Video Game Review: Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Most people will probably be surprised on one level that I played this game at all. After all, I’m hardly known for being a big puzzle game fan, which is what the Professor Layton franchise is known for, and people who know me know that me and puzzles don’t mix well together, as they usually result in some degree of epic failure ensuing.

So, why did I get this game? Well, truthfully, at the time I got it, I was wanting to play through Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney and Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth so I could be properly caught up on the Ace Attorney franchise and, as I figured that I’d eventually have to play through this game, I figured that I might as well pick it up and play it while working through them. Ironically, of the three games, I’d say that this one was the one which really grabbed me, as the fact that I’ve beaten it first probably gives away!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with either the Professor Layton or Ace Attorney franchises, allow me to quickly fill you in on the details regarding them. The Professor Layton franchise is a series of six main games (with a seventh due out sometime next year) where you take control of a British archeologist and his apprentice Luke to solve various mysteries by solving puzzles (don’t ask how that works) while the Ace Attorney franchise is a series of six main games where you take control of a defence lawyer (originally, this was Phoenix Wright, but more playable characters have appeared in the franchise since then) and investigate crime scenes for evidence so you can defend your client against the charges they are faced with. While neither franchise has a lot of overlap on paper, both have strong investigative elements to them and they have very strong writing to them, with some legitimately incredible twists to them that work brilliantly, so a crossover between the two isn’t QUITE as weird an idea as it might look on first glance.

So, where does my knowledge of the connected franchises start and end in terms of my own experience? Well, I’ve at least played bits of all of the Ace Attorney games up to the most recent one (which I’ll be getting to sometime in December), so I’m very familiar with the Ace Attorney side of things, but the Professor Layton side is where my knowledge is more limited. While I’ve played an hour or two of the first two games in the Professor Layton franchise, I’m not really all that familiar with it. I do LIKE what I’ve played of the Professor Layton games, but it’s not really a big statement at this point in time.

So, with my perspective laid clear for everyone, let’s ask the big question: is Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney a good game? Well…I would say so, at least. While there are things which I think are a bit of a stretch to accept and things which I am not so impressed with, I do think it all works out to be a strong game overall that is pretty great if you like either of the main franchises that make up this game or just want a solid game in that vein.

The main story is actually rather interesting, as it takes place in the Middle Ages town of Labyrinthia and the story involves Professor Layton, Luke, Phoenix Wright and Maya Fey working together to work out the strange secrets behind the town while also defending their clients from the horrors of the witch trials. There’s A LOT more to the story than that, but the twists all build up to the reveal nicely and make a lot of sense when the pieces come together. While I do think that the choice of the game’s final prosecutor is a bit hard to accept from a logic viewpoint alone and some of the reveals open up some very good questions which aren’t considered at all, it’s all still done very well and even the moments which I think could have been improved still are handled well overall.

The art style of the game is something I’m a bit mixed upon. On the one hand, it’s really cool to see the characters in 3D (especially considering this was the first time this had happened in the case of the Ace Attorney franchise), but, on the other hand, the decision to have the characters be based on the art styles of their own games rather than both having the same art style can result in the character designs feeling very weird when compared to each other. While I can see why the decision was made (it keeps both of the main characters from each franchise recognisable, for one thing), both games have different art styles and the end result is that some characters just don’t work all that well when compared to the rest of the characters. Personally, I’d have been more in favour of the game having a unified art style, since it would have made sure that the game felt like a true combination of efforts from both Capcom and Level-5.

The main meat of the game are the puzzle solving and witch trials, each of which work out fairly well, but maybe have one or two issues apiece. The puzzle solving can get rather challenging, to the extent that I’m not ashamed to admit to being stumped for a good while on some of them, but you get that many hint coins throughout the game that it’s very rare to  find yourself reaching a brick wall with the puzzles for long (though, granted, the Professor Layton franchise in general tends to be aimed more towards a general audience, so this is somewhat understandable). A new type of puzzle, unique to this game, is the turnabout puzzle, where you basically get set an unsolvable puzzle and decide to come up with a completely new solution which isn’t based on what it looks like the answer should be…but you only get one of them in the whole game, which feels very disappointing because you’d have expected something like that to have been a far larger part of the game due to the nature of the crossover. That all said, though, the puzzles are pretty enjoyable overall, demanding a lot of skills like memorisation and pattern spotting to offer a diverse range of challenges that will keep every puzzle game fan happy.

