The prosecutor is a convicted criminal with a bird of prey perched on his shoulder. A witness gives a statement with a cardboard box over her head. The assistant to the defence has a gadget that detects emotional fluctuations during testimony. Dual Destinies is an Ace Attorney game, all right.
And that’s a relief, because following the departure of creator Shu Takumi, the series seemed to falter. Apollo Justice did enough to earn it a stay of grace, but Ace Attorney Investigations felt like a tribute act, a clumsy misfire even with the promotion of the story’s true star, prosecutor Miles Edgeworth. With its sequel denied a localisation, many assumed the series had reached its final turnabout.
But Ace Attorney games trade in unexpected reversals, and so fittingly it gets a second chance, albeit as an eShop exclusive. Against the odds, it works: this is the first game since Trials And Tribulations to emerge from the shadow of Takumi’s original trilogy. There are cameos from past favourites, of course, but Capcom doesn’t lean on them too heavily. This is fan service, not fan fiction.
Dual Destinies still casts you in two roles, however: investigator and defence lawyer. A murder is committed; you examine the crime scene for evidence, prod witnesses for key information, and then present your findings in the courtroom. Yet while the structure of the cases hasn’t changed, Capcom finds a better balance between the two disciplines, streamlining the tedious pixel-hunting of the early games by highlighting objects you can interact with, and allowing you to move on as soon as you’ve exhausted all lines of inquiry. There are fewer sticking points in the courtroom, too: if you fail to find the holes in a piece of testimony, you can consult an ally who’ll tell you which statement sounds suspicious. All you have to do is find the right piece of evidence and present it.
As before, however, there are occasions where you know exactly what to reveal, and you find yourself waiting for the characters to catch up. On the other hand, this approach allows Capcom to confound expectations at times, and there are one or two revelations that will even surprise veterans of the series who’ve grown accustomed to its to its rug-pulls and subtle misdirection.
The biggest shock, perhaps, is the choice of protagonist. His name may appear on the title screen, but after the short introductory case, Phoenix Wright is benched in favour of successor Apollo Justice. He’s back at the beginning of the fourth turnabout, but by then the baton has been passed. Because this is really a game about the gutsy, likeable Athena Cykes, who by the age of 18 has somehow not only passed the bar, but earned a qualification in analytical psychology, too. The latter becomes important when physical evidence isn’t enough to contradict a statement: using an electronic pendant she’s able to gauge hidden emotions, which can be used to draw out further testimony. While you’ll be penalised for presenting the wrong piece of evidence, there’s no punishment for mistakes here, and yet these interludes add an element of variety in cases that might otherwise proceed predictably. Apollo’s tic-spotting bracelet and Phoenix’s psyche-lock-breaking Magatama make fleeting re-appearances, too, but it’s Cykes’ unusual gadget that makes the biggest impact.
Her character arc, meanwhile, spans five turnabouts that take the series to darker places than usual. Murder is hardly an unknown quantity in the Ace Attorney universe, but there are more graphic moments of violence – or at least its aftermath – here, including one brief anime sequence that echoes the origin story of a certain fictional serial killer. This wouldn’t be a problem in isolation, yet Capcom’s attempts at levity sit uneasily next to it. Takumi’s games knew when to lay off the jokes at the business end of cases, but the bizarre behaviour of some characters continues until the judge’s gavel bangs down for the final time. It takes a real lightness of touch to balance light and shade, and Dual Destinies doesn’t quite have it.
Still, its cast of oddballs is wonderfully realised. The series’ anime stylings work remarkably well in 3D, and the shift allows for some outlandish animation. Meanwhile, the terrific music, including the best variation of the Cornered theme since the original, lends the back-and-forth shouting matches of the courtroom a strong momentum. It helps that, in prosecutor Simon Blackquill, you have a rival to both respect and fear, his low-register hiss of ‘Silence!’ only encouraging you to yell ‘Objection!’ all the louder.
More importantly, there are still plenty of twists and terrible puns (a bomb disposal expert is called Ted Tonate, his victim Candice Arme). There’s falsified evidence, eleventh-hour interjections too, plus unlikely cameos, a bird in the courtroom and a chaotic final case that piles surprise upon surprise. Dual Destinies is an Ace Attorney game, all right, and that’s perhaps the best result anyone could have hoped for.
Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is released on October 24 for 3DS.