The arc of the British mystery novel has quite a lot in common with adventure stories of the same time—stories published in The Strand Magazine advertised the now infamous Sherlock Holmes as having “outwit[ted] a German spy” amid images of him and John Watson struggling up a rope or running from a ghostly dog. Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are as much about solving murders as they are about being transported to strange locations filled with quirky suspects of various nationalities and over-the-top situations. The Victorian era and the first few decades of the 20th century were a time of heightened interest in the outside world not just in Britain but all around the globe—travel became more feasible for nearly everyone everywhere, and meeting people who spoke an unfamiliar language became common. It’s a time of intense globalization, which comes with many, many drawbacks.
This is exactly why Ace Attorney is the perfect vehicle for a strong subversion of the tropes codified by this time period, when Agatha Christie became the world’s most-translated writer and Jules Verne hooked readers on the mysteries that lie at the center of the earth and bottom of the ocean. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is a compilation of two games that both star Phoenix Wright’s distant ancestor Ryunosuke Naruhodo, who, after an unfortunate series of events, found himself whisked away from Japan where he studied English all the way to practice law in Great Britain.
Adventures ,the first game in the duology, marked the return of series director Shu Takumi after he left the team to work on 2010’s Ghost Trick. Takumi’s touch was sorely missed on Dual Destinies, which lacked some of the witticism and sensibility Takumi brings to the franchise. Adventures, however, is a breath of fresh air—a revitalization of the murder mystery adventure genre which has since become ubiquitous.
Typically, the first case in any Ace Attorney game is a brief tutorial case. It’s rare that these cases prove essential to the overarching narrative of any one entry in the series, which usually consist of a couple episodic cases bookended between more integral ones. Adventures’ first case, however, is one of the best the series has ever seen. It opens with Naruhodo’s own trial, where he stands accused of murdering a professor at his school. There’s a deep attention to Naruhodo’s characterization from the jump—he’s a new and unfamiliar character, and his voice is distinctly different from Phoenix’s. At the game’s start, he has no interest in law or standing in the courtroom, and he’s immediately in a desperate position. It’s a wonderful introduction to not only him but to the characters that surround him, like his best friend Kazuma, a prodigy law student set to study in Great Britain, and Susato, his eventual judicial assistant.
It also tells us a lot about the state of the world as well as the core differences in the justice systems in Great Britain and Japan. Where Japan’s judicial system remains in its infancy (full autopsies are not common, leading to a lot more conjecture in the legal process), Great Britain is well on its way to implementing forensic technology and has an age-old jury system aiding the process itself. These differences flavor the cases taking place in each setting quite differently, and help engender a sense of grand adventure as Naruhodo travels across the world to study law. The jury system is one key way in which the game raises the stakes to exponential levels—at any point during a trial, a jury member may declare their opinion of the defendant’s guilt or innocence and cast their vote. If all members are unanimous, the trial comes to an end… unless the defense calls for a Summation Examination, in which Naruhodo consults with the jury on their individual reasoning for their votes.
The Summation Examination is the best mechanic added to the franchise since Psyche-Locks in Justice For All. Unlike the Mood Matrix in Dual Destinies, the summation examination feels realistic in its placement in the court and adds a heavy dose of tension to each trial, which teeters on the edge of a win or loss at any given moment. Winning the jury over feels like a triumph, even if it’s only a brief reprieve from further scrutiny from the prosecution. The jury members also provide a lot of fun banter, and are a key part of the charming dialogue Ace Attorney is known for.
The other new mechanic is the Dance of Deduction, which is exclusive to the usually-less-fun investigation portions of each case. The Dance of Deduction is introduced by “Sholmes,” the game’s take on Sherlock, who is portrayed as something of a loon with exceptional observational skills but flawed logic. In each Dance, Sholmes attempts to catch witnesses in a lie or reveal something they’re hiding—he just occasionally flubs a few details. That’s where Naruhodo steps in—he fills in the gaps with his own deductions to help solve the mystery. The Dance is an over-the-top, theatrical performance in and of itself, and while the mechanic isn’t quite as strong as the summation examinations, it shows off the game’s wonderful animations and character models.
Sholmes himself is fairly central to both the games, and he’s fine. He’s actually quite an accurate rendition of Sherlock, who was always characterized as eccentric and cavalier to the point of lacking empathy. When compared to more modern and dull takes on the character, he reads as true to Doyle’s vision—he can just be quite a gadfly in his many appearances. The game’s take on Watson is a little pink-haired inventor named Iris Wilson, who is also fine but feels at odds with the game’s relatively subdued design ethos and cast. A 10-year-old with a medical degree would fit in fine in the franchise’s main series, where people pass the bar before finishing high school, but Chronicles is largely about the gargantuan learning curve that comes from higher education and field experience, as well as the forging of your own moral philosophy when it comes to the career path you set out to do. She’s an odd fit in a relatively sober overarching narrative.
The duology’s story is strong, centering on Naruhodo’s own resolve in becoming a lawyer somewhat unwillingly as well as overcoming the prejudice surrounding his existence as a Japanese man in Great Britain. Some of the racism present in the game is really unpleasant—Naruhodo and his fellow countrymen are portrayed as shady and dangerous charlatans, and the game doesn’t mince words in its portrayal of microaggressions and bigotry. But it never feels fully out of place in this series; Phoenix has always been aggressed by nearly every witness he meets, and his defendants are often dragged through the mud until they can win over public opinion. It’s also a way for the game to subvert notions of the largely white detective novel genre, which often involves Orientalist and exotified takes on South and East Asia; characters are shown all but discriminating against Naruhodo then the next minute cooing over Susato’s kimono or clinging to some souvenir they recovered from their time overseas.
Chronicles is Ace Attorney at its absolute best because it contends with not only its own history as a series but the greater mystery genre that informed its genesis. Moving the point-of-view from a lauded white celebrity to a Japanese man out of his depth is a bold move, and one that shows the glaring flaws in the court system and the inherent racist sentiment that guides it. There’s not a single case that feels like a throwaway—each serves as a chapter in Naruhodo’s path to understanding his own drive for his profession, and carts the player along a grand adventure that overcomes the somewhat static nature present in the original trilogy. It’s an absolute must play for any mystery fan out there.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles was developed and published by Capcom. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Switch and PlayStation 4.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire