Rocky start for a new beginning
The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures Review
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The Great Ace Attorney Adventures is the first game in a spin-off series from the modern classic Ace Attorney series of games built around criminal cases and court drama.
It differs mainly in that, as opposed to the rest of the series, it isn’t set in contemporary times, but during the late 19th century in Meiji period Japan and the British Empire.
You take on the role of Japanese Student Ryunosuke Naruhodo, who, after successfully battling himself out of the court for a crime he didn’t commit, goes abroad to the British Empire to study the British law and judicial system. Ryunosuke isn’t a law student, so this doubles as his journey of becoming a lawyer.
What the spin-off affords the game
The spin-off affords many exciting opportunities, but, of course, also challenges.
The game essentially being a clean slate allows for a sharp departure from the established series canon. The completely new cast of characters is the most obvious example.
Another such example is the soundtrack. Prior games in the series heavily relied on previously established melodies and themes. Those were usually either reused directly from previous games or arranged for jumping from one console generation to the next. The Great Ace Attorney features a completely original and orchestrated soundtrack. It sounds great, and it fits the period the game is depicting. But in my opinion, much more importantly, it helps the game establish an identity of its own.
The historical setting has also been used in a few compelling ways. So far, the series hadn’t made historical references at all. This was further complicated by the English localisation of the series changing the setting from Japan to the USA. Now, however, the game is brimming with historical references and factoids about late 19th century Japan and England. The game references laws from the time, local buildings in England such as the Old Bailey court, and famous historical figures like the Japanese author Sōseki Natsume.
New faces, old faces
While the game features a compelling original cast of characters, they largely fall into familiar archetypes.
The protagonist, Ryunosuke Naruhodo, comes very naturally after Phoenix Wright from the main series. He is determined and brave but also despairs easily in stressful situations in the courtroom. In Ryunosuke’s case, though, that character flaw is more understandable since he never studied to become a lawyer.
Susato Mikotoba is Ryunosuke’s judicial assistant. She clearly comes after Maya Fey from the main series, though not as playful. The charming, witty and empathetic character will be familiar to anyone who has played the original trilogy. On top of that, she is also quite assertive and forceful at times. I like her a lot, but I cannot help but see the missed opportunity for a female lead character here. The main series attempted to bring a female character to the cast of protagonists, but this was, for the most part, isolated to one case and neglected in the following release.
This game provided a clean slate, so the trouble of having to integrate a new character into a cast of well-known ones would have been avoided. And if you would have me believe that the British state would permit a foreigner with no formal education to work as a lawyer, why not a woman?
Two characters that defy previous archetypes in the series are Herlock Sholmes (yes, you read that correctly) and Iris Wilson. With a game set in Victorian London, the Sherlock Holmes character is a must, of course. Herlock is the same unstable genius we know from many stories in his young years. However, his deduction skills are not as good as the popular stories usually depict. He frequently gets small details wrong, and you’ll have a fun time correcting those mistakes. This twist is nice and, clearly, Sholmes is supposed to be one of the stars of the game, but I find the character of his assistant, Iris Wilson, much more interesting.
Iris Wilson is far more than just a gender swap for Dr Watson. She is a child prodigy, inventor, and chronicler of Sholmes’ adventures. At just ten years of age, Sholmes acts as her adoptive father of sorts, but she comes across as much more mature than him. She is charming and intelligent, and I’m sad we only see so little of her in this game.
As opposed to Herlock, who is a synthesis of the many different renditions the character has seen in fiction, Iris is almost completely original. Sholmes is what you would expect, but the only thing of Watson that remains in Wilson is that she is the chronicler of his adventures and that they live together.
The final character that sticks out is the series-typical prosecutor: Lord van Zieks. He is pale and dressed like an English aristocrat. This makes him look like a vampire and the game heavily leans into that. He absorbs the entire courtroom with his assertive personality every time it’s his turn to speak. His theme that prominently features a harpsichord and hits you like a brick wall of sound really sells those moments.
Van Zieks is very fun to watch. He often plays around with a wine glass of his: filling it, drinking from it, tossing it, or crushing it—I certainly appreciate the Castlevania references. He makes for a top contender for Top Prosecutor in the series, and that’s a title with tough competition.
Overall I’m happy with these new characters, but also a bit sad that largely the game falls back on established tropes instead of trying new things like with Sholmes and Wilson. This instance of a spin-off would have been the perfect moment to do it.
