The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
This post has spoilers for the Great Ace Attorney Chronicles between the horizontal dividers at the bottom. I've tried to keep it as spoiler free as possible throughout. Honestly you'll be fine!
Ace Attorney is a rather long-running franchise. I got the chance to play the original trilogy at the beginning of the year and it made me wonder how a series like this could evolve over time.
Not much it seems, which is totally fine.
That's putting a lot of hard work and attention to detail aside of course. The characters are now fully fledged 3D models - able to move with fluid animations instead of key poses. The courtroom itself is 3D too, with the imposing sense of gravitas that comes with it. The chiptunes of the Game Boy Advance have been replaced with a full-blown orchestra, playing some of my favourite music in the series. These advancements are largely technical, yes, but that doesn't stop them from being important.
This advancement in technology comes at risk of losing what made the low budget feel of Ace Attorney special. And while you can commend the effort to bring Ace Attorney to a more modern age, I think we should equally commend the effort made to retain the series' identity. The animations still have that charm that I loved so much, the many poses of Phoenix Wright being translated directly into his 3D ancestor. The music gently flirts with the line between a tribute to the old music while very much remaining its own thing. Miles Edgeworth's equivalent still has that chiselled jawline and those dreamy eyes. We're home, baby.
The silly names are back in full force
It's Ace Attorney, but more, almost to the point of comfort. Our journey starts off familiar, with our hero of the story, Ryunosuke Naruhodo being accused of a crime he didn't commit and, as expected, he has to prove himself innocent with his best friend and tester of my sexual orientation, Kazuma Asogi, by his side. But there's just one small problem: Ryu isn't actually a lawyer. Kazuma is. And yet it's Ryu leading the defence. What follows is an entire hour of our new friend stumbling around in a court of law and honestly? It's brilliant. It's amazingly hilarious and it makes sense, right?
Unlike the first trials of previous, this one actually had me stumped a few times. We are deep into conspiracy territory already. Our hero needs to do more than stare into the bedroom eyes of Asogi to get out of this one and he's just not all that confident in himself yet. The iconic thuds against the courtroom desk are but meagre slaps; obvious mistakes are made with nothing to be done about it; even the feeble Prosecutor Auchi (get it?) is looking like a formidable opponent. But the closer he gets to the truth, the fiercer we see Naruhodo become. We catch a glimpse of the great lawyer he is destined to be. In a great turnabout, he wins the case and finds the true killer. And like, sure that sounds stupid and it is kinda stupid but it's also kinda cool. Accidently finding yourself doing something that you didn't think you'd want to do but finding out you're not that bad at it? Very relatable. Basically my entire life. Anyway. Fast forward a bit and Naruhodo finds himself in Great Britain to learn as much as he can from the justice system of the greatest country in the world.*
*This is sarcasm, the British Empire fucking sucked.
You may have also noticed another small difference. We're not in Japanifornia any more. This is a story about a young Japanese lawyer moving to Great Britain after all - there's really no getting round it this time, and the game is all the better for it. The game regularly tackles the themes of the infant modern world and the seediness of the British Empire, but it never really goes all the way. It's more than happy to poke some fun, a feeling of veneer, but that's about it. Without revealing too much, it's a rather liberal interpretation - putting the failings in the hands of one or two bad actors rather than the system itself. More on that later I suppose.
The Great Ace Attorney - especially the first game - feels less personal and more of an examination of industrial London law and forensics rather than a development of characters. Photographs are becoming widespread, the use of autopsies are beginning to emerge and the game explores many of the artefacts of the time, from gas meters to hot air balloons to bogus machines that claim to teleport people from one point to another. It very much is "Ace Attorney but early 20th century" and is just unique enough to keep it from feeling too tired.
