Review: Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (3DS)

A puzzling crossover to be solved

It's no surprise that the announcement of Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney back in 2012 in Japan caused quite a buzz among keen Nintendo portable gamers. The two franchises typify much of what made the DS a phenomenal success — even if Ace Attorney had its beginnings on Game Boy Advance — by fusing charm and humour with accessible game mechanics. It's not necessary to have the quick thumbs and instincts of a gamer to succeed in these games; all that's required is a keen mind.

Their styles, though different in approach, also bear great similarities. Overly exaggerated caricature characters, bursts of gentle yet energetic strings in the soundtracks, and storylines that are both well structured and, conversely, utterly bonkers. Capcom and Level-5 found a way to remind those playing that games can be both serious and silly, and shut the door on no-one seeking an enjoyable diversion. That the franchises have enjoyed life on the 3DS is something for which to be grateful.

Combining the two in a crossover wasn't as wacky as it could have been, as a result, and the result finally arrives in the West. With both Capcom and Level-5 heavily involved in development it takes on the task of blending the two universes together, and despite those aforementioned similarities they do not, without tweaking, necessarily go hand in hand with complete comfort. Thankfully the end result is undoubtedly solid and well constructed.

The tale begins with a prologue and a dive into the Layton world. A young girl called Espella is on the run with a former student of the puzzle-solving gentleman — Carmine Accidenti — and being pursued by mysterious, ethereal creatures. Tragedy strikes, and Espella arrives at Professor Layton's humble abode — in which he's working with trusty companion Luke — seeking help. What follows takes a supernatural turn, and the opening hour to 90 minutes serves to kickstart the tale and introduce players to the controls for searching areas for clues and solving puzzles. So far, so Layton, though there are early indicators that this game holds the hand more than Miracle Mask and Azran Legacy — the standard 3DS drag and tap controls remain in place of the tap-fest of the DS games, but orange areas of interest will now sparkle when the item in question is a Hint Coin, while going to a new area will show you how many coins and hidden puzzles are within.

It's a gentle start that's nevertheless full of twists and turns, before a second prologue then begins that picks up the Ace Attorney strand of the title. Now in the role of Phoenix Wright and his partner Maya Fey, the experience switches to the Capcom franchise's standard setup — discussions are now conducted in first-person from Phoenix' perspective as opposed to third-person in the Layton series — and you find yourself defending the same Espella, now accused of assault. As is the norm for the series the crime is introduced in a short animation and you then enter the courtroom; you proceed to listen to testimony, scan the court record for clues, press witnesses and present evidence at the critical time. Like the Layton prologue it does a solid job of introducing you to the core mechanics, before ending with a twist.

Early in the game, we won't say when, both pairs of protagonists find themselves in Labyrinthia, an intriguing place seemingly in the Middle Ages and the home of Knights, witches, a wide array of characters and a mysterious 'Storyteller' that can apparently dictate events by merely writing a story. The Level-5 aspect of the title shines through in the construction of this environment, with a familiar art-style and the standard practice of moving from area-to-area, chatting to locals, solving puzzles and advancing the story. It's nicely constructed, and in the course of the adventure the town expands nicely to reveal a pleasing variety of scenes; it doesn't live up to the globe-trotting of Azran Legacy, but does bear scrutiny alongside the towns and central areas from preceding titles in the franchise — that's apt, as development of this release is likely to have been somewhere between Miracle Mask and the Professor's concluding adventure.

The Layton-based gameplay edges out the Ace Attorney equivalents in the total runtime, and remains as polished and entertaining as can be expected. Some quirkier character of Labyrinthia come and go with little impact, but some will return in unexpected ways throughout. A few do feel a little predictable, and that also applies across the 70 puzzles that are included — necessarily lower in number to leave space for Capcom's hero. The majority of puzzles are excellent, yet there are certainly some that seem to come from a stretched development team; there's a higher percentage of trial-and-error puzzles to clear than normal, and we only got stuck a small number of times, far less than in a main series entry. Combine an excessive Hint Coin allocation with the frequency of puzzles reliant on persistence rather than stretching the mind, and overall the collection doesn't quite match those of its namesakes.

The Ace Attorney sequences perhaps fall under the same umbrella; not too far into the game the court-based gameplay of Labyrinthia comes into play. There are multiple major trials throughout the adventure, which are typically meaty affairs that can take 2-3 hours to clear — there's an intermission that prompts you to save half way, while you can save at any point. Like the core series, these aren't the sort of experiences you'll tackle on the 10 minute bus commute in the morning, but are far more suited to completion in a comfortable chair at home.

Those primarily familiar with Layton are perhaps in for the biggest surprise, here, as these court proceedings are as expected for their IP — they're lengthy, text heavy interactive storytelling sequences. As mentioned with regards to the prologue above, there's a back and forth with witnesses in which you intervene at key points to expose contradictions and inconsistencies. Beyond the basic tools you eventually pick up the Grand Grimoire, a large tome that details various witches' spells; with crimes supposedly committed using magic, it supplies an interesting perspective for proceedings. Your foe for the majority of court appearances, meanwhile, is a Knight of the Court called Inquisitor Barnham; he's an example of the better writing in this tale, as he evolves throughout the title and inadvertently educates Wright in manoeuvring a justice system lacking tools such as fingerprint and voice recognition, or even photographs.

