Review: Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

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You got your puzzles in my trials! You got your trials in my puzzles! It is two great handheld games that play great together.

Despite the name, the two protagonists and their sidekicks rarely butt heads in Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The story begins with a girl named Espella fleeing from dark beings. She seeks the help of the famous Professor Layton and his “gentleman in training” Luke. After some brief puzzles and running around, the hatted pair encounter an ancient tome which causes them to disappear in a flash.

Called away from Ameri-Japan (while Capcom is consistent with its localization of the Gyakuten Saiban games, for some reason they felt the need to put the events in the U.S. and not Japan, despite dozens of clear indications in the backgrounds that he is from the land of the rising sun), Phoenix Wright comes to London on an exchange program for defense attorneys with the Legal League of Attorneys. As per usual, he is quickly coerced into trying a case with no notice, this time defending a seemingly mute girl – who will look very familiar – accused of a crime Wright and his assistant Maya Fey do not believe her to have committed. This trial serves as both a tutorial for the trial portions of the game, and as the start in a series of events that will cause the legal pair to encounter a strange book that causes them to disappear. 

After the save point, the two pairs will eventually meet and begin to investigate Labyrinthia, the walled city with a medieval fantasy vibe they find themselves trapped in. The land is ruled by a man called the Storyteller who writes stories that always come true. A series of magical murders will lead them to seek the truth about the nature of the town, and possibly lead to a way out.

Looking into the mystery, searching for clues, and mostly killing time until the next supernatural crime is committed plays out like the Professor Layton games. Players are given a general directive (“Go to the Bakery!”) and left to either go there or explore the town. In the few instances when there is some pressure on the investigators to get to the bakery of the moment quickly, trying to look at other places will be met with phrases such as “We need to get to the bakery!” The only gate to advancement in these investigation sections will be the puzzles that present themselves either at the end of a conversation with someone or are a part of the environment (the latter source is much, much rarer). Logic boxes, mazes and visual puzzles involving deductive reasoning will all challenge Layton, et al., to find solutions in the most gentlemanly way possible.

Eventually players will be able to access an area that will allow them to replay any puzzle they have solved or tackle any optional puzzle they happened to miss because they did not talk to the right person or tap the right something before the story advanced. The puzzles remain as solid as ever in this context, though it is less exciting to solve them out of a menu than to find them in the wild. Part of the fun in the exploration phase of the game is tapping on random things to see what comments our heroes might have to say about the location or item as well as the possibility that a hidden puzzle or a hint coin, the booby prize of Layton exploration, might pop out.

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The only meaningful addition to the Layton format is that some witnesses can now be interviewed. A staple from the Phoenix Wright games, some individuals have more to say than a few comments on how much they like living in the walled city or giving some non sequitur that leads to the presentation of a puzzle. Conducting the interviews is a simple task of clicking through the topics they have to discuss until they run out of things to say or something happens beyond their control prevents them from talking (e.g. guards dragging them off for state-sponsored interrogation, which may be enhanced). This is not as complicated a process as it often is in the lawyer simulation games as the interviewees will generally not be overly hostile nor do they require prodding to make them talk, but it is a preferable system to having to click through hundreds of text boxes with no way to organize, break up or repeat the dialogue. 

That being said, it would have been better if there were more puzzle or unlocking elements to get at additional evidence. To illustrate, in the Phoenix Wright games there is some mystical or psychic device which serves as a way to let players know that the witness is hiding something. It is then up to the investigating litigator to present some evidence or argument to make them talk. This provides a challenge to the investigations and also serves as a way to let players know more about the witness, where their true motivations lie, and also necessitates that a player – not playing with a book of solutions at hand – understand the mystery and the evidence. There is not a lot of this kind of gate to progress here to add challenge and ensure comprehension, and it feels like a missed opportunity.

When all of the evidence is gathered and a crime is committed, it is time to participate in a witch trial. As they are set up in the story, the trials are more formalities than actual searches for the truth as the entire town gathers in the gallery of the courthouse and cheers for the prosecution and eventual demise of the witch. Most lawyers would object to the prejudicial optics of the courtroom where the accused stands in a small cage, suspended by a chain above a pit of flames, waiting to be dropped to her death on a pronouncement of “Guilty,” but no one mentions this. In part this is because before Phoenix Wright the town had never known an advocate for an allegedly-magical defendant, an advocate who tried to prove someone’s innocence. The trials play out very similarly to how they play in the Wright games. The prosecution puts on its case that the accused is a witch, some witnesses testify, and then it is up to Phoenix to find contradictions in that testimony. Doing so enough times will reveal the truth of the matter, and show who is lying and why. Contradictions are found by listening closely to the testimony of a witness, and then presenting the facts in evidence that contradict this statement. This will then lead to a dramatic “Objection!”, and Phoenix will smugly explain what is wrong with that person’s statement.

There are a couple things different about the witch’s court than Nick’s usual stomping ground. For one, this judge with a robe and a beard wears a hood. At least is important is the reality of Labyrinthia, a place where magic is a real thing. In other games in the criminal litigation series there are a few instances of spiritual possession or low-grade psychic phenomenon, but nothing as drastic as summoning demonic familiars to kill people or witches able to set things ablaze with a word.  Because of this, the particulars of spells and the components necessary to cast them become evidence to find contradictions. For example, if someone is burned with a fire spell, but a spell book says that for this spell the caster has to be within ten feet of the victim, and a witness says he saw the accused witch on the other side of a meadow when the fire came down, then there is an obvious objection and the witness will have to scramble to explain this discrepancy.