Old themes extended and revised
The Great Ace Attorney Adventures doesn’t waste this opportunity of a new beginning by just continuing the themes of the series and leaving it at that. Entirely new thematic strands are being explored here.
For one, the series, thus far, explored several issues in the legal system, often in the hyperbolic way. We are to understand that the justice system is not just at all. It is never explained, however, how it came to be that way. That is where this game comes in.
The Great Ace Attorney Adventures explores how the Japanese legal system was formed during the Meiji period of liberalisation and how it was greatly inspired by the legal system of the British Empire. When Ryunosuke goes abroad to London, we see many of the same issues already present. It’s very interesting to see this unfold, and it gives this game the fresh coating you would expect from a spin-off.
Certain aspects of the British Empire are greatly emphasised, even caricatured at times, to deliver an image of Britain that reflects Japanese views of it at the time. One such heavily emphasised thing is the technological superiority of the British Empire. The Japanese Empire, in its pursuit of liberalisation, sought to partially imitate the British Empire. As such, Japan is seen as technologically unadvanced, and one looks with marvel at the technological achievements of the British.
When our protagonists arrive in London, they speak at lengths about how different and greater everything is. The first interaction with the British legal system leads them to the office of the Lord Chief Justice, where a huge mechanical construct of gears looms in the background. While that is architecturally impractical and would make for a terrible place to do office work in, it drives home the message the game is trying to convey very efficiently.
The game does not solely portray British society as superior it also makes it clear that they see themselves that way. This leads to broaching the issue of the open white supremacy of Europe at the time. There are a lot of instances where racial prejudice is directed at the Japanese characters in this game. While certainly unpleasant, it obviously has its place in a game making historical commentary. But I can't say that I care much about this aspect. It boils down to the Japanese characters taking the racist abuse and later proving the person making racist remarks wrong. This happens by showing their competency, or that they possess a positive character trait that contradicts the stereotype. I really dislike this because would the racism have been fine if the racist stereotype was confirmed in that instance? It makes for shallow commentary, that's it.
Beyond that, another interesting component of the game is the jury. A group of six London citizens, chosen at random to decide the verdict. The game portrays these people as impulsive and easily swayed, effectively showing that involvement of the public like this doesn’t make for a better justice system.
This is interesting because in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, the “Jurist System” is presented as the solution to the game’s final conflict. This is not necessarily a contradiction, even though it might appear at first that the expressed opinions have changed here. The series often times shows your protagonists subverting, or outright breaking the law to peruse legal justice in this series. Clearly, that wouldn’t make for a great legal system. And yet these actions are shown as essential to deliver justice. The way this looks to me is that the game is saying that no justice system is capable of delivering justice in all cases. It might have previously looked like advocacy for a jury system, but this game clearly rejects that.
The game also continues the theme of belief in the justice system being like a religion. The Old Bailey courtroom looks very similar to the insides of a church with its stained glass windows. That house never had windows like that, but one would be missing the point if one were to criticise the game for not being historically accurate. In Gyakuten Kenji 2, the windows of the high prosecutorial office were styled similarly. Clearly, the game is connecting itself with this broader established theme. Though that connection is much thinner than in previous titles. Gyakuten Kenji 2 features the topic much more prominently, and Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice, released one year after this one, made it the entire premise of the game, so I am not complaining.
There are other moments in the game that felt like they were commenting on previous titles in the series. Most noticeably, when the game makes you defend a guilty person, similarly to Justice for All. Except here, it isn't the big revelation at the end of the game, but instead, it is used to build a story of betrayal and trust. The game gives you a case that violates your trust, and in a later case builds that trust back up again.
The big difference between the two clients used to tell the story is wealth. While your wealthy client uses you as a pawn to cheat the system, the other person is poor and has no one to put their faith into. The game’s message is clear: it is the poor people that need your help in this system, not the wealthy. I like this because it is much more in line with the identity the games developed over the years and ask much more interesting moral questions than: “But what if you defend a murderer?”
The gameplay additions
By now it should be clear, how this spin-off does take some new directions, but mostly tries to stay faithful to the core of the series. The gameplay is no different.
Largely the game follows the same gameplay tropes as the rest of the series and the additional court room mechanics from Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. This means multiple people can and almost always will testify simultaneously. Along with that, there are “Pursuits”, which are essentially ways of furthering the cross-examination by pressing other witnesses on the bench for their thoughts on the current statement. I’m happy these are back and are allowed to shine in a proper Ace Attorney game and not just a crossover.
