Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

This post contains heavy spoilers for the ending of Ghost Trick, and I recommend having played the game before reading.

I view it as a mark of shame on my own self that it has taken me this long to finish playing Ghost Trick. I have owned the game on DS and iOS for a couple of years, but until playing it for this review I have never managed to get past the second chapter. This has been something I’ve been loath to admit, because the game’s writer and director, Shu Takumi, was responsible for the creation of the Ace Attorney series, and wrote what are its best entries. Ghost Trick is his first departure from that series in 10 years, and some fans hail it as his best game, or even his masterpiece.

To evaluate whether Ghost Trick is Takumi’s best game would involve comparing it to his other works, and the purpose of this review isn’t to do this. Instead, I want to talk about Ghost Trick alone, to attempt to come to terms with my own feelings about the game after having finished it; that I regard Ghost Trick as no real masterpiece, nor even Takumi’s best game, but that I found myself thoroughly enjoying it regardless.

11-eveningpatrolmaaan

Last year, when I reviewed Breath of the Wild, I said that all of its various strengths can be easily shown off in its opening sequence and I think the same is true of Ghost Trick, so this post will use that sequence as its structural foundation.

When the game opens, it does so with spotlights; a visual flair Takumi is clearly enamoured with, given its use in his latest duology, the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series. It’s remarkably easy to see why – the spotlights instantly shine a light (pun very much intended) on the game’s unique sense of style. I tried, mostly in vain to think of an appropriate catchy name for this style, but the best I could come up with is ‘cheery noir’, which doesn’t quite work – but hopefully gives you a sense of what I’m going for. In its opening area and night-time setting, Ghost Trick has many of the trappings of a noir style; the city at night, in the rain, with an appropriately jazzy soundtrack and hitmen dressed in suits. The spotlights aren’t a traditional noir trapping, but given the genre’s heavy emphasis on the interplay between light and shadow, they fit right in. This noir theming continues throughout the game; even as the settings and plot become more and more ridiculous, the soundtrack and certain visual hints continue to connect this game to its noir influence.

However, as the game continues, the “cheery” side of my newly-minted phrase becomes more apparent. It’s present from the beginning in the use of certain strong colours in Lynne and Sissel’s clothing, but as characters such as Cabenela and Missile start to crop up, the game’s tone becomes more upbeat and does so almost seamlessly. This balance between the game’s ever-present noir influence and its at-times relentless optimism is really reflected in the game’s style; in its music, its settings, its character design. From a visual side, Ghost Trick represents a game coming very close to appealing directly to my own sensibilities, and I love it for it.

ghost_trick_3-109670

Of course, visuals are only a small part of the game’s appeal, and after the opening cutscene, the game deigns to explain to you its main mechanics; the ‘Ghost Tricks’ themselves. I’m hoping and assuming that those reading this will have played the game, but for a quick refresher (or for you naughty daredevils who really don’t care about spoilers); the main gameplay thrust is solving puzzles that require you to manipulate objects around a room, poltergeist-style, in order to prevent the deaths of various kooky characters around a nameless city over the course of a single night. By rewinding time to 4 minutes before the person’s death, our protagonist Sissel watches the actions leading up to their murder, then possesses and moves certain objects in order to save their lives. For my money, the best example of this system at work comes in the manipulation of a literal Rube Goldberg machine (or Heath Robinson contraption for us Brits) in order to prevent the firing of a gun at the end of the device.

All of the action in Ghost Trick is presented on a 2D plane, aiding greatly with visual clarity. When manipulating objects, it should always be obvious what effect that object has and setting the game’s action in vertical slices of large environments makes it clearer to the player what’s going on, without sacrificing the game’s visual design.

In the game’s opening chapter, upon possessing Lynne’s corpse, the player is shown a quick video of her death, and this becomes one of the game’s best ideas for preventing the puzzles from being turned into just trial and error (more on this later). When the game shows you the events before the corpse’s death, it often shows you how certain objects interact, and therefore what you might need to do to change the fates of the unfortunate victims. Take, for example, the second chapter murder of Kamila. Here, the video shown beforehand informs you that the mice are attracted to the doughnut; that the dog, Missile, barks at the mouse; and that Kamila will follow Missile wherever he is barking in order to shut him up. When the game then tells you to hide Kamila when the hitman enters, you have all the information required to lure her where you want – the only thing to work out is how to move the doughnut to where you want it.

kitchenscene20100709_psd_jpgcopy

The problem comes in later chapters where the game is stingier with its information. Take, for example, the Chicken Kitchen chapter. Here, the video of the death is taken from inside the car, and helpfully shows the cause of death. However, all the actual manipulation to be done is inside the kitchen, an area you know nothing about until you arrive there. This is, to be fair, a lesser example – the puzzle inside the Chicken Kitchen is relatively simple, but this is a problem that shows up at various points; it’s there in the Justice Minister’s Office; in the Superintendent’s Office near the end of the game and in the Submarine, so it’s a shame when such a clever solution to an obvious complaint is abandoned so quickly.

