Friday, 11 April 2014

Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The Nintendo DS was an unusual console. Often overlooked by the hardcore crowd, the DS still managed to become the bestselling handheld console of all time thanks to an abundance of puzzle games and slower-paced adventures that introduced a whole new audience to gaming. Perhaps the most influential of this new wave of casual games were Capcom’s Ace Attorney series and Level-5’s Professor Layton franchise, which combined puzzle solving and 90s-style point-and-click adventuring. Their influence looks set to continue on the 3DS, with both studios teaming up to deliver a crossover of epic proportions in the form of Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

For the uninitiated: the Professor Layton games star Layton himself, whose penchant for puzzle-solving constantly lands him and his young apprentice Luke in mysterious towns packed with mysterious secrets. By investigating each new location and solving puzzles given to them by the townsfolk, Luke and Layton are able to uncover clues and inch ever closer to the answers they seek. Ace Attorney, meanwhile, tells the story of defence attorney Phoenix Wright and his assistant Maya. Faced with a string of seemingly unsolvable murder cases, Phoenix investigates crime scenes, interviews witnesses, and gathers evidence – before taking part in intense “courtroom battles” against the prosecution and, hopefully, getting his clients off the hook.

The new crossover stays true to both series’ formulas, introducing a fantastical new setting rather than altering the gameplay. Late one night, Layton and Luke are visited by a panic-stricken girl called Espella, who claims she’s being pursued by witches. Espella hails from a mysterious city called Labyrinthia, and is clutching a book – the Historia Labyrinthia – which she says contains the “story” of everything that has happened and will ever happen there. That’s because Labyrinthia is ruled and controlled by its creator the great Storyteller.

The aforementioned witches quickly make an appearance in Layton’s office, whisking Espella away and leading the professor on a mad chase across central London. Meanwhile, Phoenix and Maya fly to England to take part in a sort of attorney exchange programme, and through a contrived series of events end up defending Espella in court. The game’s prologue ends with our heroes being sucked into the pages of the Historia Labyrinthia and finding themselves in the city itself; a medieval-looking place, complete with horse-drawn carriages, armour-clad knights – and witchcraft.

Phoenix and the professor eventually meet, reuniting with Espella in the process, and set to work uncovering the mysteries of Labyrinthia. From here on out, the game splits pretty equally down the middle, alternating between Layton-style investigations and Ace Attorney’s trademark courtroom battles. Professor Layton roams the city, talking to its inhabitants and solving countless puzzles in his pursuit of the truth. Having the story continually interrupted with puzzles (“This door is actually a puzzle!”, “This cup reminds me of a puzzle!”, etc.) has always irritated me, but there are less of them this time – about 70, compared to 150 in the most recent Layton game – and they’re also easier, foregoing some of the series’ more cerebral puzzles in favour of simple jigsaws. It makes it easier to power through the story, but hardcore Layton fans might be disappointed by the reduced challenge.

Luckily, the game’s Ace Attorney sections are as tricky as ever, and they’re where the game really shines. Phoenix finds himself defending at some of Labyrinthia’s archaic witch trials. By listening to witnesses testify, “pressing” them to elaborate on vague statements, and “presenting” evidence to point out contradictions, Phoenix’s aim is to undermine the prosecution’s case and demonstrate his client’s innocence. At the Witches’ Court, accused witches are suspended in a cage over the courtroom, allowing them to be lowered into a fire pit the moment they’re found guilty. This really ramps up the pressure, while Labyrinthia’s unusual laws prove challenging. This is a world where photographs, fingerprinting, and logic don’t exist, but magic and witchcraft are accepted as indisputable facts. And rather than calling one witness at a time, the prosecution gives Phoenix a mob of up to five witnesses to interview at once. It really adds to the game’s wonderfully hammy, melodramatic feel.

Layton vs. Wright is really, really long for a puzzle game, weighing in at 20-30 hours, and most of the time you’ll just be pressing “A” to advance the dialogue. Luckily, the writing is fantastic so you’re unlikely to care. The characters are distinct and loveable and there are plenty of pop culture references and call backs to both series’ running gags. The localisation is very well done, too, although it did fail to fully nail the Ace Attorney characters’ personalities in the game’s opening hours. The game’s biggest downfall is its pacing. I’d made it past the ten-hour mark before I thought, “OK, the story’s actually getting started now.” I doubt most people will stick with it that long, unless they’re a fan of visual novels, Professor Layton, Ace Attorney, or all three… although those that do will be rewarded with the game’s excellent, batshit-insane ending.

Excellent voice acting and lavishly-animated cutscenes punctuate the game’s key moments and the soundtrack, this time a fully orchestrated score, is in a class of its own, successfully incorporating familiar hooks from both series. And all that is complimented by the game’s beautiful art style. The 3D backgrounds drip with detail and characters are brought to life with smooth, fluid animations. Even when they’re not doing anything, which isn’t often, you can literally see them breathing.

This really is one of the best games of the year, and I think it deserves a place in pretty much every 3DS owner’s collection. Even in terms of longevity and value for money it blows most other games out of the water. That’s why, despite its shortcomings, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney proves critical thinking really is the key to success, with a score of 4/5. Take that! 


Mike Lee

Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney at CeX

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