After a nine-year period of Capcom focusing on side-stories and spin-offs, everyone’s favorite anime lawyer Phoenix Wright finally made his return to the center stage of his own video game in 2013’s Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies. Though the Ace Attorney series has always been an oddball of the gaming world thanks to gameplay focused on scouring for evidence and defending clients at trials, the wild stories, memorable characters, and bizarre game-world logic have kept fans coming back for more. Still, it’s been tough for any game in the series to live up to the original Phoenix Wright trilogy, and while Dual Destinies can’t quite hit the mark either, it’s the best new entry to the series in years.
The last time we saw Phoenix was in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, in which a much older Phoenix has been forced to cease practicing law under questionable circumstances. Phoenix doesn’t participate in any of that game’s four trials, and instead a younger defense attorney, Apollo Justice, takes the lead and Phoenix acts as his mentor. Fan reactions were mixed – Apollo was seen as a poor central character to build a game around and not being able to play as Phoenix at all rubbed many the wrong way even though the cases themselves were just as good as ever. Dual Destinies picks up shortly after Apollo Justice’s ending, and finds Phoenix resuming his law practice along with Apollo and a new employee, defense attorney Athena Cykes.
Dual Destinies does little to change the central gameplay of the series, although through its five trials there’s no focus on one single character; instead Phoenix, Apollo, and Athena all split the lead in defending their clients for major chunks of the game. Each case is divided into two sections of gameplay – investigation, where interviews are conducted and evidence is found, and trials, where the defense attorneys go to battle with prosecutors in the courtroom in an attempt to get their client a “not guilty” verdict. The investigation portions of the games have typically been the slower parts as they require little deduction on the player’s part and mostly feature a lot of reading without much interaction. They still can’t match the intensity of the courtroom portions of Dual Destinies, but work has been put in to at least streamline them. Phoenix now has a notebook that the game will update automatically as a reminder when he realizes he should ask a witness a specific question or inspect a new area. It’s not much, but it’s a step above previous games that often left the player wandering around and presenting evidence at random in order to figure out what the heck their next step should be. Some care was also put in to improve the hunt for evidence; oftentimes the game will turn into a pixel hunt as the player needs to poke around with their stylus on objects around the room to inspect for clues. This was frustrating in previous games where it was tough to tell where one object ended and the next began; in Dual Destinies a checkmark will let you know what has already been looked over. It’s a small change that makes for less time wasted reading old information.
The trials themselves are where the Phoenix Wright games really get fun and that’s the same as ever in Dual Destinies. As Phoenix, Apollo, or Athena, the player will cross-examine witness statements, mostly by pushing for more information on curious portions of their statement or by presenting evidence that proves they’re not telling the truth. One unique part of the Ace Attorney series is that each of the main characters has some sort of special power that helps them to uncover the truth – they have communicated with the dead or have super-human vision that allows them to focus in on slight twitches that might indicate a lie; here in Dual Destinies there’s a focus on psychology, as Athena Cykes has an ability to focus on a witness’ true emotions during their testimony and pick out ones that don’t make sense. For instance, a basic use of this power might have Athena call someone out for hiding their happiness as they recount the time they witnessed their friend being murdered – it’s not proof that they’re lying, but it mostly trips up the witness into revealing more information. It’s a cool new trick that the game does manage to make interesting without making the mistake of overusing it.
There are a few more visual upgrades as this is the series’ first release on the 3DS; Dual Destinies looks great in 3D and considering that the game is entirely made up of pre-rendered animations, there’s little chance of the effect giving anyone a headache. The more robust hardware also allowed voice-acted cutscenes, a first for the series. They’re used sparingly and it would have been nice to see them a little more, but they do manage to highlight the big moments in the story when a simple box of text won’t suffice.
The story itself is a mixed bag, with its first, fourth, and fifth trials all closely connected and making up one excellent game-long storyline; unfortunately the third trial only barely connects and the second doesn’t at all with a long goofy story about rival town mayors who moonlight as professional wrestlers. Needless to say, it drags the game down and will likely put off anyone new to the series with high hopes after the short but explosive first case. The new antagonist, prosecutor Simon Blackquill, is as fearsome as any opponent the series has had; the fact that he’s practicing law while simultaneously serving a life sentence in prison for murder makes him unpredictable in a way no other prosecutor in the series has been before. Athena also makes for a nice new addition to the team; in previous games there has been a creepy running subtext where these grown men always end up teaming up with a teen girl sidekick, but Athena is at least old enough to have graduated from law school. Thankfully the game always treats her like a respected colleague, even allowing her to take the lead on one of the cases and relegating Apollo to sidekick duties. Dual Destinies is also more cameo-heavy than any previous game, allowing for most of the series’ best characters to make a return to let everyone know what they’ve been up to. It’s easy to see this as a sign of where Apollo Justice went wrong and where Dual Destinies went right – the former completely ignored the series’ history, whereas the latter realizes where the series has been, giving a more clear direction of where to go next.
In its seventh iteration, the Ace Attorney series is as strong as it has been since the mid-2000s. Changes in gameplay have been almost negligible since the first game of the series, but for a game that’s almost entirely experienced through text, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The few small changes and visual upgrades work to Dual Destinies’ benefit and the only thing that drags the game down is pacing issues in a slow second case. Aside from that, any fan of the Ace Attorney series will definitely enjoy Dual Destinies.
4 Chicks out of 5