The puzzles themselves, then, do often contain quite a lot of trial and error. While most are simple enough not to be too much of a problem, I don’t think that’s an excuse for the game’s worst habits. Trial and error can be fun; working out each object’s role is often a captivating experience, but it throws up two distinct problems.

The first of these problems is the lesser one. When the player is forced to mosey around the landscape for a while, working out how different things fit together, this often removes a lot of tension from the situation. Although it’s easy to argue that the time-travel mechanic means that these situations were never meant to be tense to begin with, the music and dramatic visual cues hint otherwise. I think this is probably something exacerbated by the last chapters, and you can tell that the final chapter was made easier to mitigate this problem, but it’s still worth pointing out, even if it might not have affected every player.

More importantly, the trial and error natures of the puzzle kills a lot of momentum that the game has, especially when you consider the fact that the puzzles are really just video manipulation. You see, the game often makes you pause and wait for a certain action to happen in the video before you can act. So the game, and not you, dictates when and how you can move, or even solve the puzzle.

Just as an act of facetiousness, I decided to look up a walkthrough of Ghost Trick and cmd+f to see how many times the word “wait” appears (it’s 34 times in 16 puzzle chapters). Of course, it would be fallacious to claim that this meant the game made you wait exactly this much, because this is based off of a perfect walkthrough guided playthrough. What’s more, most of this waiting is inconsequential, or won’t even be noticed by the player because they might realise what the next action should be when the video is at the perfect place for them to act on it. You could, however, twist it the other way; a player who doesn’t know what to do will often find themselves creating new wait opportunities for themselves, as they might mess with objects that require the action of another character to return to their original state (to continue with using Chicken Kitchen as an example, the fans in that room can be turned on by the player, but they then have to wait for the waitress to turn them off).

Regular followers of toatali reviews, or those who chat to me outside of it will know that I get more frustrated than the average person of a game wasting my time, even in minor ways, and at certain points I did wish the game streamlined itself with the inclusion of a fast-forward or rewind button. I’m sure that this was brought up in development, but if I had to imagine why it was shut down, it was probably due to the addition of certain timing challenges, such as realising that you have to use the split-second opportunity to move to the Chief Justice’s water jug in the puzzle in his room. With a rewind button this puzzle would be completely trivialised. As the variety in the style of puzzle the game presents is already slightly thin on the ground, I don’t think that abandoning this kind of puzzle for the slight convenience of a rewind button would be worth it as the game stands now.

This whole section might have sounded pretty nitpicky, especially to those who never picked up on these issues during their playthrough. For the most part, the puzzles were simple and well-telegraphed enough that the wait time issue wasn’t too big a problem. However, even if it only affected a few people a few times throughout the game, it would still be worth touching on.

I would like to reiterate, however, that I am still a big fan of Ghost Trick’s puzzles. They are extremely unique to the game, and for the most part, extremely clever in how they manage to tie together seemingly disparate objects and movements in order to string together some complex chain reaction that prevents a murder.

484808_full

There’s also a lot of smart little details to how the game plays with its puzzles. That the initial setting of the tutorial is a junkyard, for example, allows the game to use whatever objects it wants in order to make the puzzle solving mechanics obvious to the player. Or that a central plot device is a Rube Goldberg machine, which is a perfect distillation of the game’s environments into one device. The later addition of Missile’s object-swapping mechanic makes for some really clever puzzles, but it’s also impressive that the game can still think of innovative ways to use Sissel’s manipulation abilities so long into the game, with puzzles like guiding Jowd around making for some ingenious variations on the classic Sissel-based puzzles.

I think I’ve said enough on the gameplay, so let’s go onto story. In the introduction to the game, a number of central questions are asked that provide a core running hook to keep the player invested throughout the game. The main one is obviously “Who Am I?” but other subjects brought up at this point include Lynne and the case she’s investigating, the desk lamp Ray and his identity, the motivations of the hitman, and whatever the hell “Temsik” is. These plot threads all spiral off into multiple branching questions, until, at around the midpoint of the game you may have trouble just identifying what it is you’re looking for. At a certain point, the main narrative thrust becomes following a chain of dead bodies without knowing how this is connected to the central mysteries. But the game eventually deftly ties up all these plot points, capping it off by answering the two most intriguing questions; who are you, and who is Ray?

In focusing so much around a variety of questions, however, Takumi creates a problem for himself, and one that rears its ugly head as soon as the player talks to Lynne for the first time. There are quite a few names for this problem, as it’s certainly not exclusive to Ghost Trick. It’s linked to JJ. Abram’s infamous ‘mystery box’ style of storytelling, and it’s something that Takumi has become so fond of that a friend of mine had to address it in their review of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2, referring to it as ‘pointless abstraction’. And of course, people might notice me doing it just there, as I name-drop the existence of this ‘thing’ without telling you what it is. To that effect, I’ve decided to, perhaps cringeworthily, name it the “ano hito” problem. “Ano Hito” literally means “that person”, and it’s because I’ve noticed this problem in quite a few Japanese TV shows and games that I decided to use that language in my desperate attempt to add at least one phrase to the pop-culture lexicon.

