The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles (Switch) Review
There’s never been a bad Ace Attorney game. In even the weakest of them there’s enough to love that pulls them above their weakest parts. That being said, in the years since series creator Shu Takumi handed the reins over to a new team I’ve not felt as deep a connection to the newer games. Focusing on adding gimmicks and raising the stakes to comically high levels, there’s just been something missing that the original games had. So imagine my excitement when it was announced Takumi was returning to pen two new games featuring the Japanese ancestor of series protagonist Phoenix Wright teaming up with Sherlock Holmes… and my dismay that these games would not be localised. And yet here we are, many years later, with both games being presented in one package at long last. I can happily say it was worth the wait, with The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles sitting up there with the best games in the series, presenting an engaging story that defies your expectations of an Ace Attorney game while building upon old mechanics.
The Ace Attorney games are visual novels which cast you as a lawyer who must solve various crimes in order to get their clients acquitted. Cases are split into investigations and trials; investigations play out like point-and-click adventure games where you’ll scour crime scenes for clues and question witnesses, while in trial segments you’ll need to press witnesses for more information and present evidence that highlights contradictions in their testimonies. It sounds dull, but trust me – the gripping mysteries and larger-than-life characters make it an enjoyable time. Nothing beats the feeling of working out how everything ties together and what piece of evidence you need to present to nail the true culprit.
This time around the cases are set in the past, which means that you have less advanced forensic methods available but also that, interestingly, the game’s setting is drenched in historical context. The Great Ace Attorney is set in 19th-century Japan and England, amidst developing relations between the two countries. While the original Ace Attorney games served as a critique of the modern day Japanese legal system, The Great Ace Attorney tackles the origins of this system. In the Meiji-era, Japan was sucking up to Western superpowers to secure power which cost the country some of its agency and identity. This is carried over to the game’s setting, with unseen powers clearly interfering in trials early on to appease England. Japan’s criminal proceedings are shown to be limited, with new protagonist Ryunosuke heading to Japan to learn from the English legal system. But while England is ahead of the game with bringing new forensic techniques and a jury into the courtroom, it soon becomes apparent how these systems can become corrupt and used to pursue agendas. Japan’s legal system did in fact change over the years, drawing inspiration from Britain, and would go on to form the corrupt systems which the original Ace Attorney games criticised. It’s much clearer this time around that the game is providing satire and commentary rather than just building an oppressive legal world.
The writing of The Great Ace Attorney doesn’t shy away from tackling heavy themes ingrained in its time period, least of all the racism faced by Japanese people at the hands of a colonial power. Witnesses will outright insult you on account of your race, and early trials are difficult due to the police and prosecutor’s office not wanting to give you the time of day. While the series’ traditional wackiness is still present, there’s a more sombre air to the proceedings thanks to the game’s themes and some of the cases taking a darker turn.
Another fun influence this time around is the canon of Sherlock Holmes stories, with Sherlock and Watson themselves being major characters in the plot. Sorry – I mean Herlock and Wilson, thanks to the overly-litigious jerks at the Doyle Estate. While Herlock’s aloofness is played up in typical Ace Attorney fashion he’s still shown to be a good man who comes through when it counts. Knowledge of Sherlock Holmes stories will really enhance the experience, because not only are there a few casual references to them throughout the game, but some of his actual cases are reinvented and incorporated into the plot. Sometimes knowing how the cases play out will clue you in on twists ahead of time but other times it’ll bait you into red herrings. Underlying the events of the game there’s a beautiful story about Holmes and Watson and the importance their stories have to people, and it’s clear that Shu Takumi is a big fan of the characters.
The Great Ace Attorney brings a lot of improvements to both the series’ presentation and mechanics, which makes it more engaging to play through. The environments you’ll be investigating are rendered beautifully in a style that makes them look like 2D drawings, but then the camera will pan around and reveal it was a 3D space the whole time. The music is up to the usual high standard for the series, but there’s even more arrangements than usual to help indicate when things are getting particularly tense or dramatic. But by far the biggest stylish improvements are in the character animations and direction. More so than ever before, the 3D character models are used to convey so much personality and there’s proper cutscene direction used at times to add an extra dimension to the proceedings. The highlight of each investigation is when Ryunosuke and Sholmes dance around the crime scenes, clicking their fingers to summon spotlights on key figures and evidence as they deduce what actually happened on the day. The game just oozes style and charm.
There’s been improvements in the gameplay department as well, particularly in the trials. Things are more grounded and less reliant on gimmicks than the more recent Ace Attorney games. There’s no magic emotion-reading machine or spirit channeler who can read the memories of the victim, instead the biggest new system revolves around a jury. This is a concept that was teased in past games but never picked up on. Your client’s fate rests in the hands of six ordinary citizens, but each of these jurors is a typical Ace Attorney character so maybe ordinary isn’t the right word. At certain points throughout the trial the jurors will make a verdict, by launching a flame into either the guilty or not guilty side of the Scales of Justice. The scales will slowly tilt one side or the other, providing a nice foreboding as the prosecution slowly wins them over. If all members of the jury declare the defendant guilty then you’ll have to cross-examine the jurors themselves! By comparing each juror’s statement to the others you can find flaws in their reasoning that will convince them to retract their verdict. These are exciting sequences that really make you feel like you’re up against a unified front, with Ryunosuke looking up at all the jurors from the bench and them all staring back at you with a backdrop of burning fire.
