The word iconic is thrown about a lot when it comes to video games. Indeed, every game or franchise has something iconic about it, whether it really is or isn’t, but I think it would be fair to label Phoenix Wright in the camp of genuinely iconic video game characters. He might not have the same cultural capital as Mario, Sonic, Link, or Pikachu, but the blue-suited spiky-haired lawyer who fumbles, stumbles, and bumbles his way through cases is still a recognisable and loved character. But, all things come to an end, and as the credits rolled at the end of the phenomenal Trials and Tribulations it seemed hard to envision just how Capcom might keep the franchise going afterwards.
Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (3DS, Android, iOS, NDS [reviewed])
Released Apr 2007 | Developed / Published: Capcom
Genre: Adventure, Visual Novel
It must have been pretty daunting to try and decide to continue the Ace Attorney franchise. The series clearly sold well enough to justify a sequel, but it must also have presented Capcom with a dilemma: to either keep Phoenix in the centre of the game and risk diluting the brilliant character writing of the trilogy, or make a new player character and potentially alienate fans who wanted more of the same good thing they had before. In the end, as the title of this game attests, Capcom chose to place a brand new defence attorney, the young and wildly preposterously-named Apollo Justice, in the courtroom for us.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising given the general quality of the writing in the series thus far, but I’m still left impressed that Capcom managed to make sure Apollo carries the same haplessness that characterises the franchise’s defence attorneys but while still giving him a unique personality so he isn’t too similar to Phoenix. He’s a little more serious than Wright, definitely less prone to courtroom antics and stalling, but in turn he comes across as naive and at times befuddled by the reputation of characters who show up from the previous trilogy. There’s been a fair attempt to try and ensure our new trio of Apollo, the young magician Phoenix’s adoptive daughter Trucy, and the game’s main prosecutor Klavier Gavin, all have distinctive personalities; they aren’t entirely dissimilar to the characters which they are analogous to in the trilogy, but they are at least just different enough to not feel completely like a rehash. The idea seems to have been to have the three interact with a similar dynamic to Phoenix, Maya, and Edgeworth, but those characters had three games worth of solid writing underpinning both their individual arcs but also their collective relationships. Apollo Justice tries to cram all that growth into one game and four cases, and it simply doesn’t work. It can’t, really, but I think this is one of the ways in which the legacy of the Phoenix Wright trilogy works against the game.
For anyone who has followed along with my previous reviews of the series, one thing that stood out among them and that I made a consistent point of praising was the writing. As I’ve said time and time again, these kinds of visual novel games absolutely live or die on their writing; after all, there’s so much of it and the vast majority of your time is spent reading, so it simply has to be good. Unfortunately for Apollo Justice, the general quality of writing is definitely weaker here than in any other entry that we’ve yet played. The opening case is quite good, with a very solid twist to it that I loved seeing unfold, but the middle two chapters are both a right slog. Neither is well-edited, with both struggling from a turgid sense of pace, but the third case in particular is one of the most egregiously bad cases in the series since that awful circus case in Justice for All.
The finale is definitely a little better at least. It manages to feel like a decent enough culmination of the game, but it juggles a lot of hats at once, serving as not only a wrapping up of one character’s backstory, but another character has a major moment towards the end, the game-long subplot around Phoenix’s background meddling comes to fruition, and it also tries to introduce a fundamental advance to the game’s lore. Even for a game as expertly written and crafted as say Trials and Tribulations that would be a tough ask, and Apollo Justice is nowhere near that in terms of quality, so while it is still the standout case in the game it still stumbles under its own weight.
Any veterans of the series will be perfectly familiar with the format of Ace Attorney games, but I do think Apollo Justice was in some respects designed to be played without all the previous knowledge; the fact that only the barest handful of characters make a reappearance from trilogy suggests that to some degree Capcom anticipated this game being an entry point for some players. Like its predecessors then, Apollo Justice is split into 2 modes of play: investigation and trial. During investigations the player can move across various areas of the world which are relevant to the case at hand, examining crime scenes for clues and evidence and interviewing the various weird and wacky denizens they meet for any information that might be useful for the upcoming trial days. During the trial phases, Apollo engages in cross-examination of the witnesses called to the stand, attempting to find contradictions in the testimony they give and expose the truth of the case in order to save his client. As always, Ace Attorney is happy to indulge in the old maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it;” the dual phases have worked so far for the series and they’re just as good as ever here.
Really, most of the innovations Apollo Justice brings to the table are minute. There are more minigames than before, including fingerprinting, casting footprints in plaster, and spraying murder sites with luminol. Each of these comes with their own unique minigame designed to make use of the DS’ features such as tapping the touchscreen to dust for prints before blowing into the microphone to clear off the excess and lay bare the fingerprints. Certain pieces of evidence can be zoomed in on and rotated in a 3D environment, allowing you to try and find contradictions and issues. It’s a neat addition to the typical Ace Attorney formula, and one we’ve actually already seen this once before as it was featured in the bonus chapter of the very first Phoenix Wright game as part of the bonus case added in the DS and subsequent rereleases, although here is its first “proper” introduction into the series.
The main issue I have with all this is that none of the added mechanics have much depth and none are used very extensively. The Ace Attorney trilogy certainly wasn’t known for changing its formula, but as well as it worked I’m certainly not against Apollo Justice introducing some new ideas. What I find disappointing is when the ideas are good but nothing much is done with them, and that’s exactly what happens here. Most of the minigames happen only once or twice in the case they’re introduced in and then discarded. Rather than getting implemented and integrated into the game and being explored more keenly as a core mechanic, the game ends up feeling like a tech demo, desperate to show off what the DS can do but without committing to anything.
The only new mechanic which ends up recurring is Apollo’s ability to “Perceive.”Phoenix’s thing was that he kind of blindly stalled until he lucked into finding contradictions, and his defining character traits attached to that were his tenacity and his unwavering faith in his clients. However, he did also have access to magic in the form of his Magatama, a jewel which allowed him to sense when people were hiding information from him. Introduced in Justice for All, it became such an integral element to the Investigation phase of the game that it returned for Trials and Tribulations. Apollo obviously doesn’t have a Magatama but I think it’s fair to say he needs something similar – otherwise the game runs the risk of feeling like it’s regressed a little. So, instead of magic stones Apollo has an innate and keen ability to notice tells. During testimony, if a witness is acting suspicious, you can “Perceive” it and initiate a little minigame where you have to identify the tell and zoom in on it. The witness’ testimony slows to a crawl and at the very moment the tell happens, you can call an Objection and begin to break their testimony apart in classic Ace Attorney style. I genuinely enjoyed this as a nice addition to the Trial phase; the game makes it abundantly clear when a given testimony contains a tell, and some of them are pretty fiendish to try and identify.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go into Apollo Justice with some trepidation, but I did try and play it with an open mind and a want to enjoy it as much as the trilogy. I’ve had a lot to grumble about, but the Ace Attorney core is largely untouched and still as fun as ever, and for die-hard fans I’m sure it’s still a grand time. I don’t know if this game had been made without a concrete plan for the series’ future, and perhaps that’s why it tries to jam as much in it as possible, but it definitely hurts the game a little, and it results in probably the weakest game in the franchise thus far. Still, even a slightly less-good Ace Attorney game is a grand time as the effort on the part of Capcom is clearly there, and it’s not hard to at the very least recommend Apollo Justice as a pleasant enough continuation of the franchise.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.