Anyway, enough beating around the bush – the problem in Ghost Trick is that Takumi loves to beat around the bush at any occasion given to him, because drawing a player in is more important than having characters address one another coherently. Sometimes it shows itself in the way I described, with characters saying things like “we have to tell that person that that thing is happening tonight”, but more often it’s strange character choices such as Lynne not telling Sissel about the case she’s working, even though he’s a ghost who just saved her life. Or perhaps when Jowd tells you that he killed the criminal in the park, just so the meteorite revelation can be a twist. If you look out for it, there’s a whole lot of plot convenience in the way people talk in Ghost Trick.

ghost_trick_5-109672

I think that the ‘ano hito’ problem is a direct result of the kind of interconnected story that Takumi tries to tell here and in the Dai Gyakuten Saiban franchise; stories with sprawling plots and a myriad of twists and turns. Many of these twists are executed with pinpoint precision. I was, for example, a huge fan of the twist involving Sissel’s identity, which manages to be well forecast, and explain some of Sissel’s annoying character quirks, such as not knowing some basic English vocabulary. Other twists, such as Ray’s identity or Cabanela’s true good nature, build perfectly on characters we know.

Other twists left me slightly cold. Another problem of Takumi’s writing that surfaces in Ghost Trick is his reliance on tragic past events to inform character motivations. It’s there in DL-6, and SL-9, as well as 6 other cases throughout the trilogy (being generous), and of course crops up in Apollo Justice’s final case. Ghost Trick has two tragic crimes that become integral to solving the mystery of the present, and while past tragedies aren’t necessarily a bad motivation for character, it’s disheartening to see Takumi fall back on this old crutch.

More damning for me, though, were the twists that felt tonally inconsistent. Take my least favourite – the Rube Goldberg death of Jowd’s wife. It’s a tragedy, for sure, that Kamila ends up killing her mother (what is it with writers for AA and matricide?), but the murder method is just a bit absurd. While Takumi is a master of tonal balancing, he often strikes that balance by segueing between the absurd and the emotional, and when he jams them into the same scene, it tests my suspension of disbelief more than I would want. Kamila’s matricide could have been more of a gut punch were Yomiel to have simply manipulated Kamila into directly shooting her, as he later does with Lynne, but this isn’t the case. The Rube Goldberg death might have even been acceptable if the game had hinted prior to the revelation that Kamila was a fan of building these machines, but instead that’s a detail it casually throws in after the fact, when you’ve already seen a woman get shot with a birthday cake delivery machine and asked to buy it with a straight face.

The revelations behind the ghost trick powers of the dead that involve the meteorite Temsik also didn’t quite strike the right note with me. I was happy to buy that the powers of the dead just were; I didn’t need a space radiation-based explanation. My biggest problem with Temsik, however, is that occasionally it’s used to cleverly explain certain aspects of the plot, such as who gets ghost powers and how the appearance of certain cores differ – but occasionally I feel like it’s used to write its way out of certain plot difficulties. Most jarring to me was the half-hearted explanation as to how ghost powers change over time so that the game can explain away some of Yomiel’s, and later Missile’s, actions. If the game hadn’t even tried to explain the powers of the dead, I think I would have probably just bought all of it, as I did at the start of the game, but when they are explained it casts them under new scrutiny as a plot mechanic rather than just a gameplay one, and they hold up less well.

Ultimately, I’m left wondering if Ghost Trick is really the right game for this kind of story. In Ace Attorney, a game that also revels in its twists and reveals, those twists are delivered in the hands of the player. We expose the murderer, we reveal how he got away with it, and we expose the truths behind tragic cases from the past. In Ghost Trick, Sissel is a useless character outside of gameplay; the various plot revelations are just told to him, and it feels more like watching a film with occasional semi-related gameplay breaks, as opposed to being a ‘Phantom Detective’ myself. Were the game to allow you to solve the mysteries, I wonder how I would have reacted to some of the more outlandish twists, having proved them myself, but as they stand, I can only fully get on board with a few of them.

tumblr_inline_nmkj2nnqw91sr6hti_500

If there’s an aspect of the plot I can get fully behind, it’s definitely the characters. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think the characters turn Ghost Trick from a game I like to a game I’m very close to loving. The main characters are fantastic; each are surprisingly static in terms of character development (Cabanela seems to be the only character who changes much, but it’s hard to know if it’s him that changes, or simply the player’s perception of him), but the emphasis is mainly placed on getting you to want to spend time with them. If the plot of Ghost Trick is a rollercoaster, then the main characters are the people you’d want to experience it with. This may sound sentimental, and I think it is a bit, but it shows the power of Takumi’s writing.

If I can single out one specific thing Takumi does well, it’s writing animals. I’m not just talking about Missile, who is a stunningly well written little doggie, but also about Sissel himself, who was the perfect kind of begrudgingly friendly that the revelation that he was a cat all along was surprisingly natural.

