In 2010, Level-5, the company behind the Professor Layton series of puzzle games, announced a new project. It was to be a crossover with one of Capcom’s franchises: Ace Attorney. Akihiro Hino was noted by a colleague to be a huge fan of the series and sent the proposal to its creator, Shu Takumi. Despite some initial skepticism from Capcom’s R&D Management Group, Mr. Hino ultimately convinced Mr. Takumi to accept the idea, and the latter was subsequently given full creative control over the project as both director and the main scenario writer. The game was eventually released in Japan in 2012 for the 3DS, Nintendo’s newest handheld console at the time. Many international fans believed that it wouldn’t receive a localization like the sequel to Ace Attorney: Investigations. Fortunately, after being met with much enthusiasm, Level-5 and Capcom decided in 2013 to give their game a Western release, making good on their promise by 2014.
Playing the Game
As its name would suggest, the gameplay in Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney features two distinct faces. When in control of Professor Layton, the game plays very similarly to other games in his series. Most of the time, when the story reaches a major development, you are required to solve puzzles in order to advance. There are many different kinds of puzzles from simple story problems to finding the way out of a maze. Similarly, they are solved through various methods, including deductive reasoning, lateral thinking, and good old-fashioned trial and error.
These sections have an adventure game quality to them. It involves exploring various locales and conversing with the denizens. Scattered throughout the game in the various set pieces are hint coins which, naturally, supply players with clues for solving puzzles. You are also given hints should your solution to a puzzle prove incorrect, but every failed attempt yields fewer points (called Picarats) for the player.
When playing as Phoenix Wright, the game turns into a visual novel. There is no manual exploration involved, so the experience consequently becomes linear and heavy on text. During his portions, he is given a client who has been accused of a crime they did not commit. As a seasoned defense attorney, his job is to prevent them from receiving an unjust sentence, matching wits with a ruthless prosecutor in the courtroom in order to do so. At this point, the game emulates the signature gameplay found in the Ace Attorney series. You listen to witnesses’ testimonies, press them for further details, and refute their claims using evidence found in the court record.
These portions of the game use a credibility system reminiscent of the original Ace Attorney. If you present the wrong evidence or draw an incorrect conclusion, you are issued a penalty. The game is over if you make five mistakes. Once the case has concluded, you are awarded 50 Picarats for every point of credibility remaining.
Despite the game being a spinoff, it does add one new mechanic for cross examinations. Starting in the second case, you will often find yourself listening to the testimonies of multiple witnesses at once. Occasionally, when pressing their statements, some of the other people present at the stand will have a visible and audible reaction – usually because this new information contradicts their own recollections. From there, you can ask them for their take on these new developments. Unraveling these contradictions is key to discovering the truth behind these incidents.
In every medium, crossovers wind up being a tricky project. From a gameplay perspective, when I think of good crossovers, I think of Super Smash Bros. and Marvel vs. Capcom. Unfortunately, I would have to say that, for the most part, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney isn’t in the same league.
While the puzzles are still creative and diverse, there are noticeably fewer of them in this crossover than a regular Professor Layton game – roughly half the amount of Unwound Future by comparison. It’s also markedly more linear than most games in the series, meaning that it’s possible to miss puzzles entirely if you didn’t look around enough before advancing the plot. Luckily, there’s an area of the game which allows you to complete puzzles from previous chapters that you’re no longer able to access. The downside to this is something of a reoccurring problem I’ve run into every now and again: it’s an aspect of the game that doesn’t encourage you to be good at it. Because of this failsafe, you can purposely skip many of the puzzles and do them later, which feels at odds with the spirit of the series.
Both of these design decisions were likely implemented so that the Professor Layton sections could accommodate the Ace Attorney cases, but I have problem with them as well. To start with, when opening up the court record, I couldn’t help but notice that there is only enough room for eight pieces of evidence and eight profiles. In most Ace Attorney games, the later episodes usually have you sifting through more than twenty items. It’s common for a seemingly worthless item to be discovered early only for it to become the decisive piece of evidence which cracks the case wide open. That never really happens in this crossover because the court record fills up very quickly, forcing you to present each one ad nauseam. Moreover, because the first item is the case outline which you almost never present, this effectively further reduces the evidence list capacity from eight to seven.
Most games in the Ace Attorney have investigation phases. These segments allow you to explore the crime scene, look for clues, and question witnesses to get a better idea of the events that unfolded leading up to the incident – some extending as far back as a decade. Disappointingly, they are almost completely absent from this crossover; all of the cases are resolved in a single courtroom session, taking away a layer of depth even the weakest Ace Attorney titles had. |The final case is something of an exception, but the investigation isn’t carried out by Phoenix.|
I think probably the weakest part about the gameplay is that the two styles lack cohesiveness. While both series are story-heavy experiences, there is usually a less pressing incentive to advance the plot in Professor Layton games with their emphasis on searching every inch of the screen for secrets. Such is not the case with the Ace Attorney series; once the mystery has presented itself, you want don’t want to stop until you’ve pieced together what happened. Because the overarching story in this crossover has as much urgency as an average Ace Attorney installment, it becomes jarring when you’re made to solve puzzles, as it usually brings everything to a screeching halt.
