2064: Read Only Memories

Here’s an interesting point-and-click investigation game. Ace Attorney isn’t a terrible thing to liken it to, but also stuff like Policenauts, given a couple clunky shooting segments. I liked it: the characters are endearing (the voice acting varies but it’s surprising work for such a small development team), there’s some good music, and the drama–while not totally gut-wrenching or unpredictable–managed to draw me in. But to be clear, this is not a challenge or a puzzle game. You have a path to follow.

There are quite a few funny throwaway lines, but you have to do some digging through the noise to find them. For any inventory object listed in an interaction with someone or something else, there are at minimum two lines of text in response to that interaction. That means that rather than a generic “I can’t use those things together!” when you try to use your ID card on a shrub in the park, they encourage you to use your ID card on that shrub twice–and then to use your carton of milk on the shrub, and then to use the ID card on the bench next to the shrub, and… well, suddenly the game takes twice as long to finish as it would have otherwise. Luckily–and this is something I’d like to see for all games in this genre, Ace Attorney included–if there’s nothing unique written about using an object in a certain situation, it won’t appear in the list when you try. Rather, the problem is that too much is written. It’s anyone’s choice not to participate in all these shrub interactions if they just want to move forward in the game, but I don’t want to miss something, y’know? I think in the end, much of it is a waste of both the writer’s and my own time. Especially the ones that just scold me for trying to use an item on something. You’re the ones who put the button there, man.

Since there are often more than two interactions when looking at or touching some object, it may have been helpful for completionists if buttons became greyed out once a player had cycled back around to the first response again. This is a nitpick, of course, but when you’re talking about UI and experience, a lot comes down to nitpicking. I also would have moved through the game with less frustration if, say, clicks were properly detected in times where my mouse was already over an icon before it appeared. A hold-and-release approach might have been better for this mode of interaction, too; I’ll say without complete certainty that Full Throttle worked like this. You tend to click a lot more in sequence than is honestly necessary. As a final design criticism, a dedicated text skip button would have been great.

I had a pretty annoying save bug where my game wasn’t overwriting an old save reliably, which is a pretty scary thing to get wrong. Once I discovered this problem, I just decided to beat the rest of the game in one stretch so I wouldn’t lose any more progress, but I also noticed that the devs have still been patching this game over a year and half after its initial release. I’m uncertain whether to be pleased that it’s still being given care, or to be disturbed that 2064 still can’t save reliably despite that care.

The futuristic setting is very Shadowrun, which is alright, but it’s that kind of sci-fi that assumes the word “otaku” will be used by more people in fifty years. (I would assume, optimistically, that there will be fewer.) There are parallels with DXMD, given the mistreatment of cyborgs and people with hybrid DNA by conservative groups, but I’m generally more aligned with 2064’s political slant: they reveal who this game is made for right away, when the destitute player character is getting email offers to do freelance writing “for exposure”. And while the game doesn’t really put Silicon Valley directly in its sights any more than DXMD does, there is a small element of dystopia in the world lore when it comes to the pretty scary privatization of public infrastructure. The social politics of gender identity, pro-choice, and so on are less subtle.

It’s probably better not to delve too deeply into the story, but I didn’t have a terribly hard time figuring where I stood with the characters, or otherwise tend to be wrong when going with my gut. For instance, I found it an awfully big coincidence that Fairlight was just put in the same hospital room as the player character by chance, although that hardly gives anyone the whole picture. While distrusting Fairlight was allowed in dialogue, it did feel a bit contrived that I was forced to continue to communicate with him as the story developed anyway. The scenario might’ve better accommodated this demand by making me feel more deeply in need of his help.

I probably liked what was done with Jess the most, although that’s not quite the same as liking her personality. Her help is needed at a few points in the story, but since she’s initially rude to the player, it’s normal to respond in kind, thus making her aid a little more awkward to come by. To me, her rudeness wasn’t so much my problem as her inability to dish it out but not take it, and it was only when she started treating me like a bigot that I actually felt we’d gotten off on the wrong foot. I thought it played out well in the chapters that followed.

There’s a little bit of reactivity in these character choices as well, as some characters decide to lend their support to you, or won’t, in your final objective. Few of these differences seem to affect the outcome beyond a few friends/not friends achievements, but there are some shallow plot forks for bad ends. I only played through once–and won’t likely do so again for a long time while there’s no means of skipping text quickly–but I failed to recruit Starfucker & Oli on the basis of calling for police backup in an earlier chapter, and it seemed apparent from their dialogue that it didn’t distinguish between doing that or just frequently being an asshole in conversation, which I never did. I suspect having their full friendship doesn’t terrifically affect things either.

On the other hand, I discovered some interesting variations in how to progress through a quest at one point when I reloaded a save: I could knock a security guard out with a stun gun, or talk my way past him. There’s still only one story, but you can definitely leave your fingerprints on it. It’s not a bad story, either.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

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.