It’s not just the central cast, however; the world of Ghost Trick is just such a bizarre pleasure to be in. The way Takumi writes the bit parts in Ghost Trick has, I feel, improved from his Ace Attorney days, but he’s aided by the game’s animations. The characters were originally rendered and animated in 3D, before being squashed onto the 2D plane, and this allows their range of movement to be unlike any other I’ve seen in an adventure game. There’s a subtlety to their actions that allows wordless scenes to convey character as well as any of Takumi’s writing. In an interview Joystiq did with Takumi, they point out the way Lynne backs up against a fence in the opening scene and quickly looks back against it. When admiring Ghost Trick’s animation, it’s easy to think of Bailey’s panic dance or Cabenela’s shimmy down the stairs, but I think it’s these moments that make the animations such an essential part of Ghost Trick.

Is Ghost Trick, then, Takumi’s masterpiece? I hope I’ve proven to you why I think that it isn’t. The game has too many minor issues that niggle away at the back of my mind to come even close to matching the two games I think best showcase his writing (Trials and Tribulations and Dai Gyakuten Saiban).

That’s not a problem, however, nor is it a deterrent that prevents me from really enjoying this game. When I finished the game, I messaged a friend of mine that it was a “lovely little game”. I think that this summation of the game is a little flippant, but to dismiss this instinctual reaction would also be wrong. I think that Ghost Trick has so much going for it; the gameplay is fun and original; the writing is funny and engaging. Even if it can’t reach the heights it might aspire to, I’m still just happy for its existence. I thought that writing about it might sour me on the game, as it has done for others in the past, but ultimately I’ve just been reminded of its charm in spite of its flaws.

2493384-photofeb122c14215am

 

Advertisements

The Best Games on the 3DS

I wasn’t expecting this to be the post for this month, but Persona 5 has ended up taking much longer than I expected to play through and gather my notes on, so this will have to serve to tide me over until then. Despite the success of Nintendo’s most recent portable console, the Switch, I find myself still being drawn to my 3DS. This might be because of the lack of games on the Switch now that I’ve finished saving Hyrule, but it’s also because of the remarkable staying power of the 3DS, which might be the greatest portable console ever made. So, to reflect on the 3DS’ remarkable lifespan, here is a short list of my favourite exclusive games for the console, in no particular order.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.58.51
Attack of the Friday Monsters

You might never have heard of this game, and that’s a damn shame, but probably completely reasonable. Released as part of a compilation of experimental games on the e-shop by Level 5, Attack of the Friday Monsters puts you in the shoes of the young boy Sohta, who lives in a small Japanese town. There, every Friday, giant monsters battle it out while the residents look on. Or do they? The game never deigns to answer this question, because it doesn’t matter. It provides a variety of interpretations to its titular question, but never wants to distract you too much from the meat of the game. This is a day in the life of Sohta, running errands throughout the Ghibli-esque town, meeting its residents and solving their various problems. It’s a game fuelled by Sohta’s childlike imagination, which makes him a somewhat unreliable narrator, but allowing yourself to get swept into his world creates the sort of nostalgic feelings for someone else’s childhood that only a few rare games and films manage to achieve. There’s also some vague tacked on gameplay in the form of a clever little card game, but it never outstays it’s welcome. The same cannot be said for the game itself, which could really do with a bit more meat on its bones. It humbly finishes up its story within a few hours, but it needn’t. The amount of times I’ve replayed this game speaks volumes to the amount of time that we could have spent in Sohta’s world.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.53.52

Shin Megami Tensei IV

The contrast between the tone of AotFM and SMTIV couldn’t be starker. AotFM plays out in a small, idyllic Japanese suburb. SMTIV spends half of its time in the feudal land of Mikado, controlled by a strange religious leader and populated by subjugated masses who long for their slim chance to join the upper classes. The other half takes place in the somehow even more depressing post-apocalyptic Tokyo, where most of the population has moved underground in order to escape a ravenous demon horde who are only partly controlled by a faction of the Yakuza. You play as a Samurai of Mikado, a warrior trained to battle demons, but your quest to find the mysterious ‘Black Samurai’, who is corrupting the minds of the Mikado peasants leads you to some unfortunate realisations about the world you live in. Like other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, the story splits into three routes; Law, Chaos and Neutral, and none of them here have much of an uplifting ending. But SMTIV remains engaging despite this, although the plot is only half the fun.

I’ve seen some people criticise the ‘shallow’ characters of SMTIV, but I don’t think that gives them enough credit. I wasn’t ever blown away by the writing, but it has a certain subtlety to it (at least as subtle as SMT can get), and the plot itself, while slow paced, has enough intrigue in it to carry you through. What makes SMT games really stand out, however, is the turn based battle system. SMTIII pioneered the ‘press-turn’ system, which Persona players will be familiar with, which allows you to exploit enemy weaknesses for an extra turn in battle. Of course, enemies can exploit this as well, which can turn battles into either satisfying chains of attacks that don’t allow the enemy to get a move in edgeways, or frustratingly watching as you watch your team get decimated by a threatening boss. The enemies you fight in SMT are demons, who you can collect Pokemon style through an annoyingly obtuse and random negotiation system, and fuse together to make stronger demons. SMTIV offers the best fusing method of the series, giving you helpful recommendations while still allowing customization.