Also different is that some of the testimony is given as a group. In most trials, real and virtual, one witness comes to the stand at a time. Here they’re in a real rush to burn some witches and up to four witnesses can testify at once. They tend to present a wall of people all saying “She’s a witch!” They also provide an opportunity to find contradictions as sometimes a witness will say something and another in the group will not agree with what is said. Asking one witness what she thinks about what another just said can lead to infighting and potential holes to inject logical theories and evidence to get at the truth. It is an interesting addition and it is fun to see the Layton and Wright character designs next to each other (even if they are ultimately trying to have the state murder an innocent woman).

In the trial sections Hint Coins may be used to narrow down the testimony to the portion that contains a contradiction or to highlight one or two pieces of evidence, one of which is the correct one that needs to be presented to reveal the truth. This is more meaningful than it sounds. One of the main problems with the Phoenix Wright games is that there is no sort of hint system, other than vague comments dropped by supporting characters. If you are in the middle one of the trials in those games and you are stuck, you just cannot figure out where there is a contradiction or how any of the things or people in the court records would show the inconsistency of a witness’ statement, then you only have two real options. One is to go outside of the game and ask someone who has already finished the game for a hint, or maybe go online to find the solution if you aren’t on speaking terms with electronic legal beagles. The other, within the game, is to save and then brute force guess, presenting everything against every statement, until the story advances. The games prevent this second strategy by presenting a creditability meter which represents the judge’s level of patience for Wright’s crazy accusations and conclusions. If it runs out with incorrect guesses, then the judge says that he has had enough foolishness, heard enough evidence and pronounces the accused guilty (resulting in a Game Over). But when you can save anytime, you can just reload the game and keep plugging away until you get the desired result, and then reload again and pretend like none of that guessing ever happened. It is not very satisfying to advance in a trial this way and it is very frustrating to know the answer to the mystery, but not know how the game wants your knowledge manifested. These same issues plague this game but they are addressed with the Hint Coins that can show, at least partially, you how to avoid losing credibility with the judge or break up the courtroom drama’s flow by reloading the game again and again.

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I have left the visuals for last as most of the reason you will play this game is for the plot, twists of the trials and the clever puzzles. It does help that the game looks nice though. Most of the backgrounds look fine, and from a technical perspective they are on a par with the last 3DS Layton game, though things never memorably venture outside of a generic fantasy setting. Some of the dramatic moments and the cut scenes are fully voiced, but the vast majority of the dialogue is not.  This may actually be a good thing as reading all of the text in this game aloud would likely take five to six hours. Getting through the story by reading at a decent clip keeps the tension and courtroom action going and in the few instances there is speech, I thought it slowed things down. 

The thing I think fans of both series – especially those in the center of that Venn diagram – will get a kick out of is how the characters do not look like they were done by the same artist. Professor Layton looks like he did in the last 3DS game, and Phoenix looks like he did in his game (adjusting for the fact that this game takes place before the events of Dual Destinies). No one looks like a re-imagining of themselves, it is more like the game is taking guys from two different lines of action figures and playing with them together. This separation also extends to the supporting characters which look either like generic, fantasy anime people or appear as though they stepped out of a Layton storybook. Even better, the noises made when the text displays for speech of the characters is the sound associated with scrolling text from their respective series. That is a very subtle touch that shows a reverence for both series. What fans may not get a kick out of is the new voice of Phoenix.  Until this point, he had not been voiced in any way other than to yell “Objection!” or “Hold it!” This might not be the voice people had in their heads when they were reading through all those DS trials.

The only flaw in this title is that is a salad and not a stew. A stew is ideally brewed over a few hours and the tastes of all the ingredients begin to partially mix together to form something new. The potatoes get soft in the hot water, and they also take on some of the flavors of the broth and tomatoes or whatever else is in the pot. Their color might even change. A salad bowl just has a bunch of stuff in it. The only way the tastes and textures will combine is if your fork happens to spear multiple things at the same time.  A careful gourmand can easily look down, examine what he is eating and only savor the individual tastes by picking his way through the meal. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney does take place in a setting new to each character but the two portions of the game, investigations and trials, are plainly just based on one game and not a true combination of the two. Looking around for clues plays out just like a Layton game and but for the fantasy setting and using knowledge of magic spells as evidence, the trials will be immediately familiar to anyone who has sweated through a few with Mr. Wright. These are the strongest elements from the best adventure games on handhelds, it is just a shame that they do not completely fuse together. I was expecting hosts of puzzles in the courtroom or a reliance on an understanding of the evidence to solve the puzzles when walking around outside and found myself a little disappointed that there was no true fusion. 

Still, peanut butter and chocolate taste great by themselves, and they’re still good when you put them together. This is still a fun game for anyone that likes using their noodle to unravel a story and may even get some players who only played one series until now to give the other a try. While it may not be better than the sum of its parts, the parts that are there are still highly polished and worth enjoying.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Solid puzzle solving, in and out of the courtroom
+ Combines characters with both series’ art styles and sound effects
+ References to the earlier games should please fans

Cons:
– The mechanics of the two series are more present than combined

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Level-5/Capcom
Release Date: 8/29/2014
Genre: Puzzle/Courtroom Drama
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.