The witch trials offer something VERY different in comparison to the usual Ace Attorney formula, as they include the questioning of multiple witnesses (which can lead to you having to interrupt a pressed witness to start questioning another witness who has reacted to the statements of the first witness. You also find yourself having to read through a book of spells to determine what you can about various bits of magic and its relation to the case at hand, which can result in some really interesting details that need to be followed up on in ways that might not be expected by the average Ace Attorney game. The only main issue I have is that the hint system is maintained (helpful if you’re stuck, but it comes from hint coins, which can mean that you have a huge stockpile of them to breeze through the court cases if you solve a lot of puzzles without help and hunt every single one down or can mean that you hit a brick wall if you’re really stumped and have used up a lot of hint coins while going through the puzzles. I also find it rather unfair that the final trial, which takes up four chapters of the whole game, does NOT give you a restock on the penalties at all during it, meaning that you essentially have to go through a trial that is several hours long with only five mistakes being allowed. It is challenging, I’m not going to deny that, but I found myself just going “screw it” and using a hint coin whenever I could on this trial because I had a huge stockpile of them (when the trial started, I had over a hundred of them!) and didn’t want to be playing the trial for a long period of time. I do like the shake ups to the formula, though, and I think that the final result is definitely worth it!

Fans of both franchises will be pleased to hear that the main characters of each franchise are treated very much in character with their best known portrayals. However, there’s no major appearances from other members of the casts of each game beyond a couple of minor cameos, which feels a bit disappointing because some of the interactions between the non-main cast could have been really interesting. I imagine it was done to allow a stronger focus on the unique characters in the setting, but I can’t escape the feeling that things could have been better handled here by having a bit more crossover between the casts of both games. The characters also have voice acting at points in the games, albeit with different actors than they’re usually known for having, and the results…are kind of hit-and-miss, if I’m honest. Some characters sound great (Layton sounds pretty close to his original voice actor), but others just sound rather flat (Phoenix Wright sounds rather one note, to name just one example). I think that the voice acting could have easily been improved, because it is probably the weakest aspect of the game, though, fortunately, not one that is a major issue throughout the whole game.

The game plays fine overall, but I did notice some frame rate dips across the game (the encounter with the Great Witch ran particularly badly in this regard), which is really concerning because I was playing the game on a New Nintendo 3DS rather than the original model and it still happened despite this being a game which is essentially a visual novel and a puzzle game rather than anything that should be particularly intensive on a 3DS system. It’s not a MAJOR issue in its own right, but I do feel that it is an issue which simply shouldn’t be in a game like this. I also feel I should point out that the game HEAVILY relies on the stylus, so, if you don’t have one for your system because it’s been misplaced, you’re going to want to get a new one before you start playing it, as it’d be rather difficult to play the game without it. A last note is that there are a few puzzles where the controls themselves can be a bit frustrating, such as one puzzle which, for some reason, did not seem to want to rotate the pieces whenever I tried to get it to do so unless I got lucky. In fairness, this only happens a small number of times during the whole game, but the times it did happen were somewhat infuriating.

The bonus material for the game, which is unlocked through beating the main game, is essentially two things: an art book showing stuff like concept sketches and that sort of stuff while receiving commentary from the game’s art director and a variety of non-canon bonus episodes which not only break the fourth wall, but include several additional puzzles. I haven’t played all of the bonus episodes, I’ll admit, but I found what I did play to be fun and the art book and commentary were definitely interesting for me, though whether the average person would be interested in them is hard to say. It’s a thin selection of bonus features, but they’re decent enough that I can’t really get that irritated by how small the bonus features are.

Ultimately, while there are flaws in the game, I think that Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney ultimately manages to pull through the flaws to produce a really great game that is worth checking out if you’re into puzzle games. It offers some rather unique challenges that you don’t get from anywhere else (to my knowledge, at least) and the results are definitely worth it. If you’re a fan of either of the main franchises, then it’s a really solid addition to both, but newcomers to both franchises won’t be too lost either. Hardcore gamers might turn their noses up at this game, because it isn’t particularly difficult and it isn’t really focused on action, but, if you just want a solid game which is equal parts puzzle game and visual novel, then this is one game that you need to check out, fan of either of the main franchises or not!