Version tested: DS
There are some reading this who want to know nothing about Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, the fourth game in the AA series and the first to see Phoenix Wright's name removed from the box. But they want to know whether to buy it or not. To them, the answer is: yes. But, well, just don't expect all your wishes to come true. Read no more.
Everyone else, do not fear, there are no terrible spoilers to come, but I will be discussing the nature of the game beyond the events of the tutorial [good to know - Commissioning Ed], and that will mean discussing what some would consider surprises. I promise it's unavoidable, and certainly not game-ruining. There, no one can sue me now.
The news that the next Ace Attorney wasn't to be about Phoenix was met with a lot of uncertainty. While Trials & Tribulations offered a satisfying conclusion to the Kurain Channelling Technique storyline, it certainly didn't sum up everyone's arcs, not least of all Maya and Pearl's. Were we really ready to move on to a whole new lawyer, and a whole new cast?
The answer was, and indeed is, no. Because the most surprising thing about Ace Apollo is that Phoenix is a central character, from being the defendant in the tutorial, to appearing every case thereafter in increasingly convoluted roles. It really is a new Phoenix Wright game, even if you're playing as Apollo Justice.
From the beginning, it's immediately apparent how much is the same. While nearly all the locations have been given a graphical overhaul, many including the courtroom and Lobby No. 3 will feel very familiar. All the characters have been redrawn too, with Phoenix now sporting a blue beanie hat to hide his famous hair. All, that is, but for the Judge. Whether his being left in his original low-res design is a joke is unclear, but in a game that's already seeming a bit too much like its GBA predecessors, it's a dubious decision.
And the action is much the same as well. You have your Court Record filled with evidence and profiles, and the option to Press or Present during witness testimonies. The one noticeable change is the inability to "present" character profiles either in court or during conversations elsewhere - this might be to simplify the overwhelming numbers of options when you're left guessing. However, I think what everyone would have preferred was to see the series move away from those daft situations where perfectly valid evidence is refused in inexplicable moments, rather than simplify. For better or for worse, Apollo Justice is just as guilty of this crime as all the previous three.
In between court sessions, as ever you move from location to location, examining scenes for evidence, chatting with the characters, and, fantastically, falling about laughing at the wonderful writing. The localisation team for these games are modern heroes (heroes we've tried our best to interview, but Capcom and Nintendo have made it completely impossible for us to get to them for reasons we cannot fathom). I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud this often at a game, often with worrying volume.
So the premise. You are rookie lawyer Apollo Justice, who through the events of the tutorial finds himself out of a job. Phoenix, we quickly learn, hasn't been practising law for seven years, after an... incident. Instead he's working for a restaurant playing piano, despite only knowing one song and playing it terribly. The table nearest to the piano, we're told, is the hardest to fill. But this is only a cover for his real job - playing not-for-profit poker in a sinister back room that was once used by underground criminals. In seven years he's never been beaten, and has become quite the word-of-mouth tourist attraction. Oh yeah, and apparently he's a daddy.
Apollo's eager assistant throughout - essentially the role of Maya to Apollo's Phoenix - is Trucy, a 15-year-old stage magician who calls Mr Wright "Daddy". It's a disturbing image, and one that Apollo immediately doesn't believe. Could Phoenix really have had a daughter at 18 (he's 33 now) that he'd never mentioned? Trucy is manic, enthusiastic, and has an incredibly peculiar obsession with her "magic panties". Oh lord. It's like when Butz was flirting with nine-year-old Pearly in the last game all over again.
In fact, as astonishing as it might seem, the first full-length chapter seems to be more about her stolen panties than the tale of a murdered doctor and the associated local crime lords. It even contains the line, delivered by Trucy, "You must have a nose for finding girls' panties." That localisation team really likes pushing their luck... ("My panties are in extra-dimensional space. Anything can fit in there.")
The only concern here, however, is how quickly you feel you might as well be playing Phoenix and Maya, for the way the banter between Apollo and Trucy develops. During a story revolving around a rock band, Apollo is all bemused by modern music and complains about the noise, while Trucy swoons at the band and boasts about how much she enjoyed dancing, while trying to steal posters from backstage. Apollo's only 22, and doesn't have the stuffy appearance of Phoenix - couldn't he have a more distinct personality? However, that doesn't mean it isn't hilarious - it is, constantly.
So yes, the graphics for the DS. They are all-round improved (but for the Judge), but mostly very modest. However, every now and then there's some nice 3D designed stuff, like the camera swooping into the overhead diagrams of crime scenes. And for chapter 3 there's an extended rendered 3D sequence with a song that's really very pretty. But boy are you going to watch it a lot. It must have been repeated fifteen times during the story, so proud they must have been with their efforts.
