It's been six years since the release of The Great Ace Attorney — known as Dai Gyakuten Saiban: Naruhodō Ryūnosuke no Bōken in Japan — and in that time, although a fan translation was made, the game was never released in the West. Many people speculated as to the reason: it's hard to localise, it relies on the player having basic Japanese historical and cultural knowledge, and just plain old copyright issues gumming up the works.
But now, at last, we have the prequel to Phoenix Wright's adventures in our hands, and we have the answers: it was all of those things, and more. The question is: did the Ace Attorney localisation team, which is one of the best in the biz, pull it off — despite all those difficulties?
The Great Ace Attorney has no problem picking up where Spirit of Justice left off, with 3D modelled characters, fully-animated intros, and incredibly detailed backgrounds. There is an undeniable charm in the little specifics of each character, especially new protagonist (and ancestor of our old pal, Phoenix Wright) Ryunosuke Naruhodo, whose nervousness, ineptitude, and general clumsiness are portrayed by his darting eyes and his oversized lawyer armband constantly slipping down.
Ryunosuke is immediately likeable, quickly quelling any worries we had about how this newbie would stand up to Phoenix and Apollo, who we've known for years. His Maya-equivalent sidekick, Susato, is a fiery, traditional, and incredibly knowledgeable teen, but her characterisation so far has been a little flat in comparison to Ryunosuke. If anything, she feels a little too close to Maya, despite seemingly not being related. Kazuma, Ryunosuke's best friend, is the over-qualified-yet-kind guide who will help you figure out the very basics, though, and he's very sweet.
Anyone who loves the series will be hoping for the return of a few beloved features and tropes: terrible pun names, larger-than-life characters, intrigue and mystery, and a great deal of plot twists worthy of an Agatha Christie novel. We're pleased to say that all of these Ace Attorney standards are present, although the pun names occasionally take a backseat to Sherlock Holmes references that are a little more obscure.
Ace Attorney games also normally add a new gimmicky mechanic to the mix, and The Great Ace Attorney is no different — except, perhaps, in the fact that it adds multiple new mechanics, explained largely as "this is how they do things in England," where Ryunosuke finds himself after the first couple of cases. There's the jury, who decide their verdict by punching fireballs into a comically large version of the scales of justice, and — much like in Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which this game is heavily inspired by — the witnesses now take the stand several at a time.
Cramming the court full of British criminals, witnesses, and members of the jury will give you the chance to pit their testimonies and thoughts against one another, and to point out when one witness is responding to another one's statements, alongside the usual "Press" and "Present". During the investigation phase, Ryunosuke is also joined by Herlock Sholmes, a legally-distinct detective whose character is somewhere between an excitable-yet-eccentric university professor and a cocker spaniel. He is fantastic, but Ryunosuke will be tasked with both reining in Sholmes, and course-correcting his overzealous deductions.
Overall, there are two main flaws with The Great Ace Attorney so far (we've played up to case three in the first game). One is that it dumps a lot of learning, both mechanical and historical, on the player. New ideas and old facts jostle and vie for the player's attention and understanding in the first three cases, and this results occasionally in both a feeling of overwhelmitude and exhaustion. It feels like a long, hand-holdy tutorial that takes away from the genuinely interesting and exciting cases.
The second flaw is less of a flaw with the game itself, and more with its audience. The Great Ace Attorney relies on its players' knowledge more than any before, and that can often create a divide between its writing and Western players who don't have quite as much awareness of Japanese history and culture.
Ace Attorney has always been set in a semi-fictional, semi-ahistorical sort of world, where characters talk about magic panties and samurai robots almost as much as they solve crimes, and everyone's super vague about whether they live in Japan or the US. That's not to say that there weren't some very serious cases and topics, but they were often contained to personal relationships and individual cases — but The Great Ace Attorney is far more exacting about its setting, and that comes with quite a bit of a change in tone as a result.
The Great Ace Attorney draws heavily upon the relationship between Japan and Great Britain in the Meiji and Victorian eras. Great Britain, at the peak of the British Empire, is (quite fairly) portrayed as a haughty, imperialistic, holier-than-thou country that, despite its advanced technology and legal system, is very backwards in its treatment of people, especially of the lower classes and foreigners. Japan is depicted as a country mired in traditionalism, looking to Great Britain to provide paternalistic direction, and as a result, the Japanese characters are treated with contempt by the British, who throw a lot of casual racism their way.
It's incredible that such an honest, raw portrayal of how things were in the late 19th century made it into an Ace Attorney game, but the racism and mistreatment of the characters makes for a lot of stark and jarring moments.
However, from what we've played, we're excited about this new-but-actually-six-years-old direction that Ace Attorney is going in. What began as a series that was mildly critical of Japan's legal system, but was mostly about solving murders and making friends with Edgeworth, has evolved into a series that isn't afraid to make bold statements about geopolitical intrigue — a subject that has been on the docket since at least Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth.
What remains to be seen, from further playing, is whether a game that relies pretty heavily on its Japanese audience's knowledge of their history can ever truly be localised to give Western players the full spectrum of events.
The Great Ace Attorney is beautifully rendered, lovingly created, and masterfully written — but, at times, it feels like watching a movie with the subtitles on. Despite a brilliant localisation, that distance threatens to keep Western players away from a full appreciation of the game's themes and politics.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, which includes two games — Adventures and Resolve — launches on the 27th July 2021.