The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
Given the tradition of Sherlock Holmes parodies – everyone from AA Milne to John Lennon has had a go – it was inevitable that gaming’s preeminent crime writer, Shu Takumi, would one day slip on the deerstalker. In the Ace Attorney series, which he created in 2001 and has orbited ever since, he leaned on the deductive reasoning of orthodox detective fiction, albeit wrapped in a manic energy that saw witnesses possessed and a parrot put on the stand. The question, then, is what happens when the inspired collides with the inspiration? Is this Sherlock Holmes in an Ace Attorney game, or an Ace Attorney in a Sherlock Holmes adventure?
Semantically, it’s neither: copyright issues result in the detective being renamed Herlock Sholmes, although his original name is clearly heard in the Japanese voice track. Sholmes isn’t a new legal workaround – Maurice Leblanc coined it in his Arsène Lupin books – and there is no doubt that we are dealing with the real deal. Great Ace Attorney is steeped in Conan Doyle’s work. There are explicit riffs on The Speckled Band and The Red-Headed League, and backgrounds are stuffed with Easter eggs. Intriguingly, the story takes place after Sholmes has solved his iconic cases and so sets up a fun interrogation of both his reputation and his relationship with the sidekick who immortalises him in print. The true nature of the Holmes/Watson partnership (OK, Sholmes/ Wilson) is one of the story’s more rewarding strands.
But what of his new companion? Our playable hero is Ryunosuke Naruhodo, ancestor to Phoenix Wright (Ryuichi Naruhodo in the Japanese versions). You can see the family resemblance. First encountered in Japan, where he provides his own defence against a murder charge, he’s a familiar blend of grimaces and gumption. His pupils ricochet around panicked eyeballs while theatrical fist slams result in limp slaps against the defence bench. Watching this wimp find his feet over the two games in Chronicles is one of its great pleasures, and more of a tightrope act than Takumi’s previous heroic arcs, given the bigotry Naruhodo faces from British prosecutors and jurors. There’s a sourness to this that could easily derail the series’ boisterous tone; that it doesn’t is testament to both the writing (and Capcom’s typically rich localisation) and character designers and animators who subtly capture the growing resolve that gives the second game its title.
His profession is unchanged, too. You listen to testimony and push for details or present evidence to contradict it. At one point fish and chips blow a case wide open; John Grisham this ain’t. What worked in Ace Attorney 1 is still potent today: the shriek of ‘Objection!’ and the gurning of the liar, all set to a rumbustious Pursuit theme that builds on composer Yasumasa Kitagawa’s lively accordion work in Professor Layton Vs Phoenix Wright. It’s that game Great Ace Attorney most resembles, not only in its historical setting, but in its jury. Where in the medieval court’s ‘mob trials’ you simply listened for disgruntled remarks during joint testimony – an idea that returns here – you now pit juror statements against each other to break stalemates. Guiding snobs and urchins past their prejudices helps change the pace in long trials, and the way the wisdom of crowds unearths new avenues of investigation gets Takumi out of several dead ends. But really it’s an excuse for the art team to flood the room with those brilliantly brash caricatures.
That Great Ace Attorney echoes Takumi’s first attorney/detective mash-up shouldn’t come as a surprise. Where it differs is having a better foil in Sholmes. No offence to Layton, but it’s impossible to picture the prickly prof partaking in ‘dances of deduction’, where Naruhodo course-corrects Sholmes’ wonky hypotheses. Here you slide the camera around 3D dioramas to highlight hidden evidence and pursue the reality of the situation. These are not complicated puzzles, but rather showcases for music and choreography that see the duo pirouetting inappropriately around bodies and clicking their fingers to direct stage lights – while this is an Ace Attorney prequel, you wonder if it could be the origins of Ghost Trick’s groovy Inspector Cabanela. Crucially, they liven up the investigation portions of the story, which are, traditionally, expository slumps between courtroom thrills.
To a degree, anyway. While these comic showstoppers break up the scene-setting, they also contribute to a bum-number of a story. A whopping 65 hours across two games is unwieldy for a tale that’s so silly in the moment. It originates from a good place, with Takumi luxuriating in period details and the unique murders they enable, but it can feel like an excitable teacher giving you a potted history of gas meters or hansom cabs. Often, it’s done with humour or a sinister enough framing that you can enjoy it for the love letter that it is, but on the rare occasions where the tale stalls – such as a case hinging on the workings of pawnbrokers and stereoscopes (surely a hangover from its original 3DS home) – you long for your day in court. Even there, a few series problems persist: some contradictions where evidence descriptions could be clearer, or that rely on information shared in the preceding hours that may not spring to mind.
Generally, though, progress is smoother than the bumpier Ace Attorney trilogy, and the option to save and reload at any time makes it easier to feel an answer out. There’s even a ‘story mode’ that plays the game for you, turning this into a (very long) Netflix boxset. It feels less an attack on player agency as recognition that the story does comfortably hold up by itself. By the time the final finger is pointed and two games’ worth of loose threads are yanked into a satisfying bow, it’s hard not to be swept up in the gallop of music, jokes and court-smashing theatrics. Is it a victory for Sholmes or our plucky lawyer? You be the judge. Either way, this is a game with great characters, and of great character.
You slide the camera around 3D dioramas to highlight hidden evidence and pursue the reality of the situation