Which is very well, because there aren't too many mechanical changes compared to fifteen years ago and honestly? Thank goodness. That stupid magatama charm thing is gone, nowhere to be seen. All evidence is focused on the trial and it really is pure evidence now: you can't traditionally present people unless specifically asked. The investigations themselves are much more streamlined, with less stumbling around between places, looking for that one pixel you need to progress the story. On the whole, the cases are less convoluted. It's much easier to paint a picture of what actually went down.
And it's here that I would say that I feel very vindicated. That my dislike of both Justice for All and Trials and Tribulations was warranted and that Ace Attorney is at its best when it's at its simplest - able to present both a challenge to the player and the accommodation for mistakes. Not only this, but the developers have noticed and with the Great Ace Attorney Chronicles have made two of the finest games in the series. Buuuuut.
The first half of the first game is not great. The first trial is fine, but probably set my expectations a little too high. What follows in the second case... is no trial. It's just an investigation. Whether this was seen as a way to settle new players in or simply as a shake-up, I don't really know. As much as I am open to experimentation with games like these, I don't think it works. You've taken one of the major parts of the game and thrown it out completely. It's like eating a cake without eggs. Not that I've eaten a cake without eggs, but I imagine it leaves something to be desired.
For goodness sake, not again!!
It gets worse as the third trial is just that. No investigation at all. Now we have an abundance of eggs with no flour. Without venturing into spoiler territory, the trial itself is confusing, a poor introduction to many of the game's best characters and is yet another experiment that backfires. It's a trial that's meant to be a build-up to another one but it doesn't work nearly as well as Trial and Tribulation's fourth case, because here, you have no idea that's what it is: an earnest build-up leads to an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion indeed - even if it's intentional.
Luckily the game steps up after that and returns to its usual form - solid cases with satisfying pacing, investigations and all. Colourful witnesses and stern remarks from the prosecution. The remaining cases are Ace Attorney at its best and well worth the slog of the opening hours. The only complaint I have is that of the jury. It seems the developers couldn't help themselves and decided to introduce One Thing to try and freshen it up, only for it to turn into the baby brother of the magatama - a way to completely kill the pacing of any trial and make me question my faith in the general public. Every now and then, the jury will decide that Actually, They Are Bored of This and just declare the defendant guilty and then you have to do what's called a summation examination to get them to change their minds because they're idiots and guess what, you're probably bored reading this imagine actually playing through it.
Right, enough of this nerd shit, let's talk about Herlock Sholmes.
I'm going to struggle to reprogram my brain to realise that the Arthur C. Doyle novels are actually the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It's definitely going to slip on a few occasions I feel. This copyright avoidance manoeuvre only makes the character more hilarious in one of the best interpretations I've seen. Certainly better than that BBC nonsense. Herlock Sholmes is the highlight of the entire game and a carry of sorts during its low points. He beautifully straddles the line between incredible genius and clumsy oaf. I've reached the end of the game, played everything, and I'm not sure if I could answer the question of whether he's actually smart or not. A welcome new addition are the dances of deductions during investigations. You watch Sholmes stylishly prance around the room making wild accusations that hold no water at all, with the responsibility of steering the ship back to reality resting firmly on the shoulders of Naruhodo himself. There's only a few of these moments sprinkled about, but it's one of the best parts of the game. Sholmes himself is jovial and always a welcome presence, only occasionally veering into annoyance.
There he is!!!
It's not all fun and games though. The Great Ace Attorney feels a little more darker and grounded thanks to the themes. It's rather impressive just how well it sneaks the contradictory Ace Attorney zaniness alongside what is basically a constant stream of racism against the protagonist. Wherever you go, you are unwelcome. There are people that refuse to speak with you simply because you are Japanese and the main prosecutor - Barok Van Zieks - holds a deep-rooted hatred of you and your nation. While the game doesn't take a direct aim at the British Empire's colonialism, it still lurks in the background, with many character's view of the east on full display at times. It was rather surprising to see a game like Ace Attorney tackle something like this and I came out the other side thinking it did an okay job at doing so but could have easily gone a bit further (again, sorry to keep you waiting, but more on this later).