Mechanics from past entries also get fleshed out. Cross-examinations involving multiple witnesses at once is an idea brought back from the Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney crossover game. This allows witnesses to bounce off one another, sometimes giving away contradictions with involuntary reactions. By pointing out these outbursts you can move the focus from one witness to the other, getting them to explain their thoughts. The game points these reactions out a bit too obviously, so while it’s a clever way of bringing out additional information when pressing witnesses it’s not as engaging a mechanic as it could be. The ability to examine 3D models of the evidence is another returning feature, and it’s more important than ever. You’ll need to keep an eye on all the evidence handed to you in order to find all the clues. Sometimes a piece of evidence won’t get the reaction you want from a witness unless you’ve examined it further to add new details to the court record. While there were a couple instances of it not being clear that you need to re-examine particular pieces, overall I really enjoyed this focus on examining evidence. If you frequently examine evidence as you find it and as new information comes to light, you’ll be able to piece things together before the characters have worked the case out.
But obviously, major factors of the quality in a story-focused mystery game are going to be the cast of characters and the flow of the cases. The new cast is much stronger than the one we got after the series was soft rebooted with the fourth game. Protagonist Ryunosuke Naruhodo and his judicial assistant Susato Mikotoba are a strong pairing who come into their own rather than being carbon copies of Phoenix Wright and his assistant Maya. Ryunosuke is clumsy and soft-spoken at first – in his first trial he doesn’t raise objections, he raises his hand and politely asks permission to speak. But he develops strongly as a character even in the first case of the game, let alone over the course of the whole story. Susato is an interesting assistant because instead of being goofy and aloof like the assistant characters usually are, she actually has a background in law and investigation and abides by traditional etiquette. She covers for Ryunosuke when he gets overly flustered, and will discover loopholes in British law that the two can use to buy time in trials.
To every protagonist there’s an antagonist, and in Ace Attorney games they take the form of the prosecutors you face in court. Unlike other prosecutors in the series, Lord Barok Van Zieks has no pretense of a playful rivalry with Ryunosuke. He’s a menacing figure with a hatred of all Japanese and a reputation that precedes him. Dark rumours swirl around him about his behaviour outside of the courtroom, and he doesn’t take any of your nonsense. He’s a very compelling character and my favourite bit about him is the authentic lawyer-y way he mocks you by referring to you as his ‘learned friend’ in court. You’ll encounter a large cast of unique and quirky characters over the course of the game, and there’s quite a few recurring witnesses and jurors who’ll keep popping their heads up. This provides some interesting character development and funny running gags throughout the story.
In terms of the cases, there’s a good variety in that not all of them are murder cases and there’s some creative kills amongst those that are. What’s fascinating about the two games in this collection compared to other Ace Attorney games is that they’re actually two halves of a complete story. While previous games would give you a couple of teases at things to come in future installments, the Great Ace Attorney games are very much intertwined. While the first game does have its own self-contained plot, it builds on an overarching narrative that is resolved in the second game. I can see why the first game had a mixed reception because there’s plenty of unanswered questions at the end of it, which is very unusual for the series. So it’s a much better experience getting to jump straight into the second chapter and see how things are resolved. Each case feeds into the greater narrative in some way, meaning there’s very little filler, especially given that (aside from one late-game case) cases don’t drag on longer than they need to. While there are moments where you work things out ahead of the characters I found that, more often than is usual for the series, there were often still developments that I hadn’t seen coming to spice things up. Cases flow logically, and it was rare for me to be stuck on a problem and wonder “How the hell was I meant to work THAT out?” afterwards.
While the story does escalate with stakes that are higher than is usual for Takumi’s Ace Attorney games, I feel that the reason it resonated with me more than Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice is because it’s grounded in strong character arcs and a real political environment. You’re not being told that a victim was a protagonist’s best friend despite never hearing about them before this point in an attempt to artificially build emotion, or dealing with the corrupt monarchy of a kingdom of magical spirit channelers who want to kill all defence attorneys. The stakes feel real because you’ve been following these characters over so many hours of gameplay, seeing them connect to one another and grow, and the tensions between Japan and England were a real thing that actually happened. There’s heart at the core of the story that has been missing from recent Ace Attorney games.
While The Great Ace Attorney has a plot that’s self-contained and isolated from other games in the series, I would definitely recommend you at least play the original Ace Attorney before starting it. Not only will the enhancements in presentation make the earlier games harder to go back to, but there’s a lot of power in the way Great Ace Attorney plays into your expectations from series tropes and subverts them, as well as subtly drawing parallels between characters in both ‘series’ and their arcs. You could definitely play through this collection as your introduction into the Ace Attorney series, and it would make a hell of a first impression, but I feel you’d be missing that extra element that series fans will be experiencing.
The Great Ace Attorney feels like a passion project where Shu Takumi gets to explore his interests in Japanese history and classic literature, while developing a new cast with no baggage. His team also gets to flex their muscles with improved technology and a bigger budget, providing a keen sense of style that’s unlike anything else in the series. It shakes up the foundation of the Ace Attorney formula with a gripping story bolstered by interesting mechanical improvements. While Ryunosuke and Susato have a clear, contained story across the two games I would love to see more of their adventures in the future.
+ The new cast of characters is great
+ A focus on expanding existing mechanics over one-off gimmicks
+ Japanese history and Sherlock Holmes stories add depth to the story
- A few instances where it's not clear which evidence to present
- One case drags on a bit too long
- The Doyle Estate are jerks