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Letters from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies

Cassandra and Pete continue their tag-team discussion about the latest Ace Attorney game.

The first installment for this Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies letter series can be found here.

Pete Davison

Hey Cassandra,

Well, since we last spoke I've been making steady progress through Dual Destinies, and loving every minute.

I've been unsurprised to read a few negative reactions around the Web to the game, with some saying that there's "too much talking," others complaining that it's "too linear" and others still frustrated with the game's sometimes peculiar internal logic.

These are all valid criticisms, and have always been true for the rest of the Ace Attorney series, but these have never been games shooting for mainstream appeal. They're unabashedly slow-paced games - though it is worth noting that they're considerably quicker to move along than many visual novels, which supplement reams of dialogue with reams of narration - and their emphasis is on telling their preset stories, not on giving the player freedom. The parts where you get to do things are puzzles to be figured out rather than opportunities to "role-play" as a lawyer; if you don't solve the puzzles in the way the game wants you to, then you're penalized. And that, to me, is fine; what do you think?

I don't want to get too hung up on mechanics, though; I instead want to talk a bit more about the story, setting and characters - particularly once you're out of the first case.

'Sup?

The thing that's struck me more than anything is how "Japanese" it all is. The Ace Attorney series has always had strong Japanese influences, of course - particularly when it comes to the Fey family and their spiritual traditions - but Dual Destinies makes use of a lot more in the way of traditional Japanese narrative tropes than previous installments. The second case explores the Japanese folklore of youkai, for example, while the third is the traditional "school festival" episode seen in pretty much every anime and visual novel since the dawn of time. Only, you know, with more murder.

This should, by all rights, be a bit jarring; while it's never explicitly stated in any of the games, it's strongly implied that the English localization of Ace Attorney unfolds in the United States, and so the Japanese cultural phenomena should feel out of place. And yet somehow it works; it's something the series has always been pretty good at and very clever about - by introducing Maya Fey early in the series, for example, players subconsciously became accustomed to her traditional Japanese costume and spiritual beliefs as well as more general Japanese influences on the story and setting; these past influences conspire to such a degree, in fact, that when we come across the very Japanese Nine-Tails Vale and Tenma Town in Dual Destinies, it doesn't feel all that weird at all. At least, that was my takeaway; do you agree? And do you think it might be more jarring to someone for whom Dual Destinies was their first encounter with the series?

Cassandra Khaw

Hi, Pete!

I've been meaning to write but I've also spent the last day or so trying to breathe normally -- it's a bit distracting especially when parceled with all the Skyrim and [REDACTED] I've been fiddling with. (I so want to tell you about [REDACTED] but embargoes, man. Embargoes.)

To be honest, I didn't enjoy the first two cases. The first prickled at me with its simplicity and the second dragged a tad too long for my tastes. The denizens of Tenma Town and Nine-Tails Vale felt a little trite to me, caricatures borrowed from a box of tropes. I saw their quirks coming from a mile away -- a by-product, maybe, of an East Asian upbringing and a childhood stuffed full of similar media.They were whacky, sure, but in a 'I think the developers borrowed these guys from another set' sort of way. But the third case surprised me.

Aristotle Means, Randy Newman, Myriam Scuttlebutt and even that jerk Hugh O'Conner all felt like they genuinely belonged to the Ace Attorney case files. Though obviously influenced by the "school festival" motif, they felt happily off-kilter and more in line with the franchise's personality. I loved how the developers used familiar stereotypes as a springboard rather than as a mold. Take the twist at the end as an example. You know the one I'm talking about, right? The bit where you-know-who declared you-know-what to you-also-know-who? I laughed out loud. The camaraderie between the three friends in, appropriately enough, the third case felt wonderfully believable too -- yes, even the bit with tears.

The biggest thing for me, though, was how the motive behind the requisite death made sense. It didn't feel tacked on, thrown in so that the pivotal murder would not become a senseless act of violence. (If you recall, I was rather miffed at the first two cases because of the murderers' nonsensical motivations.) By the end of the third case, I was nodding to myself, completely satisfied with the build-up, as I led the events to their immutable conclusion.

Wait. You asked me a question.

I'm okay with that too but, then again, I grew up with this kind of stuff. I suspect part of the criticism is simply due to the fact that Ace Attorney is very much one of the "old guard", if you will. Visual novels, interactive fiction and even point & click adventure games are all getting progressively more interactive, more experimental. Look at Christine Love's Hate Plus. One of the achievements there involves sending a real-life photo of the real-life cake you baked for the protagonist to the developer. It's brilliant and cheeky and totally not Ace Attorney-like. Maybe, that's why others were a little less fine with Dual Destinies? Because we're getting accustomed to games that try to rock the proverbial boat.

(I hope that answered your question. If it didn't, blame my snot-filled throat and phlegm-clogged throat.)

I'm actually more than a little boggled at the notion that the localized versions of the Ace Attorney franchise were meant to feel as though they were set in the United States. Really? Most of the characters look distinctively Asian to me while the obvious foreigners like Athena Cykes and Klavier Gavin looked, well, foreign. Having said that, let's move on to your last question. Do I think the setting would feel jarring for a first-timer? It depends. Is this hypothetical person completely new to the idea of Japanese games or visual novels? Have they had any contact with manga or anime of any variety? If they're as alien to such ideas as E.T is to Hooters, then yes. Otherwise, I don't think so.

What might be jarring, perhaps, is the fact that the localization team didn't try to completely reshuffle the lore around to conform to a more Western theme. I mean, I could see it being done. But the developers stuck to their yokai, something I'm incredibly relieved about. Can you imagine the second case as a story about animal-headed wrestlers with a small town tall tale? Brr.

Here's a question: What do you think of the case progression? To me, it felt like watching a kid accelerate through his life cycle. The first two cases had all the awkwardness of pimply youth but Dual Destinies grows up somewhere along the third chapter. At least, that's what I felt. You?

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