Review- Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies

Phoenix Wright has had an illustrious career- a rapid rise to glory as an undefeated (if fumbling) juggernaut of the criminal defense field, his disbarment in the wake of a cunning frame job, and his ultimate redemption in clearing his name. He’s cross-examined clowns, a parrot, and even a hostage-taking  hitman via walkie-talkie. He never gives up, he always trusts his client, and he does it all while facing the scorn of a prosecutor, and a justice system that is weighed against him. For Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, he’s putting that defense attorney badge back on, and wading out into the fray with his two proteges- Apollo Justice and the newcomer Athena Cykes.

I love the Ace Attorney series. Its animations are entertainingly over the top, its premise is patently absurd, its writing ranges from clever to hilarious, and its drama has that soap opera appeal of being the most endearing form of dumb. The series has ranged in quality, from the sublime Trials and Tribulations to the underwhelming Apollo Justice, but that’s if we’re talking about how good they are compared to each other. Any one of them is still a game I am deeply fond of. Dual Destinies (or AA5) is not the worst of the lot, but it’s a hell of a long way from being the best.

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An Ace Attorney game really lives or dies by its story and writing, and that puts AA5 on shaky ground. On the most basic level, there are a significant number of grammatical and spelling errors in the game- for a visual novel, this is pretty disappointing. They are not constant, but several times a case you’ll flinch at them- and since your trained eyes will skip over errors on their own, this means there are even more mistakes than you’re noticing. Setting them aside, however, you’ll still find yourself troubled by AA5. The original writer of Ace Attorney (Shu Takumi) isn’t involved in this one, and it shows. The logic of various cases is spotty, with obvious holes or bizarre justifications. AA crimes have always been weird and kind of nonsensical, which is part of the fun, but they were are least internally consistent. There’s not as much of that here.

Your playable characters, too, are something of a letdown. The nicest thing I and another AA enthusiast I spoke to could say about the new protagonist Athena Cykes is that she’s “inoffensive.” There’s nothing very interesting about her, but she moves the story along and tries to be charming in an incredibly generic way. Phoenix himself takes a backseat to his pupils, which is in concept a good thing, but anyone who’s played AA4 knows that Apollo Justice isn’t compelling enough to handle the spotlight himself, nor is Athena. Ultimately the main characters are just not engaging.

The prosecutors are a better effort, though again not exceptional. Gaspen Payne shows up for a single episode, and he is little more than a punching bag- a pushover enemy while the game is teaching you the ropes. In the rest of the cases, you will cross blades with Simon Blackquill- almost literally. Blackquill’s schtick is that he behaves like a samurai- his hair is in a ponytail, he uses the “-dono” honorary preferred by samurai, speaks of honor and battle, and even slashes at you with his hand when angered. What’s more, he’s a convicted criminal, with court cases his only chance to leave his cell and be a productive member of society. The shackles on his hands make for a very awesome “I can break these cuffs” moment the first time he shatters them in anger, but the game quickly overuses this gimmick to where he’s breaking them every half hour.

Prosecutor Blackquill makes for a decent enough opponent- his style of manipulating those around him with psychology would only work in a game with characters as simple-minded as those in AA, but since they are that simple it’s often amusing and effective. The way he ultimately ties into the story of AA5 is worth experiencing, and as you learn more about why he ended up behind bars, he legitimately becomes a fun character, even if he’s not half as enjoyable as fantastic enemies like AA1’s Edgeworth or AA3’s Godot.

The witnesses are mostly just okay, doing the job well enough without being especially charming or grating. There are, however, two standout exceptions, both in the third case of the game. The first is Myriam Scuttlebutt, who… well. Let me just put a picture up.

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Yeah. That is a law school student who is also a gossip journalist, who wears a cardboard box over her head. Her animations are a blast, she’s fun to interact with, and she’s just damn funny. For all Myriam’s charm, however, she pales in comparison to Robin, another witness and the best character in the game. Put frankly, Robin is a contender for my all time favorite AA character, in a franchise that is all about enjoyable characters. I don’t want to spoil what makes him such a treat, as there are many twists and turns with him, but if the only thing we walk away from with this game is the improved graphics and Robin, it was all worth it for series fans.

Speaking of which, AA5 has finally decided to catch up with the modern era. While the characters in previous AA games were enjoyably animated, it was always a little absurd that they were still stuck on using sprites in this age. AA5 makes the leap to polygonal graphics, and it could not have gone more smoothly. The models all look crisp and vibrant, and the animations are better than ever, with the same speed and urgency of the sprite animations, but with the added grace of fluid 3D animation. We could not have asked for a better first stab at 3D, and hopefully it will be sustained and expanded upon into the future.

The systems that AA5 introduces, however, are rather less successful. Athena introduces the new Emotion system, where you try to read an opponent’s emotion to help them remember traumatic events, or detect when they are intentionally hiding something. It’s a decent enough idea, but the implementation is certainly lackluster. The justification for using it is always flimsy, and pressuring a witness with it feels like an unearned victory. Harassing a witness because they “didn’t seem surprised enough” when describing an event is dumb, and even in the eccentric world of Ace Attorney the judge should be calling you out for it. Another new system is the classic visual novel text log- at any time, you can check a log of previously received messages and dialog. An absolutely vital feature that was long overdue… but is also irritatingly buggy. Numerous times, I went back to check the log only to see that it hadn’t recorded the line that I missed, and I had no way of learning what I’d skipped over. You had one job, text log.

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Other than that, it’s a lot of little things that bog the game down. There’s no options menu, which is irritating because the text scrolls at an unacceptably sluggish rate. The game’s anime cutscenes actually look worse than the ingame 3D models. Steps taken by Apollo Justice to make evidence more involved- recordings you could listen to, objects you could rotate and examine, videos you could watch- have been tossed aside in favor of static images and text. And though they had five games worth of material to pull from, there are astonishingly few callbacks to the great characters and cases of games past.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is not a bad game, and I really mean that. I enjoyed my time with it, and anyone hankering for more Ace Attorney will enjoy it too. But it has flaws in nearly every aspect, and so much of it is just too hard to care about given the lower quality writing. Sure, it’s a game worth playing, but if you’re not well versed in the series, do not get this game. There are far superior options available to you, and the thought that someone might buy this game instead of, say, AA3 is more than a little upsetting. Ace Attorney has been done better, and god willing, it will be done better in the future. It’s hard to recommend a crime drama with stupid crimes and boring drama.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

I rate games not by overall quality, but by how strongly I think you should give them a shot, and how much I enjoyed them. Rating their relative perfection is not interesting to me.