I don’t think SMTIV is a perfect experience, but the benefits of it being on a handheld, combined with an engaging story and refined battle system make it my favourite SMT game that I’ve played (although Persona 5 is certainly edging closer), and I thoroughly recommend it as a starting point for the series.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.55.27

Spirit of Justice/DGS

I’m a huge fan of the Ace Attorney franchise, and while I would love to put the amazing Ace Attorney Trilogy on this list (which is better than both of these games), it’s not a 3DS exclusive, and I have standards while making these lists (I can only assume). I’ve written full reviews of both Spirit of Justice and Dai Gyakuten Saiban, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will provide a brief spoiler free rundown of what to expect. Ace Attorney is a series about crime solving lawyers, and Spirit of Justice is simply the sixth game in the series, this one involving the spikey haired protagonist Phoenix Wright travelling to the mysterious land of Khura’in for more crime solving adventures. I would recommend playing the previous 5 games in the series before this one, and I’m sure you’ll not regret playing four of them.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban has much less baggage to it, but at the moment is sadly only available in Japanese. This spin-off title takes place in Victorian London, and is notably written by the author of the original trilogy. Most people will have to wait for the upcoming fan translation to get a taste of this one, but for those who speak Japanese, or don’t mind watching a subtitled play through on Youtube, those options are also available.

Basically this entry was a cheat to tell you to play the Ace Attorney Trilogy on 3DS/DS, but my over-reliance on arbitrary rules that I imposed on myself prevents me from doing that.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.56.33
A Link Between Worlds

This and the next entry are the only two non-eshop exclusive titles on this list, although what this says about my taste in games you’ll have to work out for myself. Link Between Worlds is one of the best Zelda games out there, and certainly the best top down Zelda there is. Purists might argue in favour of the original Link to the Past, but those that do are clearly stuck in said past. A Link Between Worlds revisits the Hyrule of A Link to the Past, but adds an extremely clever new puzzle solving mechanic in wall merging. The way this changes up the game is staggering – it allows for so much free form exploration and puzzle solving that it’s almost comparable to the introduction of climbing in Breath of the Wild.

The other way in which this game influenced Breath of the Wild is in its non-linearity. Where A Link to the Past gave you numbered checklists of dungeons to visit, Link Between Worlds lets you rent out items to access specific dungeons and tackle them in whatever order you want, while still being able to stagger the difficulty through splitting up the dungeons into sets. It’s also a lot faster paced than any 3D Zelda, and perhaps any 2D Zelda, with item swapping on the fly thanks to the 3DS touchscreen, combat and exploration are all seamless and feels natural. Think of this as the proto-Breath of the Wild for those who want a top-down Zelda experience.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.57.35

Kid Icarus Uprising

 Remember how maligned the controls in this game were when it first released? Sakurai himself clearly had so little faith in them that he had to include a stand with boxed copies of the game. I really hope that didn’t put anyone off Kid Icarus Uprising, because it’s such a joy to play that it’d be a real shame to miss. Freed from the shackles of Smash Bros, game director Sakurai was able to create a game that’s half incredibly entertaining on-rails shooter and half slightly less entertaining but still fun 3rd Person Action Adventure game. What bolsters the game past simply entertaining is a quality story with great voice acting and writing, and a fuck ton of content.

The writing present in KI:U is surprisingly good. It has the annoying traits of being self-aware, but never reaches the actual point of annoyance by carefully treading the line. Some characters are obvious stand-outs, such as Hades, but the core cast is an enjoyable group of people to have whisper sweet one-liners into your ear while you play. Much like Smash Bros, Sakurai has stuffed the game to the brim with optional extra modes, some of which are pointless, yet amusing (such as a mode where you pay money to have a character walk slowly towards you), and some are extremely complex, such as the weapon fusing system. The game also employs one of the cleverest approaches to difficulty I’ve ever seen; asking you to gamble more currency on higher difficulties for the chance of greater rewards and treasure. One of the stand outs of the 3DS’ early library that continues to stand tall.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.58.14

Box Boy

I don’t really have much to say about BoxBoy, the small title from Hal Laboratory, creators of Kirby. It’s extremely simple; you are a Box, who can produce more boxes from his body. You then have to use those boxes to solve simple puzzles. It’s sort of like if you crossed a standard 2D platformer with Tetris, and it’s absolutely genius. It’s one of those rare games that I feel will be used to teach the basics of good game design for years to come. An extremely simple mechanic pushed to its limits during the course of the campaign, and then pushed even further in bonus levels, some of which become properly difficult to solve. Two sequels would add on a few extra boxes and mechanics, but the original remains a brilliant example of pure game design at its best.

