Review: ‘Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney’
October 7, 2014
Crossovers are a dangerous genre. Always in danger of pandering and existing solely for a profit, it is generally wise to approach them with some healthy skepticism. Happily, approaching things with healthy skepticism is a theme at the heart of both the ‘Professor Layton’ and ‘Phoenix Wright’ handheld series and while the result of this crossover has its fair share of faults, a lazy and greedy effort is thankfully not one of them.
Both the Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright series of games got their start on Nintendo’s original DS handheld and both have remained niche darlings ever since. With Professor Layton’s puzzle solving mystery stories and Phoenix Wright’s wacky text-heavy courtroom mysteries, the two franchises have very different tones, but enough similarities to make this crossover make sense from a gameplay and user-base perspective. The two titular characters are drawn into the same story because of a mysterious town named Labyrinthia that Professor Layton hears about through – yet again – a letter from an old friend while Phoenix Wright happens to be in London for a lawyer exchange program. Professor Layton and his apprentice Luke are tasked with protecting a girl named Espella who Mr. Wright has to defend in court and their ties to this girl bring them both into Labyrinthia, a town that appears to either be from the past or in a fantasy world. Labyrinthia is a town in which witches are believed to exist and are such a threat that there is a Witch’s Court where witches are tried and – until Layton and Wright arrive – are exclusively convicted and sentenced to death by fire.
It is a pretty intense premise for two fun-loving series, but not entirely outside the zone of what has come before, and it is a foreign enough world that mixing together the Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton art styles and tones works well. The story’s issues end up falling outside of premise, but to get to that, we first need to examine the combination of gameplay mechanics.The easiest way to sum up how ‘Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright‘ plays is to say that the game plays like a ‘Phoenix Wright’ game inside the Witch’s Court and like a ‘Professor Layton’ game at all other times. While the game has a small number of attempts to combine these two gameplay types, the instances fall in the single digits and one has to wonder why they were included at all. Otherwise, the mechanics end up being quite complementary. The Layton sections break up the lengthy text-heavy courtroom sections quite nicely and after the world is explored with Layton, it is satisfying to examine events and details far more closely in the courtroom with Mr. Wright.
Despite how well the gameplay styles mix, it was disappointing to see the ways in which some mechanics were diluted. I am far more familiar with the ‘Professor Layton’ series, so I am not sure if this criticism applies in both directions, but the ‘Professor Layton’ sections were stripped down and made easier in comparison to regular entries in the series. While a slow start makes sense to introduce new gamers to either gameplay side, it is confusing as to why the difficulty does not increase over the game’s hefty 30-hour play time. The puzzles were not designed by puzzle master Akira Tago and that fact is sadly transparent. The simplicity and lack of creativity in the puzzles begins as odd but becomes a major letdown by the time the game is over. Perhaps two of the seventy puzzles gave me pause at all, and that is certainly not the ratio that occurs during a typical Layton game. In addition to this, while the relatively new “zoom” function is explained near the beginning, it is used fewer than five times throughout the experience. It is not a major complaint, but it is indicative of how the game ends up feeling ultimately “less than” by the end.
Hint coins are easier to find than ever, there are fewer interactive elements, and the number of hint coins and hidden puzzles in each section are clearly labeled, eliminating the sense of discovery found in the ‘Professor Layton’ series proper. It is still a charming and fun experience to explore the world and find and complete puzzles, but it is a distinctive step down from the times when Layton gets the game to himself and this didn’t have to be the case.
As a newcomer to the Phoenix Wright series, the courtroom sections did not disappoint in the same way. While I did feel like the sections focused on ramping up length rather than difficulty, the process of listening to the wacky testimonies and presenting the appropriate evidence was constantly satisfying. The courtroom sections work best if players are able take their time and familiarize themselves with the details and evidence, a fact that the game consistently highlights, and this consistency is welcomed. There are two factors, however, which detract from this process. One is just how long the sections can be. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but with two distinctly different gameplay styles, it can be frustrating if a player wants to pick up and play a few Professor Layton puzzles, but will not be able to for a few hours while they are in court. The second factor is how plentiful the hint coins are. If the puzzles were more challenging, this would not be an issue, but players could use a hint coin at every available opportunity in court and still have more than they would ever need for the Professor Layton sections. Of course players are free to ignore the hint coins, but the lengthy sections combined with the readily available hint coins means that the game actively encourages rushing through the Phoenix Wright sections even if that is not the intention. In fact, the game is further at odds with its message when it comes to its story.
‘Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright‘ begins with a very promising tone and premise. The strange world of Labyrinthia is so strange and the events that lead up to arriving there also provide enough mystery to keep players invested and curious as to how everything is going to unravel. Professor Layton’s modus operandi is that clear and careful thinking can arrive at a solution to every puzzle. Phoenix Wright’s whole thing is to find contradictions in the courtroom to reveal the truth. Unfortunately while the story’s pacing is usually good and while all the plot elements technically make sense, the game appears to be more interested in unusual explanations and shocking moments than it does with providing more satisfying and lasting ones. This is particularly disappointing because the game’s premise sets up a number of very interesting and rich themes, but the game appears to hope that the plot points will flesh out these elements by themselves and the feeling by the end is that the story is unfocused and anticlimactic. Everything is explained reasonably and all ends are tied up, but something being factually satisfactory is not the same as something being emotionally consistent and focused and the extended climax feels overlong because of this.
There are many fantastic and mysterious elements that players encounter along the journey, but after an element gets its time in the spotlight, its relevance becomes scarce, showing up again to tie an end together, not to create the emotional resonance which should be the entire point of a good story. Good story and character arcs are sacrificed in favour of an endgame info dump and the game winds up getting progressively less interesting as it progresses as a result.
The game had an opportunity to deal deftly with how emotional thinking is often at odds with logical thinking and how magic – while not literally real – is an important metaphorical concept to our imaginations and emotional growth as human beings.
The game also had an opportunity to discuss loss, despair, trauma, and optimism and how they relate without contradicting the tone or maturity level of the content, but decides that the technical plot points of the mystery are more important. This is perhaps the biggest disappointment of the whole game.
That’s not to say that on a more micro level playing through the story isn’t enjoyable. Professor Layton is always a charming character – if not a little TOO old-fashioned at times – and the wacky humour and characters from Phoenix Wright really shine in the courtroom even if he and his partner Maya end up being too one-dimensional themselves. The crossover elements also work well and provide a lot of great humour without going overboard with fan service.
The visuals in the Professor Layton sections are wonderful as well and while the environments in the courtroom sections aren’t as interesting, the character animations are a joy to watch. They are consistently creative and fun and perfect for the sort of exaggerated courtroom Mr. Wright is drawn to.The music is suitable to the tone of the game and never dips below expectations but also never exceeds them based on past entries in the series. I feel the game could have benefited from a closer look at trying to tie music motifs to story themes.
For a game that appears to be very interested in critical thinking and finding the truth, ‘Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright‘ ends up being both muddy and surprisingly easy compared to the complexity of its story and the maturity of its under-explored themes. If its story had a few more thoughtful and critical passes during development, or if the puzzle design was stronger, the game would have benefited greatly. However, for anybody new to either or both of the franchises, the game serves as an enjoyable – although overlong – introduction. Veterans of the series will be pleased at the creative method of crossover and the perfect level of fan service, but will be disappointed in the beginner-level gameplay and the story that could have been great if it took a bit more of its own advice.