As per my last email (paragraph), Barok Van Zieks is your main adversary in the court room and he's... okay? He's clever and imposing enough and I loved giving him a Charles Dance kind of voice but he's just... sort of there. Even as one of the central characters towards the game's conclusion, he still has very little impact. Not only this, but we regret to inform you the duck is racist. He's a very difficult character to gauge. One second he's all "don't worry my learned friend, I will explain how law works" and the next he's like "I think all Japanese people are scum" and it's like ehhh... come on man, you're making it very difficult to root for here. Unlike the Phoenix Wright trilogy, Van Zieks has very little connection to the Naruhodo-sphere of characters and more to the world at large. His hallowed chalice shenanigans are entertaining enough and he does warm up towards the end of the game a little bit, but I don't know, it feels like there's something missing. Perhaps it's the romantic tension between him and the protagonist. At the very least, he is an interesting character.
Speaking of interesting characters, we are all here and present to stan for Susato, your trusty judicial assistant. In opposition to Maya and her tendency to ask what a light switch is, this time the roles are reversed and it's your turn to be a complete dumbass and question things, while Susato explains anything and everything, from how court proceedings work, to the latest technology out of Britain. Honestly, it's probably her that should be the lawyer here and not Ryunosuke, getting you out of several sticky situations with an almost superhuman level of knowledge and strength. I joke, but in my opinion, the character wasn't done justice. Susato almost feels a bit submissive, bending to the whims of whoever, be it the plot, the protagonist or anyone else. For a main character, there's no real development - nothing really changes from start to finish. One part of the game explains that women are not allowed in the courtrooms of Japan and this point isn't really brought to a conclusion or significantly addressed, despite there being ample opportunity. But who knows, maybe a third game will come out and prove me wrong.
I don't even want to do a character tier list for this one, but here it is anyway
So you're probably seeing a pattern here where the characters seem secondary to the overarching plot and, with the exception of Naruhodo and maybe Van Zieks, you're absolutely right. Let's hope that the overarching plot is something of substance then!
To be fair, it is. Contrary to what you might think, I didn't mind the deep dive into layers upon layers of conspiracy. The mysteries of the Professor and the Reaper of the Bailey were intriguing and ones that I was very keen on solving. The final three cases of the game are mammoths. The first of the three could have easily been passed as a final case, spanning many hours and exposing corruption deep in the British government, yet the final two cases up the stakes even more - merged as a supercase of sorts, where the corruption goes up to the very top to the Lord Chief Justice himself. Cool, I thought. We're going to find out that, actually, Ryu went to the other side of the world to study a super-cool justice system only to find that it's rotten to the core. There is no fixing it. Burn it down.
But don't worry! There's nothing wrong with the system. The system is fine. Just as Stronghart, who is proceeding over the trial, calls an abrupt end to prevent any charges from reaching him, it turns out Herlock Sholmes was recording the entire court proceedings (somehow?) and showed it the Queen. Who, instead of being a horrible colonising tyrant, is actually super chill about the whole thing and is like sure, that's right, that's the fault in our system that got a bunch of people killed, just lock him up and the problem will go away.
It's a little disappointing, especially considering the game went as far as it did. I could have done with a darker ending here, where Stronghart actually gets away with it and Ryunosuke heads back to Japan feeling disillusioned, yet eager to not let his own justice system devolve into that of the British Empire. I don't know, I think that would have been cool.
So yeah, now's probably a good time to say that I really liked The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles. It was really good. Probably one of my favourite games so far this year. It's just that we should probably try and hold games to a higher standard when they try to dive into topics such as "The British Empire was a bit crap", especially when this one struggles to stick the landing. Aside from the problems faced, there aren't many bad things I can say against it and despite the sombre tone, I still had a great time. The soul of Ace Attorney is still very much on display and many of the cases are that perfect roller-coaster of pacing, humour and absurdity.
There's a dog in it too, that's pretty cool.