A look at Dai Gyakuten Saiban

maxresdefault

This review contains major spoilers for Dai Gyakuten Saiban as well as other games in the Ace Attorney series

In my review of Spirit of Justice, I said that I considered Dai Gyakuten Saiban ‘unfinished’, and for that reason I could not place it in my Ace Attorney game rankings. Because of this, I felt that, at least until it received a sequel, I would not review Dai Gyakuten Saiban (henceforth DGS). However, as you can tell, two things happened to make me reconsider. Firstly, someone asked (and who am I to turn down a request from my very limited readership), and secondly a Youtube play-through of the game had been completely subbed by the fans (AA has the best fans), meaning the game is now more accessible to a non-Japanese speaking audience. Because of these things, I will now talk about the game for a bit, but bear in mind that this isn’t a review in the traditional sense. Dai Gyakuten Saiban may have released as a standalone product, but this game was built to be part of a longer story and thus criticising it for unfinished plot points and character arcs seems worthless, as come 2017 all those things will be resolved and any review of the game will have half of its criticism rendered meaningless. Because of that, this is more a ‘look at’ than a ‘review’ of DGS.

A playlist of extended songs from the DGS OST

Anyway, with that spiel out of the way, it’s time to look at the first case; in short; it’s alright. But short isn’t what we do here at Toatali Reviews, and short is not what DGS intends to do either. No, this case (The Adventure of the Great Departure), is long and almost annoyingly so. One of the longest first cases in the series, this trend towards longer introductions isn’t something I’m a huge fan of. Turnabout Trump worked as an extended introductory case because it added to the story and had a fantastic twist. Meanwhile, Turnabout Foreigner was a little too long for me, but it at least attempted to build up a setting; it had a purpose for being long. Meanwhile, The Adventure of the Great Departure does have some relation to the greater narrative, but as a case has nothing of much surprise or value that lasts its run-time. The important characters to the plot are Jezail Brett, John H Watson and Detective Hosonaga, and yet two funny but meaningless witnesses are added to complicate what is ultimately a simple case. Sometimes, making a case longer isn’t the right move if you’re not going to fill that time with engaging mystery or build up to some good twists. Perhaps the greatest strength of this case is Ryunosuke himself, who takes use of the full length of the case to get in some early character development. Character is a strong focus of DGS, in a way that the Ace Attorney series hasn’t quite seen before in the same way. Ryunosuke’s character development can actually be seen without a lick of Japanese; in Case One his eyes are wild, but by Case Five, his animations have settled down and his general demeanour is calmer, despite the stakes being higher. I think I’ll come back to talking more about our protagonist, but it’s worth saying nonetheless, especially seeing as his animations in Case One are such a highlight – the animations in general are something this game gets right in so many ways, but this is just an early example of how good the character and animation design is.

Another DGS staple that Case One exemplifies is the aesthetic. The initial trailer showed the game being set in Meiji Japan, and while I wish we’d stayed there a little longer, what we see of Japan here is lovely, and that same attention to making history look fantastic carries over to London when we eventually get to explore it in Case Four. Meiji Japan is a good setting for historical fiction; it’s a transitionary period from the Tokugawa period (remnants of which we can see in Payne/Auchi’s clothing) to the more modern Japan that existed up until WWII when the Japanese once again had to ‘reboot’ (to overly simplify Japanese history…). The Adventure of the Great Departure plays with its historical setting in some clever ways, from the failure of the Japanese to recognise Curare, to the relationship of Japan to England. As a Londoner myself, seeing the Japanese position on the casual racism of the British to the Japanese during this period was quite interesting, and Brett’s dismissal of Ryunosuke’s efforts is simultaneously amusing, threatening and depressing (making her a potentially good villain until they blow it by ‘forgetting’ to give her a motive). Of course, Takumi has swotted up on his history; the case takes place soon after the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation, which may sound boring, but changed the nature of Japanese criminal law by abolishing extraterritoriality for British citizens living in Japan (meaning that people like Brett could be forced to appear in court and tried under Japanese laws).

the-great-ace-attorney-2015-04-02
tfw your mentor dies and you have to make difficult decisions in court

Ryunosuke’s mentor Asougi marks a good transitionary point between Cases One and Two, but also marks out Takumi’s efforts in DGS to rectify the mistakes of Ace Attorney games past. In fact, here’s another reason why the length of Case One might not be such as sticking point; Mia in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney didn’t get much chance to be fleshed out before being killed off, and so it’s really only in Trials and Tribulations when we as an audience start to care about her, by which point, it’s almost too late. Takumi attempts to retry this with Asougi, and to a certain extent he succeeds. Asougi is more defined as a character than Mia, but his somewhat aloof nature means that he’s quite hard to warm to. When someone is that great we have to get to know their flaws and humanity before we can really care for them, and, for me at least, Asougi misses that mark. Still, his death in Case Two (The Adventure of the Unbreakable Speckled Band) is surprising, though not as surprising as the structure of that case as one without a trial.