These witches' trials take on an interesting dynamic due to the primitive technology and settings, as even court illustrations submitted as evidence — in lieu of photographs — can be disputed; it's made clear that logic is applicable, but only to a degree. Some of the trickiest moments — that can be assisted by using Hint Coins — come in adapting your thought-processes to the logic of a world that places more prominence in the truths of witchcraft than may seem realistic. We fell victim early on and lost our five "credibility" chances, regretting that we hadn't manually saved more recently, as the mid-point still meant 15-20 minutes of skipping through testimony we already grasped to get to the key sequence; that was our fault, though, and the court scenes are a pleasant challenge and nicely done.

The task for Level-5 and Capcom has been to do more than run two separate styles in parallel, but to produce a cohesive whole. It takes a fair while for the two universes to collide in a meaningful way — roughly five hours in — yet it's handled relatively well. The first direct collaboration between Professor Hershel Layton and Phoenix Wright, aside from a story sequence, is as quirky as you may expect. Layton's love of a puzzle and Wright's grappling with the twisted logic of Labyrinthia bring a neat shift in tone in the courtroom, with the top hat wearing gentleman also introducing a cross examination mechanic of watching the reactions of multiple witnesses as others speak; that's another part of the slightly chaotic court system in the mysterious town.

The strongest crossover element is in the general storytelling, as the core characters mix-and-match and build convincing relationships; even with their distinct traits and visual styles, Layton / Luke and Wright / Fey make for convincing companions. It soon becomes natural for Ace Attorney style flashes and sounds to occur in Layton sequences, while the visual perspective seamlessly shifts depending on which character takes the lead; the music provides a particularly smooth transition, to a point that we started to forget which sequences were from each IP. With an on-the-money localised script, plenty of charm and that endearing, glass-half-full writing typical of both series, this game delivers.

That said, a complaint is that not enough is done to blend the gameplay styles more intimately. Layton's aforementioned appearances in court make for great dialogue, but do little to actually shake up proceedings with a puzzle twist. Likewise the Layton segments trot along with their usual mechanics, along with some occasionally weary puzzles to fill out the collection; frustratingly there are little hints at how the Ace Attorney approach can innovate with puzzles, yet this happens once very late in the game. In that sense the development team struck a golden idea, but evidently with the window of opportunity slamming shut shortly afterwards.

In their separate parts, the Layton and Ace Attorney sequences are slightly weaker than their full-fat contemporaries, and the gameplay aspects rarely come together as cohesively as we'd like. They're being judged on a tough scale, however, as the Level-5 and Capcom franchises often deliver top-notch experiences when focused on refining their own formulas — it does no shame to this game that the separate aspects can't quite match Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy or Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies. It may not be fair that this crossover follows those games, but that's the market reality in the West.

While there may be a lingering sense of missed opportunities, this title is still a must-have for fans of either or both franchises. The fantastical story is entertaining — albeit we believe it leaves some plot holes at the close — and it's an enticing visual and aural experience throughout. Best enjoyed with headphones on and 3D enabled, the presentation is a delight and does nothing to dilute the soul and spirit inherent in both brands. It's simply fun to see the two worlds collide.

Another major positive is that it provides exceptional value for money. It took us over 20 hours to complete the adventure, which takes in plenty of twists, turns and surprises along the way — the tale is a tad flabby at its mid-point, but nevertheless delivers overall. In fact, we'd often lose track of time, sometimes only alerted to the passing hours by the flashing red light of our 3DS battery.

Completion of the game also opens up a Bonuses section packed with Art, Movies, Music and Voice samples, with more available depending on your accumulated Picarats — earned as always from completing puzzles, with court cases also contributing. Also thrown in is an Extra Content section with 'Special Galleries' and 'Special Episodes', the latter of which will fuse puzzle content with short story sequences. This free DLC hadn't begun when completing this review, but will begin to filter through after launch. There's plenty of content to enjoy.

Conclusion

Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney delivers an utterly charming, enjoyable experience to satisfy fans of both franchises; it's a crossover that, when experienced, seems entirely natural. The individual parts are pleasurable and entertaining, as always, though perhaps fall a little below the exceptional standards of their main-series contemporaries, and there's a lingering sense that more gameplay innovation to blend the two brands could have been explored. These are minor complaints in the grand scheme of a lengthy adventure, however, and the storytelling — combined with character development — has been delicately constructed; Level-5 and Capcom have done a commendable job. The end result is another 3DS title that exemplifies much of what sets Nintendo's portable hardware and supporting software apart; it provides heart-warming, accessible fun, and entertainment to last for many hours.

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