The Ace Attorney series has always been one that you can look at two ways; you can chuckle at its eccentricities and either enjoy it or dismiss it as an example of “weird Japan” (you’d be wrong either way), or you can look at these as nuanced reflections on Japan’s culture and legal system (with a healthy dose of humour for good matter). The Great Ace Attorney is, on the surface, a fun, silly ye olde Japane caper, but there’s actually so much more to this one.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is set during the Meiji era of Japanese history (and the Victorian era over in England, where much of both games takes place). I’ve already covered this in a preview video, but the Meiji era is one of the most fascinating periods of Japanese history. The country modernised at an unprecedented pace, having come out of a couple of hundred years of self-imposed isolation, and the Japanese were absolutely determined not to become a colony, like they were seeing happen across the rest of Asia. To prevent that from happening the Japanese decided to consume every piece of western knowledge and ideology that they could and then copy it, and England was of particular interest. And that’s why so much of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles takes place in England. And that’s why the Japanese characters respond to the English in the way that they do in the game. It wasn’t selected at random and it wasn’t just comic exaggeration. There’s a strong streak of historical authenticity that runs through this one.
There’s also a strong literary quality to the game. The protagonist, Ryūnosuke, is quite clearly named after one of Japan’s all-time great authors, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Natsume Sōseki, Japan’s absolute all-time great author, shows up. And then there’s Herlock Sholmes, which is indeed the great Conan Doyle detective, name altered to avoid copyright (notably not the first time that happened – Herlock Sholmes shows in Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin stories too… which are massively popular in Japan). There is deep cultural reverence for Holmes (sorry, Sholmes) in Japan. Their home-grown popular detective fiction author, Edogawa Ranpo, was massively influenced by Conan Doyle, and guess where the name of the amateur detective protagonist, Conan, from with anime behemoth, Case Closed, comes from?
Now, you could argue that all the name dropping of literary icons is there for the sake of it but… you know where this is going, right? It’s all there for a reason. Across the Meiji-era Japan was undergoing a massive struggle for identity – just how “westernised” should it allow itself to be? Are these new forms of government and legal systems right for the country? What traditions, if any, were worth holding on to? Guess where so much of this debate and soul-searching played out? Japan’s arts, and especially the literature from the era. The developers of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles are referencing back to these dynamics and the role of the artist through it all, and it’s at these levels that the game is at its most interesting and appealing. The story itself is surprisingly pedestrian at times, but the literary and cultural traditions that it calls back to are deeply interesting.
I should clarify that I don’t think the story is dull or uninteresting when I say that it’s pedestrian. It’s just that it doesn’t do anything surprising by the standards of the series, ad it does run a bit long. It seems strange to say this about a courtroom drama game, but those court cases didn’t need to be quite as extended to get their point across. The biggest offender here is the way that the English court cases within the game feature a jury system. It’s a bit of humour that they’re in there at all (the idea of juries would have been just incredible to the Japanese of the time), but mechanically their presence means that in each court case you’re going to need to spend time convincing every single juror to see the evidence in the right way. Before you know it, the game’s hit 30+ hours on the clock… and then you remember that there’s a sequel still to work through in the package as well. As I find myself saying, far too often in this industry, if you’re not writing War and Peace your game shouldn’t be that long, and the developers could have found a more abstract, efficient way of pushing through those jury scenes.
There is one thing I have to admire about this collection, though, and that’s the localisation. Localisers deal with a lot of (usually underserved and generally ignorant) criticism in this industry, but good localisation is an art form in itself, and traditionally the Ace Attorney series has had terrible localisations. For whatever reason, there was a time where the localisers figured that western players would be that uncomfortable with a game set in Japan that they needed to re-locate the stories into America, and with that came an Americanisation that could, at times, be utterly irritating. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, meanwhile, actually respects the player and deals with all kinds of interesting localisation challenges. There’s a brilliant piece on those exact challenges over at Polygon that I highly recommend you check out. The result is one of the greatest examples of localisation that we’ve ever seen in video games. Perhaps even eclipsing Yakuza 0. It’s something that people interested in getting into localisation should study, almost line-by-line.
Finally, it does need to be noted that while the game could have been incredibly serious – it outright deals with topics as unpleasant as racism and colonialism (and we all know where historical Japan went shortly after the dates depicted in this game) – it blends it with the series trademark humour in a way that never comes across as contrived or offensive. That’s a difficult balance to find to be sure. The art is also colourful and vibrant, and the overall package is so well presented and refined with “special contents” galleries and it really should set the standard there for other developers to follow there as well.
You don’t need to have played any other Phoenix Wright games to enjoy The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles. It is related to the broader franchise (Ryūnosuke is the ancestor to Phoenix), but it’s a completely separate adventure. The historical context makes Ryūnosuke’s adventure particularly compelling, but even if you’re just looking to let that wash over you and be entertained, there’s enough humour and style to The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles that the only real problem with it is that it outstays its welcome by just a little too much.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb