Review: Apollo Justice Ace Attorney (Nintendo DS)

Apollo Justice Ace Attorney (Or Ace Attorney Apollo Justice, whatever)
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: 02/19/08

If anyone is experienced in the concept of “revamping a franchise” and the good and bad associated with this, it’s Capcom. They’ve done this thing a significantly large amount of times in the past, what, twenty or so years; some met with positive results (Resident Evil 4), some with negative (Mega Man Legends), some met with split decisions (Street Fighter EX and the as of yet unreleased Street Fighter 4) and some generally inspired indifference or didn’t exactly introduce grand, sweeping changes (Mega Man X).

You will perhaps be relieved to know that Apollo Justice, the game we’re reviewing today, falls neatly into the last category. This will, perhaps, relieve you and make you smile with the knowledge that the franchise you love so much hasn’t changed all that much. Or you might be annoyed by the fact that, given the DS medium, Apollo Justice isn’t a dramatic departure from the original series, considering how much potential exists in the medium. Either way, you may be surprised: Apollo Justice does, admittedly, do a lot of things to revamp and reinvent the Ace Attorney franchise while still keeping the core game intact… but it never quite lives up to the experience of the prior games, either.

Unsurprisingly, this turn of the Ace Attorney series tasks you as young up-and-comer Apollo Justice, newly appointed Defense Attorney who has a habit of dressing like a dork and spiking his hair. For those of you who are vaguely confused, the game helps you by starting you off with a MALE trainer this time around, shortly before you’re stuck with a female assistant with a weird affectation who helps you defend clients in cases so bizarre they’d make Adrian Monk go cross-eyed. Now, one might perhaps say, “But, wait, that sounds like exactly the same setup as the previous games”, and one would be correct, except that this time Apollo has a mentor of sorts in Mr. Phoenix Wright himself; though he’s often very aloof and distanced from the situations Apollo and his assistant (and Phoenix’s daughter) Trucy find themselves in, he makes attempts to be helpful to the pair when needed. Over the course of the four cases you will meet a colorful cast of characters, from Kristoph and Klavier Gavin (twin brothers who are both oddball lawyers) to Ema Skye (who PW fans will remember from the fifth case of Phoenix Wright Ace Atttorney as a forensics nut; she’s back as a police officer in this game) to a bunch of mobsters, musicians and magicians, all of whom have their own quirks and endearing personal affectations.

And then, during the fourth case, Dick Gumshoe pops up and blows them all out of the water, as characters, in about eight lines of dialogue.

And this is the biggest problem with AJ’s story: for all of the strong writing, intricate plot twists, and solid character motivations… none of the characters are really that interesting when compared to their peers from the previous three titles. Apollo Justice IS Phoenix Wright, only with different strange powers, Trucy Wright’s a less exciting sidekick than Maya Faye, Klavier Gavin is more even-tempered than any of Phoenix Wright’s foes (and thus robs you of the satisfying feeling of kicking the prosecution’s ass in a trial, especially when Gavin ALWAYS KNOWS what direction you’re going and NEVER shows weakness), and Ema Skye is… well, an uninteresting jerk. Even Phoenix Wright comes off as something of an uninterested, apathetic prick most of the time, and when his motivations finally are revealed, the guy who spends his time talking to Apollo and the guy you play as during the last trial of the game are written like two completely different people. For a game that’s based on the strength of its characters, the characters in AJ really aren’t anything exciting, and while a small amount of older characters make their presence known here and there (Mike Meekins, Dick Gumshoe), the game takes great pains to avoid mentioning others (to the point where Phoenix Wright absently references that he got his Magatama from “that case”, but never once mentions ANY of the Faye’s by name, ever), which is fairly annoying to someone who has spent about a hundred dollars on the franchise already. Just saying.

This is, of course, not helped by the fact that the game crams enough plot twists and revelations for three games into the four cases presented here. Nor is it helped by the fact that the only long-standing questions left unanswered are, presumably, about characters Capcom doesn’t have anything to do with, or the fact that there’s nothing to anticipate a sequel for. You’re left feeling like you’ve just played a video game written by Vince Russo, only without the profanity or perversion. Nor is it helped along by the fact that the conveniences in the plot are not only stretching the very bounds of plausibility, but also rob the game of a lot of potentially interesting plot points down the road. And it’s especially not helped along by the fact that about half of the third case is effectively made to either point out that the entire legal system is insane or stupid by prosecuting someone for a crime that, based solely on his physical size and build, is highly unbelievable as the primary suspect (and yes, I know, “Guilty until proven Innocent” in this franchise, but there’s a difference between “reasonable doubt” and “fucking retarded”, only suspect or no).

But, y’know, if you ignore all that, the story’s pretty good! Har.

Visually, AJ looks like PW, only a little cleaner. The good news is that the familiar locales have, in some cases, been touched up significantly, and the character sprites generally look pretty good. The game also employs some cutscenes and some 3D modeling for a lot of the inventory examination, and that too looks pretty good. But the game still really looks an awful lot like the other three games, and while it’s presumably rather difficult to make sprites look any better than they do, the visuals still have that “been there, done that” effect. The audio fares about the same; some of the tracks sound pretty damn good (especially Klavier Gavin’s tune and the conflict track that plays when things get heated in court), but others sound like lame MIDI crap (in particular, the song that’s the focal point of the third case sounds weak, which is annoying because you have to listen to it about a billion times). And there are, as normal, a few voice samples here and there throughout the game, which sound as good as they always do (even if they are infrequent) and the sound effects sound as good as ever, though they’re not really anything different from prior games.

In contrast, there’s a whole lot of different stuff in AJ in regards to gameplay than there was in the various PW games (except for the first, and even then, only the one extra case at the end). The core gameplay, mind you, is fundamentally the same: you are either playing lawyer or playing detective. When playing lawyer, you’re generally given testimony from various witnesses, during which time you can “Press” (ask for clarification, basically) or “Present Evidence” to show a contradiction; when playing detective, you talk to various people to learn facts and examine various locales to find clues which can be used when playing lawyer. Interacting with the game is as easy as using the stylus on the screen; everything you need is readily available to you at the tap of the plastic pen, and the game is very easy to move through and work with because of this. Of course, old school fans will be so used to this that they’ll be running through the introductory sequences in seconds (and thankfully, this time around the game is so kind as to offer you the option of skipping the obligatory tutorial so as to not force you to sit through a bunch of crap you might know by now), but it’s still easy enough that nearly anyone should be able to work with it without too many problems.

But thankfully, AJ does more than rehash the PW concept for a fourth game. The biggest addition to the series is the Perception mechanic, which is kinda-sorta like the Psyche-Lock mechanic from earlier games (which also pops up here), only it’s done during trials. Basically, Apollo has the ability to notice when a witness is under stress, and by focusing on his bracelet, he can Perceive their nervous tics and point them out in court, thus using them in turn with evidence to solicit further testimony. The mechanic isn’t terribly convoluted (the option to use the bracelet only pops up when needed, and it’s not hard to figure out when the suspect is fibbing as they change their stance at that point) and actually looking over the suspects at the time isn’t hard either (you’re essentially given as many attempts as needed to look over the witness and see if they show any physical changes), which ends up making the mechanic an amusing diversion from the normal gameplay. Various cases will also provide you with interactive gimmicks to play around with, ranging from various detection agents to spray on items/locations to finger and toeprint analysis to spending one case playing with a musical mixing board. These all add up to make for what would be a generally strong improvement for the franchise, which isn’t surprising; this is the first of the Ace Attorney games to be specifically developed for the DS exclusively (the other three games saw Japanese releases on the GBA before being ported stateside), which allowed the developers more room to implement DS-specific enhancements to the game.

Unfortunately, the problems that have afflicted the previous Ace Attorney titles are still here in spades, and in some cases new problems rear their heads. AJ is linear to a fault; even the option at the end of the game to choose one of two endings is, at best, superficial (both because there’s no reason to choose the “Ëœwrong’ option, and the ending for this choice is all of three paragraphs long, ooh boy), which again means that one playthrough shows you everything you need to see. It’s also about as confounding and convoluted as its predecessors; in most cases, it’s fairly easy to move forward with the game, but occasionally you will either be left with no idea whatsoever of how to proceed or, worse, you’ll know EXACTLY how to proceed, but have no idea where you are supposed to do it (as you have to specifically present evidence and such at exactly the right time or you take a hit). AJ is also unashamedly Japanese; the court system in the game mirrors the Japanese court system almost exactly, which is rather… confusing for anyone who’s not played prior games in the series, and potentially off-putting for those who didn’t like it the first time around.

As added bonuses, you’re also given a new complaint in the fact that there are multiple periods of time where you are just reading through A WALL OF TEXT because this game, having a whole lot more to explain than the previous titles, also spends a whole lot more time EXPLAINING IT ALL than the earlier games. There’s a delicate balance in adventure games between “too many puzzles with no plot” and “wall of text with no interaction”, and AJ crosses the line into FFVII territory on more than one occasion. This is further exacerbated by the flashback-itis the game seems to have, where it will flash back to events that happened something like five minutes ago… considering that adventure games generally tend to attract gamers with LONGER attention spans, this is really, really confusing and I cannot for the life of me understand what the point of this even was. This is then compounded further by the constant repetition of cutscenes for the same reason; yes, okay, I get that you’re proud of your animated cutscenes, guys, but that horrible MIDI song with wonderful printed lyrics that neither rhyme nor provide entertainment (it’s not like there was actual SINGING here, so you could have done better than “Sugar, Sugar, oh that night in your embrace, when you stole away the keys my heart held on to so tight”)? After the tenth time of seeing it, you’ll never want to see it ever again as long as you live. Just saying.

And it’s not like AJ is a bad game or anything. Yes, okay, the characters are flat in some respects, but given time they could have grown into better, more well-rounded characters. And yes, okay, there’s little to nothing here that’s super-original, but there was enough neat stuff to make the game feel a little different, at least… and more could have been added to later games, certainly. The game still retains the classic look and feel of the prior titles, so certainly there was a fantastic amount of framework to build on for later games, if one ultimately wanted to build a brand-new franchise out of whole cloth starting from this game.

But AJ doesn’t really know what it wants to be, or who it’s trying to appeal to, which is something of a problem. New players aren’t going to know what to do with it, considering there’s all of this referenced history and backstory they know nothing about and care not one whit about at all, and there’s so much going on at once they’re going to be lost. And old fans aren’t going to care much about the game because the things that made the original games so much fun (engaging characters, defeating the prosecution in court in decisive fashion, the goofy but vaguely romantic interactions between Phoenix and Maya) are nowhere to be found in this game.

In the end, Apollo Justice, taken on its own merits, is a solid (if unspectacular) DS adventure game that has a lot to get off its chest before its tale is finished. New players who have never played the previous Ace Attorney titles will find this one to be interesting and engaging, but perhaps a bit too interested in its own story at times. Fans of the prior games, whether they love AJ or not, won’t love it as much as the prior titles simply because for all it does different, there’s little it does better. It’s not a bad game per say, but there are three better games in the series; if you haven’t played them, you should buy those instead, and if you have, this is going to be something of a letdown in comparison.

The Scores:
Graphics: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: BAD
Originality: DREADFUL
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

Final Score: DECENT.

Short Attention Span Summary:

Fourth verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

Apollo Justice is basically just like every other Ace Attorney game that came before it. There are some differences in gameplay that make the game slightly more enjoyable than previous efforts, but some pacing issues and a dearth of well-written characters make this carbon copy somewhat less interesting than those that came before. Diehard fans might want to give it a look if they’re curious, but new players would be better served buying the older games first and giving them a go. Apollo Justice is worth a rental, but not much more.



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