A Puzzling Objection: Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

hisui_icon_4040 Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney always seemed like someone’s dream more than something that would get made. More the realm of fan fiction and comical videos than something you would actually play. Super Robot Wars, Project X Zone, Super Smash Bros., and Tekken X Street Fighter are all notable examples that while crossovers are not commonplace they are also hardly unheard of. So when the game was announced there was a good deal of buzz around the title. They are both melodramatic comedic puzzle games with a mystery structure and an anime style. The game play and mechanics  in both series was very different but it was fairly clear to most people with little effort both games could be combined in a way that let both of their strengths shine. All it would take is a smart story and a solid commitment to both sides of the crossover. There were a lot of things that could go wrong but it was equally feasible for the game to succeed big time.

And then we actually got Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I have read a bunch of reviews at this point and no one has hated the game. Overall all the reviews have been positive. But none of them have been glowing. If anything the general feeling has been underwhelming. It was fine but it could have been better. A lot of the complaints seem like nitpicks. They did not have enough cameos from fan favorite characters, mechanics from both main games could have blended more, the puzzles and court cases should have been tougher, hint coins made parts too easy, or the story could have been tighter were all sort of mediocre critics of the game I heard.

It is east to assume that this a the case of haters going to hate or that people have over inflated expectations that no game could live up to. But I don’t think that reaction is unwarranted. I think it is more people wandering through their reviews trying to touch on what made the game not live up to their dream but not being able to touch the core of their discontent. The thing is the sticking point might very well be at the heart of the story but to talk about that means spoiling a good deal of the plot.

So before we go to the rest of the review I’m going to give the game a quick one paragraph review and if you don’t want to be spoiled you can just read that and the decide if you want the game or not. But if you have played the game or don’t care about spoilers you can just continue past the next paragraph. I think that it the fairest way to do this.

I like the game but acknowledge its flaws. The game is decidedly more Professor Layton than Phoenix Wright in both storytelling and game play. Both halves get a chance to shine but Layton gets the first billing on the title for a reason. The puzzles for both halves is a bit more easy mode than what you are used to in the respective main series. If you are new to either half you won’t be over your head but if your and old hat don’t expect to be challenged most of the time. The story is fun but your mileage may vary on the twist during the last third. If you a fan of either series where is something to enjoy. The puzzles parts feel very Layton and I actually thought the Witch Trials were an interesting twist of the Ace Attorney formula. Just temper your expectations. This is more of good combination of two franchises than a golden child that is greater than the sums of its parts.

I might just be really happy that Maya has not been shipped off to the land of random offhanded mentions like she has in the recent games.

The game is 65% Professor Layton and 35% Phoenix Wright. When it comes to screen time the two teams get about an equally amount of love. I’m sure someone could do a chart that shows how many times Phoenix and Maya are on-screen vs. Layton and Luke. I’m more talking about the heart of the games that comes through more than simple number of lines uttered. While the lawyers are solving puzzles and archeologists are throwing out objections in the court room I felt that I was solving puzzles more than I was defending clients. There are four major court cases but they never felt like they were the meaty multiple day trials that you would have in a full Ace Attorney game. I mostly felt like I was playing a Layton game and there were some courtroom parts to change things up from time to time. To that end even the story felt more like a Layton story in themes, narrative flow, and how it wraps up.

And there is the major factor in why people are reacting to this game they way they are. I see complaints about minor points but they are more the little cracks people are seeing because they sense but might not be able to identify the more nebulous point about the game they are missing.

When I first heard that there was going to Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright game I think my second reaction might have been slightly different from the average fan’s. My first reaction was delight. I was excited to see how they were going to combine to make a fun series. Both games were similar enough to work together but different enough to make something unique. Past that point I think most people started thinking about the mechanics or stories of how the two games would intersect. Overall that is probably the most logical thing to think about. By my next thought was how will the world views of the series mesh.