The Adventure of the Unbreakable Speckled Band is an attempt to shake up the structural conventions of an Ace Attorney game; it focuses entirely on the investigation segments in order to build up and develop a new mechanic, and while it succeeds on that point, it fails on a few others. The biggest mistake that Case Two makes is in its mystery, which borrows the title and premise from a Sherlock Holmes story, then after leading you to the original reveal, pulls the rug out from under you and gives it a whole new ending. This is a good start – I’m not a huge fan of the original Speckled Band, and the idea of turning an original Holmes story on its head in order to introduce a Holmes that is also a reinvention of Conan Doyle’s iconic creation is smart. However, the new ending is awful, to be blunt about it. I’m not a fan of accidental deaths in murder mysteries in general, but to add on top of that the mass sleeping drug twist that any murder mystery fan could see coming a mile away, and the murderer being a cat and you get a rather disappointing reveal. I did like the creation of the locked room trick, however, and the pathetic way that Asougi dies ties into a theme that can be seen throughout DGS, that I’ll get onto later.

Now is, however, a great time to talk about Sherlock Holmes, who makes his appearance in this Case, bringing with him a whole new investigation mechanic called ‘Joint Reasoning’. Sherlock himself is a divisive character and it’s really a matter of personal preference as to whether his humour and style clicks with you. For me, Sherlock worked – I loved watching his logic spiral out of control, and Sherlock Holmes is a character that has been through so many iterations it was nice seeing something that felt completely fresh. Joint Reasoning was built for this new Sherlock, and as such it’s also been somewhat divisive. The stylistic direction is something to behold, borrowing Ghost Trick’s spotlights and adding spinney and dramatic camera angles that match perfectly with Sherlock’s bravado nature. However, I understand the criticism that the whole thing takes a bit long; while nowhere near as bad as Apollo Justice’s Perceive, which forced you to crawl through the same speech over and over again to droning music, in Joint Reasoning there is a bit of repeat to the whole process when you attempt to correct the flawed logic. Still, the music development does a bit to alleviate this, and I was never personally bored. One problem I did have with the mechanic is that it never really develops. There’s too much reliance on eye direction puzzles that wear out their welcome a bit towards the end, which I think is something that needs to be examined for DGS2.

010
Oh look, it’s actually Satan

After disembarking the ship Ryunosuke and Susato land in London for what is not only the best case in the game, but one of the best in the whole Ace Attorney series. The Adventure of the Runaway Room is a masterpiece in the way that it takes the conceit of another of the best cases in the series (2-4, your client is guilty), then reworks it and redoes it to make it somehow even better (this also ties into what I was saying earlier about Takumi reworking the events of previous games (I’m really clever)). This case defines DGS and plays up all of its strengths, so much so that I’m not even quite sure where to start talking about it. I guess I’ll start with Megundal, who Takumi really needed to get right for not only this case, but also Case Five, to have their full impact. Luckily, he succeeded; like a Victorian billionaire version of my old art teacher Mr. Crow (yes I realise that’s a bit too personal just bear with me), Cosney Megundal is calm yet threatening; he’s at points friendly, but there’s a simmering anger underneath it all that you can just glimpse in his animations and finally breaks out towards the end of the case. Megundal is the sort of villain you love to hate, and DGS of course forces you to defend him. Unlike 2-4, however, Megundal isn’t holding you hostage. Instead, Ryunosuke holds himself hostage; he could easily go back to Japan, but he holds himself to the memory of Asougi and is therefore trapped by his own promises. In the end the decision is taken out of your hands when Megundal and Lestrade (here reimagined as a thief rather than a detective) tamper with the evidence, but then you have to make the decision again; do you admit the evidence has been forged. In a moment that robs you of all joy and marks the darkest moment in an Ace Attorney game, Megundal becomes the perfect villain by making you choose between ‘justice’ and ‘friendship’, the two key tenants of Ace Attorney protagonists, in a way much less forced than that of 2-4. And then, when you choose justice, it’s all robbed from you by the unpredictable new mechanic of the jury. For that moment alone The Adventure of the Runaway Room would cement itself as a masterpiece of the series, but luckily other elements come together to make this case even better than it already was.

Barok Van Zieks (or Banjieks or whatever) is a perfect prosecutor for this case, and while he doesn’t ever get the development he sorely needs, for the purposes of Case Three, he does just fine. For one, he’s not a genius child prodigy; he’s just a normal prosecutor with an aura of death around him. Being more adult just makes someone more threatening to face and his threats here aren’t of death and torture like Queen Ga’ran in Spirit of Justice, in fact, they’re threats appealing to Ryunosuke’s sense of justice. Both parties here know that Megundal is guilty, but Van Zieks has been chasing him for years, only now returning to court to take him down. Van Zieks embodies the sense of justice in this case where the memory of Asougi embodies the conflicting side. If Van Zieks doesn’t get the development he needs in DGS1, that’s because he serves his purpose as the man committed to taking down Megundal. Hopefully though we’ll learn more about him in DGS2, because he has potential to be more (also, that leg slam. Nice.)

