Review - "Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney" (3DS)


The most recent main entry in the venerable "Ace Attorney" franchise had one phrase uttered dozens of times throughout its hit-or-miss story: "the dark age of the law."  It referred to the fact that corruption in the legal system had become rampant, with forged evidence pushing forward cases in which the "ends justified the means." To a lesser extent, that's how I've felt about the game industry as of late. Giant games boasting most preorders in history or developed by some big, AAA studio who developed some other massive franchise are dominating the market. Trailers with gameplay that is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, fabricated and not indicative of the final product. The ends justify the means, just so long as the big companies get their profit. It's instilled me with a healthy dose of bitter cynicism about gaming in general, and for a while there, I felt like I wasn't going to be able to keep on reviewing games, or pursuing a career in that vein. There just wasn't enough to keep me going.


Yet there were some bastions of hope. Some of the upcoming Fall titles look engaging, the return of survival horror into the marketplace is great, and, more related to this review, Nintendo has put up its dukes again and started pounding into the competition again. Given that I love the company dearly, and that I obviously am heavily invested in the "Ace Attorney" franchise, this title was always a no-brainer purchase for me. In fact, it was one of the reasons I wanted a 3DS, when it was announced way back in 2010. I didn't know how good it would be, though. In fact, I had no idea that one game could singlehandedly restore my faith in video games, and my love of them. But that's what's happening with "Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney." It sounds hyperbolic, but this is one of the best games I've played this year.

The set-up is ridiculous and whimsical, very befitting of both franchise involved. A mysterious book owned by a girl named Espella holds the history of Labyrinthia, a sleepy town that feels straight out of a fairy tale. And indeed, Espella's book makes that seem like a likely possibility, considering it not only holds the tale of Labyrinthia's past, but of its present and future as well. In two very different capacities, Layton, Luke, Phoenix and Maya get involved with Espella, and get drawn inside of the magical tome. To their surprise, being sucked inside of the book takes them straight to Labyrinthia, which is very much a medieval joint complete with knights, cobblestone streets, and... witch trials. Yep, you see where this is going, don't you?

Four rational individuals are thrown into a wildly irrational world and expected to survive. Not only that, but they're expected to go up against widespread superstition to save innocent lives, and to try and topple a man known only as the Storyteller, who is essentially a god. Will logic prevail? Will their objections be heard? Or will the future written by the Storyteller come to fruition and foil everything our heroes are working towards? The basic conflict of this game is a top-notch "fish out of water story," and it's one of the best adventures any of the characters have ever had.

The entire experience is punctuated by clever moments of self-awareness.
What makes the narrative work so well is not only the core conflict of "logic versus superstition," but the combination of excellent pacing and great characterization. Layton and Phoenix are entirely out of their element, and watching them try to navigate the waters of Labyrinthia's tenuous legal system is thrilling, to say the least. The horrific nature of a guilty verdict equaling instant execution is balanced out by both series' signature senses of humor, which work perfectly together. It pushes all of the characters to their logical extremes, and as somebody who enjoys both series, it's a pure joy to watch unfold. At the same time, the game's structure and excellent usage of cliffhangers makes sure that players don't get too tired of puzzle-solving or courtroom drama, breaking everything up into nice chunks that prevent tedium from setting in.

The gameplay itself is a perfect combination of both series' hallmarks. Sections in which you're pointing and clicking are now not only filled with puzzles, but with clues and evidence that can be used in court. This means that you'll see Phoenix and Maya solving puzzles in the same fashion as a Layton game, as well as Layton and Luke questioning witnesses and discussing evidence in a similar way to an Ace Attorney entry. This simultaneous combination and role-reversal is the compelling kick in the pants both franchises have needed in recent entries, in my opinion, and keeps things constantly engaging.

Long-time fans of the Ace Attorney franchise, the ones who expect each entry to have a cool new mechanic (Psyche-Locks, the Mood Matrix, and the like,) will be pleased to see two new features added here. It's a bit of a mixed bag, though, as one of them is a bit perfunctory, while the other is surprisingly novel and interesting. The useless one is the addition of a spell book, which the player can use to present different spells in court. We've been collecting and presenting evidence since 2005 (earlier in Japan,) though, and this just feels like another arsenal of evidence as opposed to a legitimate new feature. That being said, the second addition is having multiple witnesses on the stand at once, which is a healthy amount of chaotic fun. Different testimonies contradict each other and trigger other trains of thought of other witnesses, and it's up to the player to suss through all of these to get to the bottom of each case. It's a novel feature that could only really work in this setting, and while I'd like it to return, I understand that it wouldn't work using the modern legal system as a template. As it stands, I'm grateful for such a cool feature here, and appreciate the exciting twist on the formula it brings to the table.

