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EGM Review: Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

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Posted on August 29, 2014 AT 08:00am

Of professors and prosecutors

There was a time when videogame crossovers were almost unimaginable, since companies prided themselves on attacking their competition—not working with them. And then, times started to change. Rivals Capcom and SNK gave fans the fighting game they always wanted but never thought they’d see. Cast members from Final Fantasy and classic Disney movies teamed up to create a whole new world of RPGs. Even two of the biggest stars of the industry—Mario and Sonic—were able to put aside their differences and share billing in a variety of projects.

While Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney may come at a point when such ideas are no longer crazy, that doesn’t mean it makes sense. I mean, it does—but it also doesn’t. Bringing together two of gaming’s most beloved problem-solvers is an idea that you can’t believe didn’t happen sooner than this, yet one that also wasn’t an obvious route. Each gentleman’s franchise is filled with unique trademarks, and it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they’d combine together into some divine new concoction.

The blending of chocolate and peanut butter, this seemed not.

My concerns seemed justified during the game’s first handful of hours. We’re treated to short prologues focusing on each side of the equation—first meeting the puzzle-solving gentleman Professor Layton and his young assistant, Luke, followed by attorney-at-law Phoenix Wright and his spunky spirit-medium sidekick, Maya Fey—with both refreshing us on the details of how those character’s respective games work.

As part of these prologues, each duo is introduced to a young girl named Espella Cantabella. In one moment, she’s showing up at the doorstep of the Professor’s office, having escaped the attack of a mysterious witch thanks to the aid of one of Layton’s previous understudies. The next, Espella’s suddenly a strangely quiet schoolgirl, as Wright is assigned to be her legal counsel after she’s accused of attacking a ship’s crewmember. Both prologues only give us glimpses into who Espella is and what role she’ll play in the story, but each ends up leading our heroes to the exact same place: a book called the Historia Labyrinthia.

It seems our mysterious girl comes from the tome’s titular town of Labyrinthia, which causes a bit of a snag: Professor Layton points out that no such city exists anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, Espella has never heard of London, the sprawling metropolis she now finds herself inhabiting. After the witch tracks down and kidnaps Espella, the Professor and Luke give chase, rescuing the girl and stowing her aboard a freighter (where she’ll soon be found and accused of assault) before she can be captured yet again. They find that, in the commotion, Espella has dropped the Historia Labyrinthia. Picking it up, pages flip wildly, its written text glows blue, and in the blink of an eye, the pair are transported into the book and into the town of Labyrinthia itself. Then, unsurprisingly, the process happens all over again—this time, with Phoenix Wright and Maya the ones taking an unexpected trip.

Everything that happens during the prologues is perfectly fine as a setup for what awaits, but the next couple of hours unfold as a heavily Layton-centric experience. As my introduction to the long-awaited crossover of the two masterminds, I was terribly unimpressed. It wasn’t that I dislike the Layton formula—I’m a big fan of the games—it was just that it felt so much like a standard Professor Layton adventure that I wondered when things were going to actually start getting interesting.

Then, the first real court case hits, and all of that changes. One of the big hooks to Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright is that our protagonists are fish-out-of-water strangers in the Middle Agesesque town of Labyrinthia, but you don’t fully appreciate that during the game’s first proper chapter. During As Phoenix is introduced to trials in a world where fingerprints, DNA, photographs, and other such modern elements of evidence don’t exist, however, that notion finally hits home. What the people of Labyrinthia consider to be “proof” is laughable to the main characters (and us, the players), and having to convincingly present the truth under such conditions is a task neither they nor I were ready for.

It’s a frustrating yet fascinating position to be stuck in, and it kicks off a story that turns into one hell of a ride as soon as it gets going. That early complaint—that this Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright game didn’t feel like an actual crossover—soon vanishes. Characters swap back and forth in terms of who’s teaming up with who. Phoenix Wright and Maya get the chance to put on their puzzle-solving caps, while the Professor and Luke assist with trials, offering help in defending Espella from claims that she herself is a witch. Gameplay continually swaps between exploring, solving puzzles, talking to people, and hitting the courtroom, and that constant shift from one task to another keeps things feeling both fresh and entertaining. Sure, this mixture of different concepts isn’t as creative as it could’ve been—Layton segments still feel like Layton, Phoenix Wright segments still feel like Phoenix Wright, with both having a few new elements smattered here or there—but the overall result was better than I expected.

I also cannot emphasize enough just how well the casts of the two franchises jell together. In my mind, it’s now as if Layton, Luke, Wright, and Maya were always meant to meet up at some point—and going back to their individual franchises and stories will almost feel a little lonely. The drama, mystery, and humor of Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright brings out the best of both casts, and it’s also made better because of how strong all of those characters already were coming into this adventure. When you’ve got an engrossing tale that’s built around such likable protagonists, you get something that—even with its faults—truly feels special.

And, admittedly, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright does have faults, the worst being the baggage that each individual series brings to the table. After so many games, Layton’s bag of riddles has little left, and that’s painfully obvious as you’re presented challenges that pale in comparison to what was offered up in the early days of the series. Meanwhile, the courtroom scenes may have too much hand-holding for the longtime Phoenix Wright faithful, and it’s still frustrating when you know a solution but either don’t know how the game wants you to come to it or just aren’t on the game’s wavelength in terms of how to express the same conclusion. As well, while small attempts were made to bridge these two worlds, Level-5 and Capcom seemed to play it safe in this regard—which is a real shame. If we get a sequel, I’d love to see a more daring approach, one where the Layton segments play a deeper role in uncovering evidence, while grilling witnesses and battling prosecutors could incorporate more elements of puzzle-solving.

I was going to say that we’d better get a sequel, but I wonder if such a release could feel as special and interesting as this first attempt at the crossover of these two classic franchises. I mean, I want to play it—and I will play it if such a thing comes to exist—but the initial meeting, the coming together of the two sides, the present-day-heroes-versus-an-outdated-world setting, they’re all moments that you’ll never be able to replicate again, at least not without it feeling like a retread. Then again, that’s part of what made me enjoy this adventure as much as I did: It feels foreign yet familiar, unpredictable yet safe, unexplored yet well trodden.

Whatever happens to the good Professor and the humble attorney-at-law in the future, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is another reason to celebrate this modern world where gaming companies can work together to produce crazy-yet-awesome crossovers. While the result might not be a perfect blending of two different tastes along the lines of what H. B. Reese came up with in his basement back in 1928, it’s still one heck of a digital treat.

Developer: Level-5, Capcom • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 08.29.2014
8.5
While it’s not everything it could have been, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is still a funny, charming, dramatic, and emotional game, one that brings two very different franchises together into one fantastic gaming crossover.
The Good The two casts works stunningly well together and weave themselves into a story that’s extremely engrossing.
The Bad Doesn’t take as many chances as it could have; the puzzles are definitely weaker than in many other Layton chapters.
The Ugly How much this game hits home that I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world before modern-day science and knowledge.
Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is available exclusively on 3DS. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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