One wonders why such a meeting of minds has taken so long. Here, after all, is a union of two protagonists born and raised on handheld devices, sharing a common – and similarly gentlemanly – desire to seek the truth. Quite apart from that, Hershel Layton and Phoenix Wright are the archetypal mismatched pairing: a brash, slightly goofy American lawyer and a polite British academic. It’s potentially fertile ground for an odd-couple comedy, even within the constraints of a mystery thriller.
Yet in the early stages, Layton vs Wright is more a fish-out-of-water drama, in which both leads find themselves floundering slightly – perhaps reflecting the struggle of Ace Attorney writer Shu Takumi in marshalling a new character who must share equal screen time with his most famous creation. After a prologue that crudely staples a sequence of puzzle-solving to a brief courtroom battle, the two heroes are transported, care of a mystical storybook, to a medieval village hosting a witch trial for a seemingly innocent young girl. Behind the scenes, an enigmatic figure known as the Storyteller appears to be pulling the strings, his writing apparently determining the fates of Labyrinthia’s residents, a situation of which everyone seems curiously accepting.
Despite the early awkwardness of combining two disparate sets of mechanics, the narrative gains good mileage from placing both heroes well outside their respective comfort zones. Accustomed to using logic to overcome obstacles, both Layton and Wright initially struggle to master the rules of a world that believes in magic and witches, and as such the trials of the accused in particular offer a fresh kind of challenge. It helps that Takumi is a born yarn-spinner, and while those accustomed to the sedate pace and gentle Sunday-afternoon whimsy of the Layton games may be startled by the story’s darker moments, the writer balances the serious and the comic with consummate skill.
If at first it feels like an uneasy alliance – not least given the faintly awkward marriage of two disparate art styles – the discomfort soon dissipates. Once the two join forces, we begin to see objections outside the courtroom and puzzles within it. Longtime Ace Attorney fans will be delighted to witness the return of Wright’s likeable assistant Maya, while Layton’s apprentice Luke has a pivotal role to play as the story unfolds. Of the newcomers, the accused, Espella, and knightly prosecutor Barnham, are particularly finely drawn, the latter proving a worthy rival on the opposite bench.
“Those accustomed to the gentle Sunday-afternoon whimsy of the Layton games may be startled by the story’s darker moments”
The narrative lends a sense of urgency to the otherwise gentle puzzling, though perhaps that’s down to the ease with which these conundrums are solved, allowing the plot to advance at a quicker pace. In the main, puzzles have rather less tenuous ties to the story than usual, essentially functioning as a replacement for Ace Attorney’s investigation sections. Though this side of the narrative has its share of twists and surprises, the drama undoubtedly spikes during each of the witch trials, which introduce a fresh spin on cross-examinations, with multiple witnesses testifying. Wright can interrupt a statement should he spot a reaction from another observer during a line of enquiry, though the game is rather too eager to point you in the right direction. Purists, meanwhile, will consider the availability of hint coins during courtroom encounters to be mildly blasphemous. Yet whether narrowing down your options when presenting evidence or highlighting which statements to press, their inclusion is logical, as catalysts for those looking to move the story on, or assisting those less versed in the ways of Ace Attorney.
Elsewhere, the animation and presentation is well up to the high standard of both series, with themes, sound effects and even interface choices incorporating ideas from each. The games of objection tennis with Barnham are a particular joy, your opponent raising his arm above his head to slam his metal gauntlet down on the bench with even greater force. A splendidly grandiose variation on the traditional Cornered theme heightens the sense of melodrama even further, the ideal musical reward to accompany the innate satisfaction of finding a testimony’s inconsistencies.
As the narrative heads into the final courtroom battle, one character is unfortunately sidelined, yet it’s a sacrifice that serves a higher purpose, as a tacit promise is duly kept in a sequence that is no less exhilarating for being so clearly telegraphed. It’s a triumphant moment of fan service, as carefully orchestrated as the game’s excellent soundtrack. A pity, then, that the barrage of necessary exposition that follows the final sleight of hand leaves the conclusion feeling slightly flat, though a touching, wistful coda leaves a pleasantly sweet aftertaste.
Though the necessities of catering to two different audiences mean that it perhaps never quite reaches the heights of either of the pair’s best individual outings, as the credits roll, you’ll likely experience a hollow feeling, the emptiness that only the best stories leave behind. In the end, Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright is a collaboration that rarely feels like a compromise; few, we imagine, would object to a rematch.