I have missed the feeling of a new Ace Attorney game.
It took so long for The Great Ace Attorney to finally come to the West that I still instinctively call it by its Japanese title “Dai Gyakuten Saiban” from time to time. With half a decade’s time between its original Japanese release on 3DS and the announcement of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles earlier this year, I’d almost lost hope that we’d ever see a localized release at all. Thankfully those worries have been proven wrong, and I’m happy to say that Great Ace Attorney may not only be worth the wait but also be better off for it in the end.
For those unfamiliar with the Ace Attorney franchise, it’s a visual novel adventure series where you play the part of a defense attorney in a court trial. Throughout the multiple cases you’ll take in the adventure, you’ll need to investigate crime scenes, talk to witnesses, and ultimately present your case in court in an attempt to prove your client innocent. It’s essentially a whodunnit story where you actually need to solve the mystery yourself in order to keep reading.
Let’s take care of the elephant in the room right away: the reason Great Ace Attorney took so long to be released in English, according to the franchise’s localization director, is because of its nature as a period piece. The game stars Ryunosuke Naruhodo, the ancestor of Ace Attorney’s regular protagonist Phoenix Wright, who is on a cultural exchange visit to London around the turn of the century. The game is a melting pot of references to both Meiji-era Japan and late Victorian-era England, all of which have been perfectly preserved with all the authenticity and charm you’d expect from an Ace Attorney game.
Dialogue is carefully written so that every character has a distinct voice that not only represents the wide variety of accents and dialogues in London, but also the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the Japanese main characters. Ryunosuke will often speak privately with his assistant Susato, and even though this dialogue is presented in English for the benefit of the audience there’s a noticeable change in their speech patterns that implies they’re speaking Japanese. The biggest giveaway is whether or not they’re using English or Japanese honorifics (Mr. Naruhodo vs. Naruhodo-san).
The culture and history of turn-of-the-century London is also a huge appeal of the setting. A lot of work clearly went into researching the time period to accurately portray not only the way people lived at the time but also the social and political climate. A running thread through the game’s plot is a friendship treaty between Japan and Great Britain—a real historical event that marked a big change in Japan’s foreign relations. There are also smaller things that have an impact on the story such as the lasting consequences of the British window tax that led to many homes in London filling in their windows with bricks. I could write a whole review just about how well The Great Ace Attorney presents its historical setting, but suffice it to say it is handled spectacularly. The only weakness of the story is one that’s inadvertently fixed by the long delay it took us to receive it. The first game in the collection doesn’t feel like a complete Ace Attorney adventure; in addition to the fact that it just feels shorter, the game ends with a lot of mysteries totally unresolved. If I had played this game on 3DS back in 2015 I would’ve been left a little disappointed at how much was held back in order to get me to buy a sequel. But now, in 2021, both games are featured in the same package. As soon as the credits ended on the first game I was able to immediately start playing the second and continue the story. The combined package turns two games that feel a little lacking into one game that feels packed to the brim.
In terms of gameplay, The Great Ace Attorney features all of the typical mechanics of the franchise and then some. Gameplay is split between two phases: investigations and trials. While investigating, you’ll interview witnesses and explore crime scenes looking for evidence or key pieces of testimony. Afterwards you’ll take what you’ve learned to the courtroom to defend your client. In trials, a witness will be called to the stand to testify and you’ll be given the opportunity to press their statements until you find something that contradicts the facts of the case. Once you’ve found a contradiction, you’ll present evidence to prove that the witness is lying or mistaken.
A new twist on the trial phase is the addition of a jury. Six jurors are present in every trial to pass judgement on the accused, and in typical Ace Attorney fashion all proper legal procedure has been thrown out the window for the sake of our entertainment. The jurors are colorful characters in their own right who give commentary on the proceedings, but eventually they may declare a guilty verdict in the middle of the trial. This isn’t the end, however, as you’ll then enter into a Summation Examination where you will effectively cross-examine the jury themselves in order to pit them against each other to break their consensus and force the trial to continue. From a legal standpoint it makes absolutely no sense, but it’s an entertaining way to add the opportunity to solve a cross-examination simply by putting two statements made in a testimony against each other.
The investigation phase has also been spiced up with the presence of the legendary Sherlock Holmes. Oh, sorry—he’s Herlock Sholmes, presumably the literary character created by Maurice Leblanc for the Arsene Lupin novels. His name is a clever callback to avoid legal issues, but it’s clear from how many obvious references are totally intact that this man is meant to be the great detective himself. During an investigation you’ll occasionally be thrust into “Herlock Sholmes’ Logic and Reasoning Spectacular” where the detective will present his deductions on the events of the case in a flashy and over-the-top spectacle. The twist is that each of Sholmes’ deductions has a mistake, and it’s up to Ryunosuke to correct it. Rather than present evidence, this is an opportunity to observe the finer details of the scene in order to make your own observations. These interludes are fun ways to spice up what is normally the less interesting half of an Ace Attorney game, and they do a surprisingly good job of capturing the spirit of Sherlock Holmes in gameplay.
The only problem with the gameplay is how it often allows the story to get in the way a little bit. This is a weird thing to say about a game that’s largely a visual novel, but it can make the process of unraveling the game’s mysteries feel a little frustrating. I can’t go too into detail for fear of spoilers, but one trial in particular feels a lot like the player is being strung along receiving new information that comes at convenient and unsatisfying times.
This is kind of the point of that part of the story since it’s literally the exact same thing that’s happening to the main characters, and therefore it does a good job of making you feel exactly what you should be feeling. Unfortunately since solving the whodunnit is effectively the only gameplay, it does leave a good chunk of the game feeling like you didn’t really get to play the game. The writers made a bold choice to instill in the player the same frustration as the characters, and while I respect that decision it definitely added to the feeling that the first game in the collection was a bit lacking.
Since the Great Ace Attorney games had never received a western release before, Capcom could’ve easily put the two games on a Switch cartridge with nothing more than a main menu to choose between them and no one would’ve complained. In reality, they took the extra step to really make this collection feel worthwhile to people who might have already played the original through the inclusion of some excellent bonus features. Eight “escapade” mini-episodes have been added to give a little extra screen time to the characters, and a gallery with concept art and a sound test round out the package. The gallery and sound test specifically are a huge appeal to me, since they feature commentary by the character artists and composers that give insight on the game’s development. These are exactly the kinds of bonus features that collections like this often lack, and they go a long way to add value to this package that could’ve easily gotten away with far less.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is simply a fantastic package that feels great to finally be able to play. Despite a few struggles with the franchise’s constant challenge of toeing the line between its story and gameplay, Great Ace Attorney feels like a series highlight. Ace Attorney as a whole feels like it’s in limbo now since we’re now four years past a brand new game being released in any territory, but hopefully this long-awaited localization is a sign of things to come. The Great Ace Attorney may not technically be a new game, but it’s still just as good as I would expect a brand new Ace Attorney to be after half a decade’s wait.