In the legal system the world of Phoenix Wright honors, people currently serving jail time for murder can be a prosecutor. Like, in a court of law. That should tell you something about the stratospheric levels of absurdity Capcom is willing to shoot for in their visual novel chronicle. Dual Destinies is first in the series to be on 3DS. It’s also the first to sport an “M” rating, and the first to be available digitally – in fact, it’s only available digitally. It’s easy to see the logic behind these changes; games almost exclusively about wacky lawyering and reading dialogue have a limited audience. Why not up the rating while streamlining the distribution and allow the already ample creativity this series is known for run totally free? The schema of eccentric lawyers tackling a series of clever, complex murder trials operates largely the same as it always has, but the developer makes very good use of this watershed moment for Phoenix Wright to make extensive improvements across the board.
Like Professor Layton’s sojourn into the third dimension, Phoenix and friends are rendered in polygonal form for the first time on 3DS. The artistic shift feels even more pronounced and successful in Dual Destinies, and the adjustment period was barely existent. Characters new and old command an expressive presence on screen, and the cast’s detailed animations match up with the courtroom drama. Some slick swooping camerawork and match-cuts that merge characters in and out of different backgrounds help ramp up the tension, as do the voice-acted animations at key moments in a trial. I loved the way the series’ distinct sprite artwork made the transition to 3D, and now I couldn’t imagine these games looking any other way.
Phoenix’s name still emblazons the cover, but most of the legal shenanigans involve old favorite Apollo Justice and newcomer Athena Cykes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish for a little more of the Man Himself throughout Dual Destinies, but the other members of the Wright Anything Agency maintain a similar level of sarcastic attitude and an infectious – if slightly cloying – faith that justice always finds a way, no matter how dire things get. Supporting players like Myriam Scuttlebutt – who sleuths around for her school paper wearing a cardboard box – often keep the proceedings light and lively alongside the main cast. If Dual Destinies has one major sticking point, though, it’s that the cast of characters is too small for its own good. Characters are loud, exaggerated personalities that fit in with the series regulars nicely, but that’s usually all they are – personalities, traits without a fully developed figure to stick to. That’s mostly OK, but a lot of minor characters overstay their welcome by showing up in nearly every chapter. Detective Fulbright, a cop prone to loud, superhero-esque declarations of justice, is pretty entertaining for a couple of scenes in a trial. Then, there he is again, infringing on another case for Wright and crew. By the third time he shows up with his same old antics, I was ready for some different participants. The major exception to this fatigue is Simon Blackquill, the jailbird prosecutor that you’re defending against for almost the whole game. His penchants for manipulative logic and indulging in Samurai-inspired threats on the lives of other members of court are absurdly amusing and occasionally give way to what is one of the most developed characters in the series’ history.
More than any other Wright game, this one strikes an impressive balance between farce and melodrama, often at once. Cases themselves veer into more in-depth examinations on how legal systems are composed, and these morality plays about the definition of justice are mostly welcome. Addressing the semiotics of “justice” and the ambiguity of how a verdict is passed signal a meaningful and attractive tonal shift for this series. One case has you solving a murder in a Japanese tourist village and dealing with denizens possessed by a menacing local tengu. The case takes plenty of sideways jabs at Japanese superstitions and the tourism industry built around them, but those threads lead to a grisly murder and portents of schizophrenia. The next episode has you cracking a homicide at a legal academy whose details bare a sinister resemblance to a mock trial performed on campus. The case ends up being a philosophical battle between whether one should serve the law to unearth the truth or exploit it to get a client a not guilty verdict at all costs. Each case establishes an intriguing premise quickly, and the game’s writing points you in the right direction enough to make the odd bout of questionable logic in how cases shake out pretty forgivable.
What active gameplay there is in Phoenix Wright gets some love, too. It plays nearly the same as its forerunners, with most of the player’s role coming down to carefully reading what everybody you come across has to say and regularly checking their statements against any pieces of evidence you’ve discovered. When a witness gives their testimony in court, you isolate the part of their story that’s bogus and confront them with the relevant evidence (usually paired with an wildly dramatic “Objection!” or “Take that!” sound bite and the slamming of your character’s fists). A couple of very smart tweaks improve upon that trusted base and make the proceedings more enjoyable than ever. You still investigate crime scenes and other peripheral areas between court days, and hot spots on items or people you’ve fully investigated now sport a check mark, a small touch that keeps the pace up and your lines of inquiry moving forward. Before, temporarily losing the thread of logic during a trial was an occasional but inevitable frustration, leaving you to grasp at straws and take strikes until you stumble upon the right piece of evidence to keep things progressing. That still happens now and then, but making numerous mistakes in a row during the same stretch of a trial now unlocks a “Consult” option. If you press that, either Apollo or Athena – whoever you’re not playing – will explicitly mark the piece of testimony you need to pick apart. Again, it’s an unobtrusive change that keeps the focus on the storytelling, where it belongs.
The series’ deep roots in anime-styled storytelling and character design remains strong in Dual Destinies. That won’t be for everybody, especially since most of the critical plotting concerns the cases you’re working on and less so the characters they concern. The twists and turns of a given case are more thoughtful and fleshed out than ever, the motives and psychoses of the culprits more gripping. But when it comes to sustaining that complexity to the leads – to their world outside of courtroom theatrics – it stumbles a bit. I wanted to know more about the people I was playing as, and while there are some pretty major revelations during the two-part finale case, there was enough charming but padded interim scenes to have me wanting more.
The narrative that runs through that world isn’t always focused as it could be, but Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies is a largely excellent visual novel adventure. If you’re a patient and detail-oriented player, it’s tough to imagine many more games that absorb you into their world further. but it’s tough to argue with yet another excellent – and markedly improved – entry in Capcom’s juridical saga.