"All of the above speaks to Capcom's ability to put together a fantastic Ace Attorney game..."
Editor's Note: This review has been written based on Scarlet Study's fan translation, as neither Dai Gyakuten Saiban title has been officially localized by Capcom. As such, we are omitting the story score, and only assigning scores to "official" facets.
Back when I was a kid in the 90s, there were few things more frustrating than knowing Final Fantasy V, one of the latest entries of my favorite series, was out of my reach because (at the time) it was only available in Japanese. But that all changed in 1997, when a group of dedicated fans known as RPGe (some might even call them Warriors of Light) released an unofficial translation online. When the game's ROM was patched with this translation, the world of FFV was finally open to English speakers. I was, of course, ecstatic to finally play a game that, up to that point, I could only read about in magazines.
I felt a similar thrill a few years back when I discovered that another group of dedicated fans known as Scarlet Study were busy localizing Dai Gyakuten Saiban, one of the three untranslated entries in the Ace Attorney series. Today, thanks to these intrepid translators, English-speaking fans can finally play the game for themselves (provided they import an original Japanese copy, as we did).
In Dai Gyakuten Saiban: Naruhodō Ryūnosuke no Bōken (translated to The Great Ace Attorney: The Adventures of Ryūnosuke Naruhodō), you play as Ryūnosuke, a second-year law student at Teito Yuumei University in Meiji-era Japan (specifically, the late 1890s). Accused of a murder he didn't commit, Ryūnosuke must defend himself in court with the help of legal assistant Susato Mikotoba. After proving his innocence, Ryūnosuke has the opportunity to travel to London, England to study law. He soon finds himself thrown into the courtroom to defend client after client, despite only being a student who is woefully unfamiliar with the English legal system. Thankfully, he has the help of Susato, the brilliant inventor Iris Watson, and her partner, the world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes!
The Great Ace Attorney looks absolutely fantastic. Much like other modern games in the series, all the characters and locations are 3D modeled, maintaining the style of the charming, old 2D sprites while adding a new dimension of detail and animation. The game features many of the usual trappings and settings of an Ace Attorney game, but with a 19th-Century twist on everything, resulting in a simply stunning aesthetic. It's over the top in the grand Ace Attorney tradition but also feels like a period piece taking place in a steampunk-inspired version of Victorian London.
Along with that setting comes something that dramatically ups the stakes compared to previous Ace Attorney games: historic depictions of racism. Victorian England was not a paragon of tolerance for those from different cultures and nationalities, and Ryūnosuke and Susato face prejudice at every turn. As a Japanese attorney, Ryūnosuke regularly confronts this bigotry in the courtroom, where opposing prosecutor Barok van Zieks is often openly and shockingly racist without penalty. You would expect this from the villains to drive home how dastardly they are, but Ryūnosuke and Susato deal with this kind of behavior from most "friendly" supporting characters as well. They are not just standing against the prosecutor and criminals, but the entirety of Victorian society. Anti-Asian racism is a subject not often addressed in Western gaming, which could be part of the reason why Capcom declined to localize The Great Ace Attorney.
Ace Attorney games are known for the quality of their music, and this installment's spectacular soundtrack doesn't disappoint. There are lovely Victorian-style interpretations of classic Ace Attorney themes like "Pursuit" and "Confess the Truth" that make use of strings and other period-appropriate instruments. There are also a few new standout tracks, with "Sherlock Holmes ~ Great Detective of the Foggy Town" being one of the most epic character themes I've ever heard!
While there is Japanese voice acting in the anime cutscenes, the translation team at Scarlet Study hasn't replaced it with an English dub yet (though that is in the works). This didn't bother me at all in sections where Susato, Ryūnosuke, or other Japanese characters were talking with each other, but it was genuinely distracting to hear Victorian-era citizens of London speaking flawless Japanese. I understand this was a necessary convention, as creating a truly bilingual game would have significantly limited the game's audience. Still, it would have felt much more authentic to have characters speak their native languages where appropriate, using subtitles as necessary for the audience to follow along.
Most Ace Attorney cases tend to follow the familiar pattern of three trial days with two investigations. That formula goes out the window in The Great Ace Attorney, as trials usually take place in a single day. I welcomed this change in gameplay structure, as it makes each trial much more immediate. You never have the chance to leave the courtroom to investigate and catch your breath, which increases the pressure you're under in every case.
