I don't think anybody could have ever expected Level-5 and Capcom to collaborate on a crossover game featuring two of their most beloved franchises. Yet here we are, just over two years after Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney was first announced.
Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney (Nintendo 3DS)
Developer: Level-5, Capcom
Release Date: November 29, 2012 (Japan)
MSRP: 3,595 Yen ($39.99)
It's just another evening at Professor Layton's office, as he and his self proclaimed apprentice Luke prepare to lock up for the night. Just before they head out, a mysterious girl named Mahone comes to their door seeking help. Possessing a strange, allegedly magical book, the girl is being pursued by some otherworldly force.
Elsewhere, Phoenix Wright and his psychic assistant Maya are on their way to England on business. Through a series of unfortunate events, the hapless pair find themselves in court, defending a high school girl named Mahone. Something feels off about the the case though; Mahone is unresponsive, and her guardian requests that Phoenix lose the trial on purpose. Just what exactly is going on?
Despite being a crossover game, Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney makes an admirable attempt to tell a compelling story. You see, these kinds of franchise crossovers often come with the caveat that the narrative has to be incomprehensible junk; a simple excuse to bring two or more video game worlds together. Some series don't try or need to provide justification for it (Marvel vs Capcom), but in the case of Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney, the entire game sinks or swims based on how well its written. An Ace Attorney title with a poor story or weak characters is nothing more than a disappointment. Similarly, while Professor Layton games focus heavily on the puzzle elements, they have a large fan base that also follows the series for its cast of characters. So how exactly do you satisfy these two groups of fans, while also making a game that stays true to both franchises?
Rather than relying on multidimensional portals or hackneyed excuses as to why these two franchises can come together, Shu Takumi (Ace Attorney) and his staff keep it simple. Layton lives in England and Phoenix lives in Japan. There's absolutely no reason why the two of them can't meet, which lends Layton vs AA consistency in terms of its overall narrative. These are the characters you know and love, and it feels surprisingly natural to see them interact and work together on screen. Professor Layton's wisdom and confidence complement Phoenix Wright's goofy underdog personality in ways that play with player expectations. Likewise, Luke and Maya are adorable together, forming something of an older sister/little brother bond. Bringing Shu Takumi, on board was clearly the right decision, as he manages to make these crossover relationships feel natural.
Like any good Ace Attorney or Professor Layton game worth its salt, the supporting cast is filled with quirky characters that round out Labyrinth City. In an interesting style choice, the city's inhabitants are mostly of a Layton-esque design. The main witnesses, however, are more along the line of Ace Attorney characters. It's an interesting juxtaposition that works better in practice than it does on paper.
The heroine Mahone is the single biggest disappointment in the cast. She's a mostly generic damsel in distress with a boring personality and a backstory that just isn't all that interesting. Despite much of the narrative revolving around her, Mahone is best used when she isn't actually in the spotlight. Fortunately, the overall narrative is fairly compelling, even if the final act gets pretty crazy. I take my hypothetical hat off to anybody who manages to predict the outcome of the final trial. It jumps the shark, and I can see it leaving people feeling a bit cold.
So Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney somehow manages to come together on a narrative level, but what about the gameplay? This is where I think people might need to temper their expectations. The game is divided into two very clear sections: the Layton part, and the Ace Attorney part. The different gameplay in both sections never really comes together in a cohesive way, which is something of a disappointment.
When you're outside of the courtroom, exploration and investigation plays out exactly as one would expect from a Professor Layton game. There are plenty of puzzles to solve, though those required to progress through the story are relatively simple. I can see Layton veterans being disappointed with how easy the main puzzles are, though I never really touched the optional or DLC ones.
The other half of the game takes place in the courtroom, where things play out like an Ace Attorney game. The only character you'll ever be controlling here is Phoenix, though Layton, Luke, Maya, and a few others appear to help you out from time to time. Since Labyrinth City exists in a world without science, things like DNA, finger printing and the like don't exist. As a result, Phoenix and the others have to play by the rules of the natives, making for some interesting situations in which you're forced to use a magic book in order to deduce how a crime was committed. One of the new elements that Layton vs AA brings to the table are the multi-witness testimonies. Instead of questioning a single person, as many as ten witnesses will testify at the same time. It doesn't change trials too significantly, but it helps to keep things feeling fresh. On the whole, I found the Ace Attorney sections to be the strongest portions of gameplay.
Ace Attorney games have never been particularly lavish productions. Much of their visual oomph can be attributed to the combination of smart sound effect usage and dynamic posing. Professor Layton games on the other hand have always benefited from decent sized budgets and Level 5's attention to detail. With much of the proper development handled by Level 5, Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney reaps those same benefits; the game is quite the looker. I was skeptical of the switch to 3D character models, and while I still think the Ace Attorney 5 characters animated better, Layton vs AA pulls off the change better than I expected. As an AA fan, it was a real treat seeing courtroom battles unfold in a more lively, animated fashion. The UI, while a bit cluttered, is sprinkled with colorful artwork and an attention to detail rarely afforded to in-game menus. On the bottom screen of the 3DS, little pixel art versions of the characters move around a beautiful map of the city as you travel from place to place. It's those kinds of little details that help the game world come alive.
While Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney may be beautiful to look at, it's the soundtrack that really shines. A mix of styles, the score is heavy on orchestral themes that vary depending on which gameplay side players are on. Trials have a more Ace Attorney inspired sound to them, while the Layton puzzles boast themes that should be instantly familiar to series fans. A few musical themes from both game franchises make the jump into Layton vs AA, though the vast majority of music is brand new.
Sadly, the voice acting is a bit more hit or miss. Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney, like most Level-5 productions, is not fully voiced. Important story moments and animated cutscenes all contain voiced characters, but trials and investigation segments are for the most part silent. When the cast does start talking however, things begin to fall apart. Level-5 frequently employs actual film and TV actors for their games, which tends to go pretty poorly. In Layton vs AA's case, they brought in Hiroki Narimiya and Mirei Kiritani to play Phoenix and Maya respectively. Both performers also played the same characters in the live action adaptation of Ace Attorney, but neither of them have any real experience as voice actors. Line delivery is stilted, especially in Phoenix's case, and it often clashes with the characters played by veteran voice actors. In retrospect, I would have preferred no voice acting at all, as it was more than enough to pull me out of a dramatic scene.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting a whole lot from Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney. Crossover games have always left me feeling cold, and I didn't have any reason to believe this would be any different. I'm always happy to be proven wrong though, and that's exactly what Shu Takumi and the teams at Capcom Level-5 have done. It may not be best in class for either franchise, but Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney serves as a strong reminder as to why people fell in love with these series in the first place.
The wait for Ace Attorney 5 just got a whole lot harder.
8 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
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