A new addition to courtroom sections comes with the jury. When the jury unanimously advocates for a guilty verdict, you get the chance to examine the jury's grounds for doing so. These jury examinations function similarly to cross-examinations. Each juror presents their reasoning as a statemented. But unlike cross-examinations, your goal isn’t to uncover a lie, but to change the juror’s mind to prolong the trial. You do this by pitting contradictory statements by two jurors against each other.
The jury examinations introduce a new dynamic into the court room, because the way you would usually progress in such a section is by presenting evidence, but here it exclusively works with the statements themselves. This isn’t entirely new, though. In a previous game, there was an instance of having to press statements during a cross-examination multiple times in a specific order, to uncover the underlying contradiction. This didn’t work well however, because up until that point, you only ever had to press statements once.
Now, this idea was given its own feature and works much better that way. It makes for a welcome change of pace during court sections and you get to see more action from your main character, instead of a constant back-and-forth with the prosecution.
The other big feature that was added to exploration and examination sections are moments of so-called “Joint Reasoning”, where Ryunosuke joins intellectual forces with Sholmes. The detective may be world famous for his deduction skills, but in reality he often times gets crucial details wrong, even though his intuition leads him mostly on the right path. That’s where you as Ryunosuke come in. You get to identify and correct the small details Sholmes got wrong, to produce a properly useful deduction. This, again, is a bit like cross-examinations. You stop at a statement made by Sholmes and then try to figure out what he got wrong and present your own version of his statement. This usually involves looking around the environment for clues or presenting evidence from the court record.
All of this is presented in a very flashy and lively way. It almost feels alien to see characters move around so much on screen. Here the series is truly reaping the benefits transitioning to 3D.
It’s fun to watch, though the setup for it is bit longer than it needs to be in my opinion. But beyond that, it introduces some of the drama of the court room into the more calm exploration sections, which, just like the jury examinations, makes for a nice change of pace.
Sharply uphill, with rough decline
So far, I’ve been almost exclusively positive about this game. I really want to impress on you, how many good things this game has going for it. Other games in the series achieved great things with less. It is then a huge disappointment that a lot of this potential remains unused.
All of the great things I talked about so far get completely overshadows by the game’s poor pacing and structure. I will say, the game has a strong start, arguably the best in the entire series. Ryunosuke having to defend himself as a layperson in a case of high national interest immediately puts the stakes high. In the next case you get some breathing room with a pure investigation case. The game cleverly uses that time to introduce Sholmes and for you to learn about your soon to be judicial assistant, Susato.
It’s also a good setup for the next case which for balance, you’ll be spending entirely in court. Here the game also does a lot. It has to introduce the unique elements of the British justice system and introduce you to several new characters, including the new prosecutor van Zieks. At the same time, it’s the one chance Ryunosuke gets to prove his competency as an untrained lawyer. And further, the game makes you slowly realise that your client is a monster, who has deceived you into helping him in his scheme to cheat the justice system.
This makes for the climax of the game. It feels great up until that point, but after this there are two more cases. The one that follows is a lot slower, so you can recover from what came before. And the final case attempts to be the finale of the game, like is tradition for Ace Attorney. I say “attempt”, because it employs all the usual tropes to signal that the stakes are high, and even hints at the possibility of a conspiracy within the police. But all of this on reveal deflates to nothing. I cannot express just how disappointing that is.
I am not opposed to the third case being the high point of the game. It would be perfectly fine for this game and its sequel The Great Ace Attorney Resolve to play like one big game split into two, with the latter half of the first game properly preparing you for what will come in the second game.
To some extent, the game does do this. For example, it introduces you to Iris Wilson who no doubt, will have a huge role to play in the sequel, but then the game gets trapped in trying to deliver the typical Ace Attorney experience with a huge final case. But what is there just doesn’t live up to it.
In the end, there is a lot of hasty setup for a sequel, which leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It feels like the game saying that in the sequel, maybe, there is going to be an actually satisfying conclusion. All of this could have been avoided by not setting the expectations like that.
I am sure, that in that case, I would have finished this game much more satisfied.
The Great Ace Attorney Adventures has a lot of very interesting aspects to it. But unfortunately a lot of that potential is squandered by the game’s pacing and structure, which is terrible for a game that is part Adventure, part Visual Novel.
The first half of the game remains very good, even after finishing on a sour note. It makes you yearn for this game with the pacing issues absent.
Overall I can’t say this game is all that worth playing on its own. Especially not when there are so many other great games to choose from in this series. I hope that with all the build-up for the sequel, it turns out better than this game.