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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (Nintendo 3DS)


Review by Clark A.

Visual novels in the vein of Danganronpa and Steins;Gate have garnered a broader, worldwide audience in recent years. It’s possible they owe a touch of that heightened interest to a humble defence attorney, Phoenix Wright, who first appeared in North America when the Nintendo DS was in its infancy. Placing players in the shoes of Mr. Wright, his debut game struck a chord with an underdog story. It was all about a relatable, bumbling lawyer who pursued objective truth in the face of impossible odds by believing in his clients. The plot could be equal parts goofy and harrowing while also offering just enough interactivity to convince those on the fence about actually having to read.


An accurate depiction of courtroom drama or the legal system these games are not. Phoenix Wright has had to cross-examine a parrot, endure an onslaught of coffee-tossing and whip-cracking prosecutors, and then listen to a man ramble about his precognitive hemorrhoids. Even so, its use of character-driven storytelling and intricate relationships allows it to broach serious themes such as abuse of the legal system, blackmail, and the impact of the corrupt on youth. Each game shrewdly tells an arcing story throughout four or five court cases, making every episode feel worthwhile individually and as a piece of a grander whole.

A worthwhile sequel was born in the form of Justice for All, which featured some fun characters before one case finally put Phoenix Wright’s fallible moral code to the test. The third game in the series, Trials and Tribulations, is widely considered the favourite as it revealed longstanding mysteries, brought character development throughout the previous games full circle, and went out with a poignant, emotional bang.


Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney started out in an unenviable position by swapping its seasoned main character for a legal greenhorn, the eponymous Apollo Justice. The way it reintroduced the well-established Phoenix Wright character was also controversial. Following a lengthy time skip, this man who had once overcome the legal system and bested undefeated prosecutors was seemingly relegated to being a lousy pianist in a goofy hat.

Brush that animosity aside, though, and you’ll find Apollo Justice follows the established formula of the older titles to a tee. Kicking off with what might well be the greatest introductory court case in the franchise’s history (for reasons I won’t spoil), Apollo finds himself unwittingly working for Phoenix Wright. Assisted by Mr. Wright’s magician daughter, Trucy, he goes on to defend clients from all walks of life. The structure is roughly reminiscent of the original trilogy with Phoenix Wright becoming the mentor in Mia Fey’s stead, Apollo Justice being the novice defense lawyer, and Trucy Wright replacing Maya Fey as the lovably optimistic sidekick. Thankfully, there are distinctions to keep the formula from being a carbon copy. Because we’re seeing established characters with newfound maturity, they can be as fascinating as the new faces.

What’s less appealing is the overall stagnancy of the lead character. I appreciate that Apollo eventually develops some nuance, but it probably shouldn’t take until the adventure is drawing to a close. To use a manga example, famed author Hirohiko Araki swapped out his first protagonist, a respectable gentleman, for a stylish cheater who occasionally acts honourably despite himself. The gulf between Wright and Justice didn’t need to be that pronounced, surely, but comparing the introductions of both characters side by side should do the talking. The story would have been served well by immediately establishing what makes Justice his own man. I wanted to love Apollo, but had to settle for "like" because he spends most of the game being Phoenix with a vest and horns. Trucy Wright can behave like Maya Fey 2.0, but the fact that she’s a magician rather than a spirit medium at least paves the way for fresh plot points and character relationships centred on her defining hobby.  


If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the original Phoenix Wright benefits greatly from serving a support role rather than being the center of attention yet again. His dishevelled appearance belies the wiser, more composed man that is his evolved character. He still bears the goofiness of his youth, but his actions reflect the journey players saw unfold throughout three lengthy games. When he makes unpredictable decisions, it invites players to speculate about what happened during the undisclosed seven years of his life. After viewing the action from this man’s internal perspectives for so long, it’s a shot in the arm for the series to see him from the outside and really breathe him in.

As a whole, Apollo Justice features a triumphant comeuppance story atop a passing the torch narrative of sorts. I do appreciate how the latter is reflected thematically via some of the world’s side characters rather than purely Justice’s circumstances. Wocky Kitaki, is the eventual successor of a group of gangstes, but his life is teeming with complications. Mr. Eldoon, the owner of a noodle stand, spent his life running away from his salt-obsessed forefathers before accepting his heritage and destiny.

Even when it’s not a matter of giving a nod to the younger generation, Apollo Justice is generally charming for how it reassigns roles of yesteryear to fresh faces. For instance, the science-obsessed Ema Skye replaces Dick Gumshoe, the lovable loser of a detective. Because Skye had time to shine in the extended cut of the original Phoenix Wright game, it's pleasant to see how she’s grown up and retained her idiosyncrasies. Prosecutor Klavier Gavin is a departure from the bitter prosecutors who abused Phoenix Wright in court and hated his guts, generally behaving in a more friendly way. While the dynamic between Gavin and Justice lacks the same personal edge and tension, Gavin still brings just enough pomposity to fit in with the rich prosecutor archetype that is integral to the series’ commentary on real-world courts.