Analyzing the Story
A young woman named Espella appeared one night in the office of Professor Hershel Layton. Her memory is weak. Among her possessions is a letter from one of the professor’s former students, Carmine Accidenti. He and Espella had escaped a town called Labyrinthia in a speeding car. Unfortunately for the two of them, they were then pursued by a mysterious force, and the vehicle had crashed in their flight. Along with his apprentice, Luke Triton, Layton investigates the scene of the accident, but eventually they both happen upon a strange book that transports them to the very place Espella and Accidenti had left.
Meanwhile, Phoenix Wright along with his assistant, Maya Fey, have arrived in London on an exchange with the Legal League of Attorneys. Shortly after arriving, Phoenix is then asked to defend a young woman accused of assault in court. Unbeknownst to him, his client is the same person who had sought out the help of Professor Layton a few nights ago. After successfully clearing the charges against Espella, Phoenix and Maya discover an odd tome and they too find themselves teleported to a new world.
Labyrinthia is a medieval-style town that can’t be found on any map. In this place, concepts such as magic and the supernatural are facts of life. Anyone who can use magic is deemed a witch and is executed by being tossed into a pit of fire. Their goal in doing so is to eliminate the Great Witch Bezella, the cause of much of the citizens’ suffering over the years. The city is ruled by the Storyteller, an old man who has the ability turn everything he writes into reality. It is here that Professor Layton, Luke, Phoenix, and Maya meet each other. From there, they join forces, determined solve the mystery behind Labyrinthia and discover Bezella’s identity.
Professor Layton and Ace Attorney are both series centered around solving mysteries, so in this regard, the two different styles complement each other reasonably well. It helps that the plot is reasonably well-written and rife with plenty of twists and turns to keep the player guessing. The protagonists are likable as always and have many great moments where they get to shine. It’s always interesting seeing characters with entirely different backgrounds interact with each other, and that’s certainly one of biggest appeals of crossovers.
Having said that, a lot of my criticisms regarding this crossover’s gameplay extend to the story as well; switching intermittently between the two primary segments causes serious pacing problems. While I did enjoy the new cross-examination technique and how it involves questioning multiple people at once, it does have an unfortunate side effect. Part of the appeal of the Ace Attorney series is getting to know the colorful witnesses in their own environment, unraveling their testimonies in court, and discovering what would lead them to produce a faulty testimony. Due to the aforementioned lack of investigation phases, they only become relevant in court, making a vast majority of them forgettable or memorable for the wrong reasons. |You don’t even get a good variety of defendants; there are only two over the course of four cases and they’re both part of the main cast.|
Then again, one of the inherent problems with crossovers is that many of them fail to drive home a sense of true danger. In this case, because the events of this crossover do not take place at either series’ chronological endpoints (it takes place before Unwound Future and after Trials and Tribulations), the protagonists have a 100% chance of surviving no matter how much the narrative stresses that they’re in jeopardy. |This comes to a head in the third Ace Attorney episode, which involves Professor Layton having been turned into a golden statue and ends with Maya being tossed into a pit of fire. Sure, Phoenix and Luke would have every reason to believe their companions are dead, but it doesn’t even take a savvy person to know that it’s only a matter of time before the four of them are reunited.| On the other hand, it’s a dilemma with no clear solution; calling the audience’s bluff by actually killing off major characters only makes it difficult to take the story seriously when everyone knows they’ll show up alive and well with no explanation in the series’ next installment.
It has been said that meaningful conflict is what makes fiction compelling. If nothing is at stake, it can be difficult to immerse oneself in the story no matter how likable the protagonists are.
Drawing a Conclusion
I can imagine some fans arguing that this crossover is superior to Dual Destinies solely because of Shu Takumi’s involvement, but I’m not convinced. When I finished it, I realized that I enjoyed what was, at the time, the two newest Ace Attorney installments made without his input (Prosecutor’s Path and Dual Densities) over the ones he directly oversaw (Apollo Justice and this crossover). Prosecutor’s Path is especially notable in that, to me, it is bar none the best game in the entire series, spinoff or not. As much as I respect Mr. Takumi for creating such an epic series, the two weakest titles, Justice for All and Apollo Justice, occurred on his watch. If anything, this demonstrates why it’s not a good idea to blindly worship creators. The mentality can lead to a fanbase dismissing a great work offhandedly simply because the original creator had no part in its development or accepting an unequivocally bad idea purely because the same person thought it up.
Exactly how much enjoyment you’ll get out of Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney banks on you enjoying both franchises equally. Should that be the case, then it’s easy to recommend playing this game at least once. However, the other possible scenarios make this assessment much trickier. If you have never played a game from either series, this crossover is not a good introduction. Meanwhile, in the event that you have only played games from one series or clearly prefer one over the other, there’s still a problem; more likely than not, you’ll find the sections involving the gameplay of your less-preferred character nothing more than tedious filler.
The best crossovers are the ones that successfully create an experience larger than the sum of the intellectual properties used to create them. Unsuccessful crossovers are merely incomplete entries of their respective franchises glued together with little synergy between them. While I wouldn’t consider this game a failed experiment by any means, I can safely say that I know which of the two categories it would feel more at home in.
Final Score: 6/10