With that single word, Capcom defined a generation of niche gaming and revitalized a genre that seemed like an open-and-shut shoe-in for the death penalty due to archaic storytelling and gameplay conventions that would be held in contempt of any gamer’s court. Presenting a rousing defense of the adventure genre, Capcom managed to revive an aged concept with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which captured the hearts of niche gamers everywhere with its witty dialogue, interesting gameplay mechanics, and endearing characters. Now, eight years and five sequels and spin offs later (including one that regrettably never saw the light of day stateside), the series is up for a retrial as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney — Dual Destinies is released as a downloadable title only, following tapering sales numbers and disappointing market performance. One might be forgiven for thinking that it’s past time to put the series to rest and that these affable attorneys and loquacious lawyers may as well retire from the courtroom. Is the series still as fun and interesting as when it first started out, or is it time to call a mistrial?
Although Phoenix Wright receives top billing in the title, the game’s central story revolves around his two protegés: Apollo Justice from the 2008 sequel, and newcomer Athena Cykes, a gifted 18-year-old who has the ability to perceive the emotions of those around her. And the game is all the better for it, as it allows us to watch a more mature and confident Phoenix act as a mentor to characters who should be receiving more development anyway, while also letting us truly appreciate his character growth over the series when he finally does take to the court. Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes are incredibly sympathetic and well-written characters that remain optimistic and upbeat in stark contrast to their dire circumstances, a breath of fresh air in an era where the character creation mantra seems more focused on “dark and edgy” stereotypes. In a tip of the hat to the fans, whose reactions to the 2008 sequel were polarizing to say the least, Dual Destinies also has many cameos of veteran characters from previous games, mostly concentrated in the final case, where Phoenix Wright shares the spotlight with his two subordinates.
The story picks up shortly after Apollo Justice’s adventure with a grim case of a mad bomber detonating a bomb during a court proceeding involving Phoenix, Apollo, and Athena. The plot spirals downward from there, with the moniker “The Dark Age of the Law” serving as a strong backdrop for the trio’s struggle. The courtroom has become a dark and sordid place where prosecutors and lawyers fabricate evidence and indict suspects on false charges in order to secure victories, fueling contempt and mistrust among the public in regard to the legal system. The fact that one Simon Blackquill, a known criminal, is now acting as a prosecutor does not aid in engendering goodwill within the populace.
The narrative is paced excellently, with surreptitious clues and evidence peppered throughout the story that eventually lead to a shocking and well-written reveal at the end of the game. This leads to a satisfying conclusion to not only the main plot, but also each of the main characters’ individual backstories. Colorful characters such as a space captain who insists on calling his segway his “Galactic Scooter” and some very witty writing that include blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to pop culture add some levity to the otherwise somber proceedings.
The plot wouldn’t be half as effective if it weren’t for the game’s extraordinary presentation. It’s not just the fact that the characters are rendered perfectly in 3D in a way that makes them almost indistinguishable from their 2D sprites. The small additions like cutscenes illustrating the thought process of the main character at the end of every case as he or she arrives at the final conclusion make the process of securing a Not Guilty verdict for the defendant all the more engaging and exciting. The characters also receive new voice actors that do their job well, especially in the anime cutscenes. The package is completed with a downright unforgettable soundtrack that is an effective combination of newly composed tracks and remixes of old tunes.
The developers have streamlined the gameplay mechanics somewhat for Dual Destinies. As before, the game is functionally split into two modes: investigation and trial. During investigation, players comb crime scenes and question relevant witnesses as to the case they are working in order to obtain evidence and testimonies to present in court. In previous entries, players could search every location they came across, regardless of its relevance to the case at hand. While this made for some occasionally humorous dialogue to be dug up with enough perseverance, the tedium would quickly set in, as even relevant locations had no way to tell players what they have already examined and what they haven’t. Dual Destinies remedies this situation by allowing players to search only locations that will yield evidence, and helpfully indicates which areas have already yielded helpful information. This expedites the investigation portions significantly so that players can arrive at the more interesting trial sections while keeping some of the running gags the series is known for.
The trials are where the meat of the game lies, as the player uses the gathered evidence to cross examine witnesses and point out any contradictions in their testimonies. Adding to this is each character’s unique ability: Phoenix Wright’s superpower to use evidence to psychically detect lies, Apollo’s ability to see a person’s physical tell when they are holding back information, and Athena’s skill to analyze a witness’ psychological inconsistencies add some variety to a system that would otherwise become tedious in a 20-hour game. My only complaint is that these unique sections only come up once or twice per case, so their potential as a gameplay mechanic is largely wasted, making them seem more like gimmicks rather than fully-realized features.
Unfortunately, Dual Destinies’ biggest strength is also its greatest weakness: while it is a standalone title with a self-contained story that new players will have no trouble following, the cameos and references to previous games are so numerous that only longtime series fans can appropriately appreciate them. With hints that more appearances of past characters are a possibility for potential sequels, one can’t help but wonder if the series might eventually get too bloated and continuity-heavy for its own good.
Regardless, Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies proves that the series was not just borne of a happy accident, and that Phoenix and his ensemble cast of interesting and intelligently-written characters are a good match for a new generation of gaming. One can only hope that Dual Destinies garners enough sales to spur localizations of future titles, including those we’ve missed out on. With games like Layton vs Ace Attorney making the jump across the Pacific next year, one can certainly remain hopeful for a bright future for the series.
Verdict on the charge of the Ace Attorney series not worth playing anymore?