although I certainly enjoyed it otherwise. There was also an element in the third case that I thought Apollo should’ve been able to warn Athena about, although I’m sure there are all sorts of bigger issues I never even considered, and if there’s a list of Ace Attorney plot holes somewhere, these probably barely make the cut.

The legal system is insane in its tolerance with contempt of court, perjury, and bias in favor of prosecution, as usual, and I find these things hilarious and welcome. The defense and prosecution end up both overtly against the game’s big villain in court, and while I wouldn’t ever shed a tear for an Ace Attorney villain, it was pretty ludicrous of a legal system claiming to be impartial. More importantly, I’m a bit surprised that there was no mention of the jury system that was attempted at the end of Ace Attorney 4. Maybe with all the fake evidence and trumped up charges going around, and faith in the system at an all-time low, it became unfeasible to convince participation in anything like a jury, but that’s just a wild guess.

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They did great work putting the ridiculous cases together. The prosecution tends to keep a pretty strong case against the defendant going right up until the end, which means there’s not going to be a point where you can effectively clear your client’s name but still see them go to jail by losing to a penalty (when the real culprit hasn’t been identified). In fact, as far as I remember, this is the first Ace Attorney where you might get a client acquitted before the end of a chapter, and I thought that was cool.

The music is cool as always. It’s not on the level of the Jazz Soul album or anything, but there’s some rad stuff in there. A few stand out for me when skimming through the soundtrack on youtube: as always, the new Court Begins (and this dark fanfare), the new Pursuit, and one of the Reminiscence tracks (Tragic Memories). A few good old themes also return with a few good old characters. But I still think the best stuff I’ve heard out of the series is some stuff from the GBA era: AA3’s buzzy, bass-heavy Court Begins as well as this track, something of an obscurity, but one which always stood out for me.

Closing statements
This may have been my favorite experience so far on the 3DS, or at least approximately on the level of Etrian Odyssey IV, but far less of a time investment. I shouldn’t be too surprised. I was barking out the laughs and getting drawn into the characters, their animations and stories, just like I always have with this series–if not more than usual. Although I felt at a few points that the developers might’ve done better by distancing themselves more from the formula, the Ace Attorney Investigations games did exactly that, and from the one of those that I was able to play, those changes had very little effect on what made the series beautiful anyway. So they can do whatever they want.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.
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