Another change to the trials is the jury system. Though the judge hands down the verdicts, the jury decides them. The developers take a very dim view of the suggestibility of jury members, as all of them are more than willing to call for a guilty verdict before all (or any) evidence has been presented. When this happens, you must give a closing argument to convince at least half the jury to reverse their verdict, which keeps the trial going. You do this by pointing out flaws in the reasoning of each jury member. This style of gameplay is also reflected in cross-examinations, as there is often more than one witness on the stand at a time. A similar system was used in the crossover game Ace Attorney vs. Professor Layton, and it is just as effective here.
Investigation sections work pretty much the same as always, with one big exception: Sherlock Holmes occasionally shows up to make some of his famous deductions. Unlike his literary counterpart, however, this version of Sherlock Holmes is unfortunately a little less than on point with his observations. By teaming up with him, you can point out where his deductions are slightly off the mark to derive the truth. It genuinely feels like you're working together with the great Sherlock Holmes, and his dramatic choreography (reminiscent of Detective Cabanela in Ghost Trick) makes these sections a delight.
All of the above speaks to Capcom's ability to put together a fantastic Ace Attorney game, something they've proven time and time again (Turnabout Big Top notwithstanding). The question about this particular Ace Attorney game is how is the fan translation? And on the whole, it's pretty solid! The team at Scarlet Study has successfully captured the tone of Ace Attorney's official English localizations. The jokes are funny, and the characters are over the top and outrageous, as they should be. That said, there are areas where the translation falls a bit short of the mark.
Rather than attempt to write period-appropriate dialogue, Scarlet Study has most characters speak in modern parlance, which occasionally undermines key characterizations. For example, Ryūnosuke, who comes off as extraordinarily formal and stiff through his actions, speaks in a very casual manner to friends, strangers, and even his superiors in the court system. It occasionally pulled me out of the game and made me wonder if his dialogue in the original Japanese was also super informal.
Another place where the use of modern speech stands out is the dialogue of Gina Lestrade, a pickpocket who finds herself under suspicion of murder. Scarlet Study has her speak in a 19th-Century cockney accent, but modern words are often awkwardly slipped into her dialogue; for example, she refers to Susato as "a chick." If you are going to attempt a historical dialect, it should be consistent with the slang of the time rather than borrowed from our own.
I must also admit that I was disappointed by The Great Ace Attorney's pun game. Traditionally, Ace Attorney games have fantastic wordplay with character names, but here they are mediocre at best. I chalked this up to the fan translation at first, but no, all of the names used in the game are the same in the original Japanese version.
The main problem I have with The Great Ace Attorney is that it doesn't attempt to tell a complete story. Entire plots and characters are built up to be essential, only to be dropped by the endgame. Presumably, these threads are picked up in the sequel (which I know the team at Scarlet Study is hard at work translating). Regardless of the existence of a follow-up, I expect Ace Attorney games to attempt to tell a complete story, but this entry doesn't even try. I would argue that The Great Ace Attorney is not a satisfactory standalone experience, making it even more frustrating that its sequel isn't readily available to play (at least not in English).
So why hasn't The Great Ace Attorney been localized by Capcom? I imagine that many factors come into play, including the massive headache that is the copyright status of Sherlock Holmes (he should be public domain by now, but the Conan Doyle Estate is continuously fighting it). But I believe the real reason is that despite being primarily set in England, the game is specifically about a Japanese man from a certain era of history facing astounding levels of racism in his chosen profession. Capcom may simply feel that Western gamers are unable (or unwilling) to jump that cultural gap and process the often uncomfortable realities that our hero is confronted with on a daily basis.
That's why I am so thankful to the team at Scarlet Study. A few strange artistic choices aside, their translation is wonderful and very true to the spirit of Ace Attorney. Could Capcom do a better job? Maybe. But it's safe to say that an official localization wouldn't have a quarter of the love, devotion, and passion that drove this small team of translators and programmers to complete their task. Here's hoping we get a full translation of The Great Ace Attorney 2 in the near future. (And please hurry; the unanswered questions are just killing me!)