The cases here might not be as high-stakes or emotional as the first or third Phoenix Wright games, but by all means they’re memorable. Crimes are typically related to the main characters in some aspect, creating a sense of drama that is more personal than solving random clients slice of life style. Still, Justice encounters his fair share of inventive scenarios, specifically characters with complications that have never previously arisen. One case tasks Justice with defending a young gangster he’s never actually spoken to while another prominently features a blind 14 year old foreigner. Later cases do require some real leaps in logic and suspension of disbelief, but the sheer ingenuity and zany nature of the series’ logic is such that I’m willing to overlook them.

While comedy is highly subjective, Apollo Justice may well win the prize for the funniest game in the entire series. That’s no easy feat, I hasten to add. The snide social commentary, wordplay, dark jokes, and character quirks are here and execute with panache. Yet, there’s one moment in particular that won me over. An early case involves the theft of panties, a concept I suspected would be leveraged more for fan service than anything else. Against all odds, the writers managed to throw down every innuendo imaginable whilst retaining a simultaneously mocking and gleeful air of innocence. Without spouting spoilers, the motivation behind said panty theft and the personality of the thief in question are positively side-splitting. The localised script also put a grin on my face with fun references such as the song Roxanne by The Police.

It probably sounds like I’ve spent this whole review comparing the fourth entry in the series to the first three, but this is the sort of visual novel that is best viewed through the contextual lens of its own franchise. It invites such comparisons especially due to how the plot is structured. This game tried to reinvent the wheel and if you’ve never touched Ace Attorney before, the depth of its plot points just aren’t going to resonate the same way. You’re better off picking the original trilogy as a starting point. The series’ modus operandi in satirising the flaws of the legal system (which is so heavily weighted towards prosecutors rather than defence attorneys, even outside of Capcom’s native Japan) remains as effective as ever. The game actually goes a step further in striving for reform.


The reliance on puzzle solving through logic is also a staple of the Ace Attorney series and that’s on full display in Apollo Justice. This series has always required players to pay more attention to each detail of the unfolding murder plots, more so than your average visual novel. Court cases are built around presenting the right piece of evidence at the right time or suffering penalties for your incompetence. The typical criticisms about the Ace Attorney series' structure apply. In this game’s case, though, needing to manually examine items in order to trigger events rather than intuit their meaning from context clues can prove to be a hiccup at times since the game wants you to proceed in a rigid order.

Because this was the first Nintendo DS exclusive entry in the series, the investigation portions of the game are a little more involved than the original trilogy. You'll find yourself manipulating items on the touch screen and blowing into the microphone for emphasis. Interactive court record items like a mixing board from a famous band make might sound gimmicky, but they instil a deeper sense of involvement in the proceedings that I appreciate. With past entries, you could really just bust out a walkthrough and treat the game as a visual novel devoid of player involvement whereas these segments enhance the detective process without being too intrusive.

The other more “gameplay” oriented aspect introduced here revolves around Apollo’s ability to sense lies spewed by witnesses. Apollo sports a magical bracelet that’s a little like a fantastical version of the techniques used in the TV series Lie to Me. He pinpoints falsities by examining the nervous ticks and micro expressions of witnesses at the stand. As with the touch screen interactions, I find the process to be a worthwhile one even if it requires patience. Mysticism played a key role in prior entries with Wright using the magatama to bust the locks on the cast’s minds. This system boasts a touch of realism whilst retaining that air of mysterious spirituality.


The character designs and art direction remain delightful through the use of techniques that require minimal animation. Watching a seemingly innocent witness transform into a different person once they've been caught in a lie never gets old. The series is well served by working within the visual novel format, as the recent anime tried to illustrate the full extent of the zaniness but lost something in translation. The updated game looks smoother than ever on 3DS and expresses the series’ charisma wonderfully.


Besides being a re-release with polished visuals, sounds, and minor script revisions, there’s not a whole lot to differentiate Apollo Justice from its original DS outing. It’s also not a game that needed terribly drastic alterations, however, so Capcom has realistically done all it could. Just having it available on the eShop is a triumph worth celebrating.

Make no mistake – despite my criticisms, Apollo Justice is an unforgettable entry in the Ace Attorney series. It serves to push the series’ overarching plot forward in meaningful ways while hammering home the value of truth to a world that so desperately tries to avoid it. It even represents the peak of comedy in a series that is renowned for it.



- Clark A.
Anime Editor

Review: Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (Nintendo 3DS)
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