The thing is there is clear and distinct magic in the Ace Attorney universe. Maya is a straight up mystic with the power to contact the dead along side other magical powers. The Phoenix Wright games go out of their way to avoid violating Knox’s 2nd rule as much as possible so the mysteries seem fair but it is clearly a world with magic. Professor Layton on the other hand runs into many situations where it seems like there is something magical going on but it always turns out to be a ruse. There is a good deal of Super Science! (with an exclamation point) which borders on Clarke’s third law but nothing outright mystical. There might be mecha and strange gasses but there are no curses or ghosts.

So the questions was whose world view would be dominant. 

The setting for the crossover distinctly brings this to forefront. Would Professor Layton finally have to deal with real spells and the occult or would Phoenix Wright have to uncover the conspiracy that makes it seem like magic is real? It really makes a difference as whichever one you pick as it solidifies who is in charge. If there is magic then the Ace Attorney universe is the foundation and Professor Layton is the visitor. If the magic is a hoax then the story takes more of its cues from Layton.

At first it seemed that the town of Labyrinthia was a comprise. A village that existed outside of the rules of either Layton or Wright. There was magic but it was very different that Ace Attorney’s magic. It was more rule based and Western D&D styled as opposed to the Eastern mysticism of the Kurain Channeling Technique. It was also not the generally mundane world of the puzzle masters. But there were little hints that the world might be playing by Layton’s rules. I had my suspicions but I figured I would give the game the benefit of the doubt. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future was a fairly enormous scheme so no plot was really off the table to explain how magic works but I figured I would hold off judgement. When Layton was turned to gold I was fairly certain the town was fake and when Maya died I knew that the final nail was placed in the coffin of any real magic.

This might not seem like that big a deal but it changes a lot about the game. First of all the general mood and rules becomes that of a Layton game. Now all the murder victims (other than the one suicide) are going to be proven to be actually alive in the end. Phoenix Wright is a series that kills off people left and right for cases whereas most of the “deaths” in Layton turn out to be misunderstandings. Also you will notice that Maya never does anything mystical. She is always just Nick’s oddly dressed legal assistant rather than also a hedge wizard of some ability. Also the big reveal of Labyrinthia’s true nature is really in tone with how a Layton game would end as opposed to any sort of conclusion of an Ace Attorney game. The final Witch Trail feels very Phoenix Wright (with a village sized body count to boot) but the overall ending is far more Layton.

Also that totally breaks S.S. Van Dine’s 7th rule of detective fiction. I don’t usually bring up Van Dine’s rules mostly because a lot of them are more rules against tropes he hated a opposed to tips to keep stories from feeling unfair. The Ace Attorney series follows that 7th rule like it was sacred. So there only being one death major present day death, and that death being a suicide, would probably get under S.S. Van Dine’s skin like nothing else.

This in turn is what I feel makes the game turn into more of a Layton game. After that point it is clear that Layton is in the driver’s seat. So when the game feels like you’re doing more puzzles than court cases and Layton seems more competent it should come as no surprise. The whole story structure has chosen its hero and its sidekick from the start. I feel that choice is what made more people feel slightly thrown by the game more than they realize. It was not enough to get people to dislike the game but it is a splinter than can annoy you but is very hard to spot and remove at the same time.

As someone who obviously cares about mysteries it is an important concept to understand. Magic is really a complicated issue to bring into any sort of mystery story. It can easy ruin them because the answers can often feel like they were pulled out of thin air and quickly just seem unfair to the reader. That is why Knox’s second rule exists. Adding a supernatural element won’t ruin every mystery story but when you throw it into a mystery story is becomes radically harder to appear fair towards the reader. The only way it really works in when the magic is so codified that solutions to the mystery seem as logical as anything that would occur in real life. So how a series like this deals with magic often goes a long way to determine how fair everything seems.

OK. That is dealt with. Now on to the parts of the review people who are not Kate and me care about.