tumblr_npekgjeydt1rikc2ro3_400
Spoiler; Barok never finishes his wine because he’s a lightweight

There are three more things that I want to praise Case Three for; music; jury and evidence, so let’s quickly start with the music. All of these sort of apply to all of DGS, none more so than the music. DGS’ soundtrack is amazing, and Case Three makes liberal use of the track ‘Trial in Disarray’, which is one of the highlights of the OST. Seriously, if you haven’t yet, just give the whole thing a listen. Anyway, onto the jury, which seems to be another element that clicks with some people and not so much with others. While I have my own problems with the jury, such as the reuse of characters that makes London feel like a small town and the overuse of the system near the beginning of cases that makes the whole thing feel less dramatic, in Case Three, they are used in a way that makes sense. Takumi seems to have wanted to use a jury since Apollo Justice, but only now are we seeing the full system come to fruition, and his plan starts with a case that showcases the power of the jury by taking the decision out of your hands. You’re against Megundal, but the evidence isn’t there, and the jury cannot convict him. While I feel that the jury will have some prominence in the finale of DGS2, Case Three seems to be the apex of the jury in this game, and as such I see why complaints about them abound. Finally, I’d just like to touch on the return of necessary evidence examination. For once you have to actually look at the evidence you’re given. Again, this is one of Takumi’s improvements; Rise from the Ashes had a bit of this, but really DGS is where it shines.

From the best case to the worst case, DGS falls fast and hard in The Adventure of the Clouded Heart/Kokoro. Yes, the twist is awful and the case drags a lot, but I don’t hate this one as much as some others I know do. For me, it’s the characters that pull this one through – the Garrideb’s struggle is just funny and touching enough to carry me through this case, and Souseki is a great defendant. If anything, this case aims to build up a feeling of London, but I can’t say it succeeds – it might be too subtle. Turnabout Foreigner shoves its message in your face, but it does get the point across, whereas Clouded Kokoro tiptoes around the subject, only hinting at its true intentions. That or it’s just a bad filler case that I’m reading too much into. Anyway, I don’t have much to say about this one.

1390844036477046312

The final case is where everything came together for me – it never reaches the height of Runaway Room, but it’s a fantastic final case, and it will tie nicely in my thesis that I’ll present in a minute. I think the introduction drags a bit, mainly because we have to spend a lot of it with Iris and Gina, two characters I don’t like. Gina falls into the tsundere trap, and while she’s not as bad as Rayfa, I expect more from Takumi. Iris, on the other hand, is pointless and annoying. That’s about all I have to say about Iris – my patience wears pretty thin in indulging the notion that she is any more than a silly mascot character. Luckily, we soon get some stakes and an intriguing mystery. Once we’re in court, everything falls into place. Gregson, a detective so boring I forgot to write about him in my Clouded Kokoro section, becomes a secret spy in a more believable twist than the Phantom in Dual Destinies. An annoyance from Case One (the rejection of science) rears its head again, as do other plot points. But best of all, Megundal shows his final hand; Rupert Crogray is not the final villain you’d expect in an Ace Attorney game because he’s not the final villain; Megundal is. Seeing the continuing influence of Megundal is great to watch, but it also raises an interesting question; one of satisfaction. Something I’ve heard a lot is ‘Crogray was a bad villain because beating him wasn’t satisfying – and you’re robbed of the satisfaction of beating Megundal.’ Yes, that’s all true. But I think that the mistake is treating that as a negative. Before I get to my point, let’s just talk a bit more about Ryunosuke and Susato. I’ve ignored Susato because she’s boring but I do like how she’s quite a change from other cheery assistants past with her calmer nature and I see major development for her in the future. Ryunosuke is… he’s a good protagonist and more defined than Apollo and Phoenix but I can’t help feel that his journey is, at least for now, a bit basic. He starts nervous, and then after a brief spell of depression and challenge becomes more confident. Fine, but a bit cliched. Hopefully, he’ll develop more in DGS2, but I’m not holding my breath.

Okay so here’s my point; Dai Gyakuten Saiban is simultaneously the first and second act of a traditional three-act structure. DGS is both the introduction and the lowest point of our characters – and this makes sense when you consider two things; one is that DGS was written as one long story and split up afterwards (much like The Lord of the Rings) and two; the resolution of every case robs you of any satisfaction that is synonymous with the Ace Attorney series. The first case feels unfinished because Brett has no motive; the second case is unsatisfactory because Asougi died by accident; the third case forces you into letting a guilty man off the hook and then has someone else kill him; the fourth case has no murderer, just a broken home leading to an accidental stabbing, and the final case is just a sad resolution to the third and leaves all the pressing questions unanswered. And sure, that’s not satisfying, but does it matter? DGS accomplishes what it sets out to do, and it does it really well. If that means that it’s not satisfying as a standalone game and you don’t enjoy it for that reason then fine, but it sure worked for me. It is different and it’s new, but I can’t wait to see how the story resolves itself.