Hands on with The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
If there’s one thing I can say about The Great Ace Attorney, it’s that the game takes familiar aspects of other Ace Attorney games and then twists and distorts them in interesting ways. It’s absolutely a passion project from series creator Shu Takumi, bringing back mechanics from unexpected places like the Professor Layton crossover and shifting the quirky lawyer game into a setting rooted in history and classic literature. Within the sample of cases I previewed, I saw the game take many risks, with a story and structure that went out of the series’ comfort zone in some interesting ways.
For those unfamiliar with the Ace Attorney series, the games are point-and-click adventures which see you examining crime scenes for clues that you can then use to cross-examine witnesses in court. They’re rather linear, with the main point of interaction being that you have to present the right evidence at the right time, but the enjoyment comes from the gripping, quirky storylines and the “Aha!” moments you get when you finally work out how all the pieces fall into place. The general flow of The Great Ace Attorney is the same as previous games, and it’s made deeper with several new mechanics added to both the investigations and trials.
But there’s also a lot of differences this time around, as well. Previous Ace Attorney games localised the story and characters to be set within America rather than Japan; sometimes with hilarious results when the localisers were presented with things that absolutely did not fit within the new context. The Great Ace Attorney, however, has a plot that revolves specifically around the relations between 19th Century Japan and England. Even in the first case, this uneasy alliance factors into the plot, making for an interesting dynamic. Protagonists Ryunosuke and Susato depart Japan for London as wide-eyed students but soon come face to face with the underlying racism and corruption within British society.
While the writing maintains the series’ signature quirkiness, there’s also a more sombre air as it tackles heavier themes. For real, there are points where characters stop just short of calling you slurs, and I’m curious to see whether the original script crosses that point or not. The setting has a historical context so unfamiliar to Westerners, and the localisers get props from me for confronting the challenge head-on and being as faithful as possible. Outside knowledge is very beneficial to understanding the story’s themes, and I would definitely recommend doing some cursory online reading if terms and names like ‘Meiji-era’ and ‘Natsume Souseki’ are unfamiliar to you.
In addition to the historical allusions, an interesting factor in the story is that Sherlock Holmes is a key character. Well, Herlock Sholmes rather, thanks to the overly litigious Doyle estate. Sholmes’ inclusion is more than just a fun reference. The writers have done a great job of adapting the character very faithfully to Doyle’s work and incorporating aspects of actual Sherlock Holmes stories into some of the cases. Rather than being a reserved sociopath, this depiction of Holmes is jovial and clearly gets worked up into a child-like fervour when investigating cases. Even part-way into the first game, there were a number of direct references to Sherlock Holmes stories, so Holmes fans will definitely get a lot more out of the experience. It’s not often that I find myself offering reading suggestions in my previews or reviews, but here we are!
There are two main phases of gameplay in Ace Attorney – investigations and trials. During investigations, you move between locations to question witnesses and find evidence. These segments play out like point-and-click adventures and are the more relaxed part of the game. With QOL additions that have compounded over the series’ run, you’re never stuck wondering what you’re meant to be doing, and there are few chances of failure. The longer investigations can get a bit dull, but they’re spiced up with a new mechanic – Herlock Sholmes’ deductions. At certain points in the story, the great detective will claim to have solved things and let off a stylish and outlandish train of accusations. But the thing is… he’s not exactly right. He’ll be on the right track, but it’s up to Ryunosuke to step in and correct him. Sholmes and Ryunosuke bounce off each other like equals and come to discover the real truth. When Sholmes makes a faulty deduction, you have to step in and make a slight course correction to assist him. For example, Sholmes may notice a witness gives away the hiding place of evidence by staring at it while under pressure. But he might declare the wrong hiding spot, and so you have to identify what else is in the witness’ gaze that could be the real hiding spot. These climactic sequences do a good job of bringing the investigations closer to the trials in terms of excitement and drama.
After your investigation is complete, you’ll head to court with your client to get them acquitted of a crime. In these sequences, witnesses give their statements, and you’ll need to press them for more info or present evidence that exposes a contradiction in what they’ve said. Trials have always been the highlight of Ace Attorney games, but The Great Ace Attorney makes them even more engaging by adding in a slew of extra mechanics. One system I never thought would return is the mob system from Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, where you have to cross-examine multiple witnesses at once. Witnesses will sometimes react to the statements of other people, and you’ll need to follow up on them. Trials now also have a jury, something which was toyed with in the fourth game but never followed through on. At certain points throughout the trial, the jury will be convinced of your client’s guilt. Each jury member will then give their reasons for their guilty verdict, and it will then be up to you to point out the contradictions in their reasoning to keep the trial going. There’s so much going on in each trial, and you’re always kept on your toes. Each time you think you know how things will play out, it finds a way to surprise you.
While the cases I witnessed did run a bit shorter than is usual for the series, I didn’t feel as if that was a bad thing. Ace Attorney fans will remember some infamous cases that drag on way longer than they need to, but I didn’t encounter that here. Instead, I was presented with stories that did a lot with so little and subverted series norms and tropes in fascinating ways. While the plot doesn’t directly tie into the original games, I do feel you’ll get much more out of this game having played them because you can appreciate just how subversive The Great Ace Attorney get at times. It’s hard to discuss exactly what it is about these cases that are so fascinating without outright spoiling them. Still, there were turns in both the story and the mechanics that had me taken aback as a series regular on several occasions.
The cases I got to try in The Great Ace Attorney were a refreshing new take on the Ace Attorney formula, both narratively and mechanically. Even as a veteran player, I was surprised and delighted by all the directions it was going in. With the game still being a few weeks away, I’d definitely recommend playing through previous games in the series and doing some reading on Meiji-era Japan and Sherlock Holmes. I’d heard from people who’d played the Japanese version how ingrained the historical context and Holmes allusions are within the game and did some reading of my own beforehand, and I’m glad I did. There’s a lot more going on than in previous games, but there’s a richer experience for it.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is out on July 27th on the Nintendo eShop, if you’re after a physical version you’ll have to import it. OzGameShop is among those who have it.