All of the cutscenes are gorgeous.
I would say that my biggest qualm with the gameplay is the incongruous mixture of difficulty and mollycoddling players get. I get that hint coins are an integral part of the Layton series, but I don't really feel like they have a place in Phoenix's courtroom. It's true that Ace Attorney has always had a problem of oblique answers to vague questions, but using hint coins that either narrow the evidence you can present or straight-up tell you the answer to things is not the right way to go about fixing that. Personally, I would have preferred better lines of logic instead of a cheap tactic driven by collecting trinkets which are overly abundant in the game world. That doesn't speak to the quality of the core mechanics themselves, of course, but it is something that I really take issue with. So while everything works as well as it should, some more fine-tuning of the lines of logic and less liberal application of coins would have been nice.

There are no real complaints in the presentation department. In fact, this is one of the best looking titles on the 3DS in terms of pure aesthetics. Just to be clear, that doesn't mean it has the most polygons, or the most "realistic" appearance. Instead, its art direction can only be described as brilliant. It is a beautiful collision of both Layton and Ace Attorney's radically different styles that feels tasteful, and is aided by a fantastic presentation in the town of Labyrinthia itself. Playing video games for as long as I have, I've seen plenty of medieval villages and mysterious dungeons. Yet few of them have managed to make me feel the sense of awe and whimsy I feel while playing "Layton vs Wright." It's filled with several interesting characters of varying art styles that, somehow, never clash, and feel like living, breathing citizens of their world. This fantastical cavalcade of bright color is tied together by a fantastic use of 3D and smooth character animations, further drawing players into Labyrinthia. Oh, yes, and those animated cutscenes? They're easily the best either franchise has ever had.

Arguably, though, my favorite part of this game is the soundtrack. Layton and Ace Attorney are both scored by some of the best in business, and have distinctive tunes which franchise fans know and love. While the primary Ace Attorney composer didn't work on this, which is kind of surprising, the main Layton composer and another famed game musician teamed up for the soundtrack this time around. The results can only be described as... actually, no description does them justice. But what I can say is that this is the best soundtrack, to any game, that I have heard all year. The light yet mysterious vibe of Level-5's games is given copious amounts of punch and spice by the signature brash and bold atmosphere of Capcom's. Musical hallmarks of both series are touched upon and messed around with in new, interesting ways, which helps drive home the fact that this is a true combination of both franchises.

Get ready for a variety of weird, wacky moments.
To me, that's what makes this a must-play. This is not a cheap crossover, an excuse to just throw a few beloved characters into a game in hopes of making a quick cash-grab, which is a shocker considering Capcom was involved. Like peanut butter and jelly, like fries and a chocolate shake (try it sometime,) this is a flavorful combination, with both tastes complementing and aiding each other to make the entire experience something that could not be replicated elsewhere. This game represents both franchises at the top of their game, no pun intended. It is both the best Ace Attorney since "Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney" and the best Layton since the early entries, mixed into 20+ hour experience.

"Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney" is not without its issues, but in my years of experience, no game is. As it stands, though, it's two fantastic franchises done right, thrown into one game and then put on the market at a budgeted price. For adventure game fans, it's a fantastic value and a great introduction to a cast of unforgettable characters. For fans of both or either franchise, it's everything you know and love, plus so much more. Either way, it's a fantastic game with very little hampering it from being one of this year's best.

At the end of the year, after the overhyped shooters and DLC cashgrabs have come and gone, I will look back on this game still, and might even still be playing downloadable puzzles and bonus episodes. I will look back on it and remember it as the game that restored my faith in games. Not bad, huh?

Pros:
- A lengthy, twisty story.
- Engaging, varied gameplay.
- Vibrant graphics.
- Beautiful, brilliant soundtrack.
- Both a great starting point and a great piece of fan service.

Cons:
- Hint coins have no place in the courtroom.
- The spell book is a useless addition.
- Ace Attorney still has some oblique lines of logic.

Score: 9.5 (originally published on Amazon)

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