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Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies

Nintendo 3DS

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies
Perpetually put-upon defense attorney Phoenix Wright returns to the law after a seven-year absence, joined by his assistants Apollo Justice and Athena Sykes. Their cases plunge through courtroom bombings, pro-wrestling folklore, and even the shaky foundations of the justice system.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies has a lot to prove. Disbarred for seven years, Wright himself must prove he's still the spiky-haired, finger-pointing defender of the innocent we knew in CAPCOM's first three Ace Attorney games. Fellow defender Apollo Justice must prove himself to be more than Wright's dubiously received successor from the fourth game. Newcomer Athena Cykes must prove that she can hack it in a legal system where defendants are all but presumed guilty of bizarre and convoluted murders. In the thick of all this, CAPCOM must prove that the Phoenix Wright series still engrosses us today, even though we've gotten over the novelty of a video game played out like a legal drama.

Dual Destinies makes much of a “dark age of law” where corruption and bottom-line verdicts overshadow any gleam of truth, though it's not so different from past Phoenix Wright adventures. Cases remain stacked squarely against the defense while the prosecution's case must be chipped away bit by bit, and it's all decided not by a jury but by a well-meaning judge who's easily swayed toward convictions.

Phoenix navigates these trials with deft exasperation, picking through inconsistencies and obfuscations. His partners have their own advantages. Apollo wears a lie-detecting bracelet that prompts him to watch for tiny visual cues. Athena specializes in high-tech psychology, packing a Mood Matrix system that spots incompatible emotions amid testimony. She's just a bit more aggressive compared to Phoenix and Apollo's straight-man routines, and her enthusiasm fits perfectly into the Phoenix Wright milieu of delightful eccentrics.

Yes, the Phoenix Wright series prizes characterization and storytelling above all else. Cases string together webs of offbeat criminals and innocent misfits: they could be perfumed personal assistants with cell-phone epaulettes, schoolgirls who huff wildflowers to ward off coughing fits, or superstitious politicians armed to the gills with talismans. Everyone has a motive to reveal, and all of them unfold in absurd little courtroom squabbles and outside investigations. Much like a tenacious lawyer, the comedy undermines our critical defenses, priming us for that moment where the goofball antics slough away and the case is suddenly compelling and serious and somehow still deeply ridiculous.

Dual Destinies has that essential mixture most of the time. The 3-D characters show the same generous foibles of prior games' animated sprites, and the localizers give them lots of cute banter and delightfully terrible puns (and, unfortunately, more typos than expected). It's easy to miss Dick Gumshoe or Ema Skye, but badge-flashing detective Bobby Fullbright fills the role of rival investigator with deluded bravado. Simon Blackquill, the new prosecutor for Dual Destinies, takes a little longer to come into his own. A convict equipped with manacles and a pet hawk, he at first seems more gimmick than valid antagonist, and he lacks the delightful snobbery of Miles Edgeworth or the amiable swagger of Klavier Gavin. Yet Blackquill has a grander part to play, and it pulls him out of one-note villainy.

However much it excels at comedy, the Phoenix Wright series still doesn't care too much for gameplay. Dual Destinies returns to the same rules that drove its predecessors: poke around crime scenes for evidence, press witnesses until they slip, and haul out case-breaking evidence when the time's right. The various turns of the story may surprise, but everything boils down to a trial-and-error approach. You're prodded and pushed in the right direction with often-tedious explanations, and the destination often appears well before the path does. Even if you've figured out who did it, you're forced to piece it together alongside Phoenix, Athena, and Apollo. Sometimes the challenge lies not in proving how the murder happened, but in deducing just how the game wants to wants you to prove it. And that's just not as fun.

Dual Destinies tries to assuage this with new methods, most obviously Athena's Mood Matrix. It's a novel radar for unreliable testimony, with each emotion laid out on a smiley-faced compass. Yet it follows the same user's guide as every other technique in Phoenix Wright: jab here and there until you stumble on the answer and advance the story. The same goes for other new features, including three-dimension crime scenes and well-handled but largely pointless animated scenes.

This makes it all the more severe when Dual Destinies fumbles the story. The first two cases are appealing, but the third shifts to that most bedraggled of anime-series clichés: high-school drama. What at first seems a parody of the genre soon turns into a slog through dull plot twists and tired jokes about friendship and gender stereotypes. Worse yet, it's supposed to be Athena's big debut case, and it seems more like her trial by tedium. Dual Destinies recovers in the latter two acts, but if the middle one were an episode of the Phoenix Wright TV series, it'd be safe to change the channel.

If Phoenix Wright is a TV series in playable guise, it's wandering into those complacent later seasons. Dual Destinies fits the pattern we know. It'll charm us, amuse us, and perhaps fascinate us. But it won't enthrall us quite like creator Shu Takumi did with his first Phoenix Wright endeavors (or his phenomenal stand-alone Ghost Trick), and his absence is noticeable whenever Dual Destinies loses its way. Writer/director Takeshi Yamazaki does a fine job following Phoenix Wright's general path, but it's one we've walked before.

And why shouldn't we walk it again? For all of its gadgetry and missteps, Dual Destinies remains a Phoenix Wright game done well. It's unlike anything else in its blend of cartoon melodrama and high-stakes legal squabbling, and that makes it a standout in a field where memorable characters are rare discoveries. Phoenix Wright's old system still works. Here's the proof.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : C+
Presentation : B

+ Engagingly odd courtroom narratives spurred on by a likeable cast
It's rigid in structure, and the third case is a dud

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