Despite what I just wrote I think there is a lot to like about Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright. First of all the mixing might favor Layton but they mostly go out of their way to do everything they can to bring both hands together and have them blend homogeneously as much as they can. The bulk of the game is investigating the mystery Labyrinthia and Espella Cantabella. In the end this mainly goes in place of the parts of the Ace Attorney games where you have to do point and click investigation and no one really loves those parts anyway. You mainly tolerate them, and some of the clever dialog makes them more bearable, but it is the courtroom scenes that everyone loves. So the puzzles are far more fun than desperately trying to find that one item to get as evidence so you can advance.

I found the Witch Trails an interesting twist on the Ace Attorney formula. Every game tries to add some new clever mechanic to spice things up with the Psyche-Locks, the Bracelet, and Mood Matrix have all been added but they are all just minor little mechanics. The Witch Trails have all the witnesses on the stand at the same time often talking over each other. It definitely gives a fresh mechanic to the normal game play. It is not a mechanic that should become that standard practice in the main series but it adds flavor to this entry. It could have been a somewhat more complicated implementation but that speaks to the difficulty in general.

Overall this game is easier than most Professor Layton or Phoenix Wright games. That makes sense. I think they wanted it so that fans of one game would not be turned off by the difficulty of the game they had not played. While they are both puzzle games the nature of the challenges are different enough that they definitely use different parts of your brain when you are working on them. While it means that is very accessible it also means higher level fans will not get the workout they’re used to. I guess it all comes down to how much you value the story vs. your need for a more severe experience.

As I mentioned before the jump I was so glad to see Maya was back for this game. Apollo Justice and Dual Destinies have  gone out of their way to sort of pretend like Maya does not exist without just writing her out of canon. Dual Destinies is not as bad with at least Pearl being around and mentioning that Maya exists. She needed to be back this this story because Phoenix really needs another character to bounce off of. I guess they could have brought over Older Phoenix with Trucy but then you have to play Phoenix as far more competent. Also it adds a needed female protagonist to a series that has a fairly strong fandom among women. You also have Espella Cantabella but she at points is more a plot focus character than a protagonist.

I guess the only big spoiler part left to talk about is the big reveal at the end. Once I realized that it was a Professor Layton game I was prepared for a crazy convoluted story with mysterious super science, tragedy, and huge conspiracy that makes it all work. When I found out the story behind Storyteller and the Bell Tower I was not very surprised. If anything it seemed a bit par for course for the series. Not that you can’t point at someone like Dahlia Hawthorne as how crazy Ace Attorney can get but Layton is just a step above that. I know I saw a lot of people had mixed feelings on the ending but considering what has come before it seems mostly in tone with the history of the series.

If anything the only thing about the Layton focus that somewhat irked me was all the deaths in the Witch Trails don’t seem as impactful once you find out it is all a farce. The big reveal did not ruin the game from me but it could taint some of the  emotional punch of Kira’s death. It still worked when you thought it was real but I know when you show that it was just a trick it can sour some people to the original emotion.

It is easy to assume that I might not have enjoyed the game from my review. I do feel a bit like I went through what the game did wrong with a fine tooth comb but overall I had a blast. The game combines two great series in a way that lets each of the heroes and heroines shine in their chosen areas of expertise while also bringing threads of both series into tapestry of the other. It feels like the best sort of buddy adventure with a good mix of mystery and madness. If anything I wanted to examine why the game got the reaction it did. It is not like people hated the game. It was more like they went in expecting an 11 out of 10 and merely got a solid 8 out of 10 experience. It was good but not as good as they dreamed it would be.

I do think they could really follow this up with Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2 and get that high that people wanted. The formula is solid and the execution shows a proof of concept. A bit of reflection on what worked and fell flat in this game could really make a memorable sequel. A few minor tweaks could make everyone’s dreams come true.

I think if you have not played the game yet but for some reason read down to this point I feel the game is worth your time. Just plant you expectations on the ground as opposed to they sky and you will enjoy what you get.

– Alain

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