So what else has changed? Well, with Phoenix we had the Magatama which allowed him to see when people were lying, and gave the challenge of breaking through Psyche Locks. These, introduced in the second game, allowed you to use the Court Record outside of court, giving those sequences a heavier puzzle element and fleshing out the game considerably. Apollo has no such thing, but instead has a bracelet and the ability to focus in on witness's nervous twitches while on the stand. This ability, only occasionally available, means you need to pick a suspicious statement, and then focus. The graphics go all weird and swirly, and you super-zoom in on the witness's body. They "speak" in slow motion, and you can move your magic vision around trying to spot a twitch. The game puts it this way: "It seems that nervous habits are unconscious reactions that manifest when someone is trying to hide something." You call them on the lie, and present the evidence to prove it.
There's a big problem with this, however. It takes place in court - the sequences that already had lots of puzzling, leaving the exploration sections again lacking.
To make up for this, rather than Detective Gumshoe (is he ok? Is he still with Maggey Byrde?!) we have Ema Skye (who you might remember from the bonus chapter on the DS version of the first game). She's now 25 and working as a detective, and not a forensic scientist as she had always hoped, but that doesn't stop her applying her favourite scientific techniques. Again, as with the bonus story in the first Phoenix Wright, your inventory now shows most objects in 3D, letting you rotate them and zoom in to find hidden features. And Ema has her gadgets, including fingerprint powder and blood detection spray. Added to these is a machine capable of scanning through the micro-layers of paper. All are great fun. And, sigh, all are barely used.
This is what's so frustrating with Apollo Justice. It's filled to the brim with brilliant ideas, and then barely uses them. Fingerprinting is done a grand total of twice at the beginning of the game, and then disappears forever. All the gadgets get a cameo when they should be the means by which investigations are performed. Without the Magatama there's a big gap in the game, and they had the tools to fill it. Even the inventory items barely ever have a reason for being rotated, and those that do are mostly for a gag, rather than a puzzle piece. The stories are great, but why cut back on the game? (For people who've finished it and are waving their arms in annoyance, yes, I know - but I'm not going to say that, am I?)
Look, I'm just going to keep griping, and then reminding everyone that the game is non-stop fun to play. You'll have to put up with it. But understand that this is why Apollo Justice, despite being the game that should have raised the standards to the magic 9/10, is stuck at 8 along with the rest of the series despite the DS-focused design.
So next moan is the prosecution. The previous games have distinguished themselves by creating broken and vicious prosecution attorneys. Edgeworth's arc throughout the first three was just stunning, and the Von Karma family were deeply sinister. And while I could have done without watching those coffee-drinking animations nine billion times, even Godot was dark and cruel. Apollo's recurring opponent is pretty boy Klavier Gavin, a lawyer by day, rockstar by night, with long blonde hair and a mild German accent. He has Eurogamer's Keza MacDonald going embarrassingly gooey, and his air guitar animation is possibly the best thing ever in the history of things. But he's nice! Far too nice! He never feels like a threat. You never suspect that he's going to go to any lengths to win, no matter how corrupt - something that's marked out all the previous prosecutors. Grow some balls, man!
Here's my final gripe, and it's a much more personal one. Over the previous three games, anyone who's played them all will know how much affection they have for Phoenix and Maya. So where on earth is she? She goes unmentioned throughout, but for one extremely ambiguous reference. Why? How could they think that we wouldn't be desperate to know what's happened to her in the last seven years? To just leave her out completely is bewildering. And Pearly! While it's great that old characters are reprised, to ignore these most special ones doesn't make sense. I'm telling you this so you don't spend the entire game hoping they'll appear any moment, and feeling constantly disappointed, like I did.
What a negative Nancy I've been about a game I've thoroughly enjoyed. Although know this - it was looking set to receive a 7 until the final chapter (of four, which is the best chapter in the series history - while still huge, it's the shortest game so far) exploded into a flurry of complicated and innovative ideas. Last-minute recovery there. It's the best chapter we've had so far.
The most important things are: it's all about Phoenix Wright, which is clearly what you want if you're a sane human being; four superb stories brilliantly interweave giving you cause to care about the new crew; and the writing is just stunning, and constantly hilarious.
See, I've been very clever. I've gone on and on about my issues with the game, without telling you anything of what actually happens. That's the joy of the Ace Attorney games - being told a story. That's the precious part, and that's the bit they get so very, very right. It's so tempting to regale you with moments, one-liners, asides, and running jokes that permeate throughout, but why ruin the moment for you?
One more thing though - if Gyakuten Saiban 5 doesn't tell me about Maya, I'm going over to Capcom's house and smearing poo on the walls.
8 / 10