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Saturday, 26 April 2014

Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright.

Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright.

[Contains spoilers for Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright.]

Well, this is an interesting thing, isn't it?

Cross-over games aren't exactly uncommon, especially between Japanese IPs, which tend to be less reticent about combining their works than UK or American companies often are – which is not even to say that the latter are particularly over-reticent about it. Still, I'm not sure anybody saw the combination of courtroom-visual-novel/point-and-click adventure Phoenix Wright with puzzle-game-adventure Professor Layton.

A friend introduced me to the Phoenix Wright games a few years ago, with great fun being derived from voicing the (almost entirely unvoiced) characters. They're very fun, if sometimes quite frustrating, games, with clever and off-the-wall stories and a lot of genuine passion behind them, and I look forward to every new release in that series.

(- Admittedly, one of the reasons I so look forward to every new release is that while Gyakuten Saiban, the original Japanese games, is set in Japan, Phoenix Wright is set in California, and each new installment cruelly torments the Capcom USA team more and more by being more overtly Japanese than the last.

Here's an example: The last game had a literal samurai in it. As I type this, the next game has been announced – it's set during the Meiji era, a period of incredible importance in Japanese legal history, and will almost certainly be heavily grounded in the formation of a formalised court system that was taking place at that time.

Did the localisation team kill your parents, Capcom?

Increasingly, it seems that Capcom hates its localisation team, and wishes only for them to know the truest and deepest despair.)

I'd never played a Professor Layton game before, so that side of the crossover was new to me, but I knew the basic schtick – it's about Hershel Layton, an archaeology professor and puzzle enthusiast, who lives in a strange version of the UK where London is an easy train journey from a desert full of Scottish people.

"I say, Luke, Glasgow has certainly taken a turn for the better."

The game has a slightly convoluted plot set-up, although nowhere near as convoluted as its ending. In London, Layton and his apprentice Luke are visited by a young woman, Espella Cantabella, who says that she has escaped from a town called Labyrinthia. It isn't long until a witch appears, kidnapping Espella and attempting to whisk her away. While Layton and Luke help her escape, they are sucked into the book Espella brought with her, and taken to Labyrinthia, a medieval fantasy village terrorised by witches, where the Knights of the Inquisition consign any and all witches they find to the flames.

Cut to Phoenix and his assistant Maya. On a trip to London as part of the Legal League of Lawyers' exchange, he finds himself dragged into the trial of Espella, accused of theft and assault. It seems that the UK, in this universe, shares the absolutely lunatic legal system of Wrightverse California in that a defendant can only be declared Not Guilty if one of the witnesses is revealed to be the actual culprit. Which is fine: It's not as if the US or Japan actually have that requirement in real life either, so we may as well go the whole hog and say that everywhere has it.

He reveals the true culprit and saves Espella, only for her to drop a book – and he and Maya get sucked into Labyrinthia too.

There's no joke here, this is just some incredibly pretty artwork.
Good job, Capcom/Level 5.

So how does the crossover hold up? Well, not badly. The two games are never really fused. You flick back and forth between playing Layton, solving puzzles and gathering clues, and Phoenix, defending 'witches' (usually Espella) in the game's witch trials. There's a decent amount of coverage of both gameplay styles and both characters, but the game makes it rather clear who it favours in terms of storyline, with Layton practically having to hold Phoenix's hand, even during trials, and uncovering all of the mysteries before Phoenix or the audience. This makes sense, in a way: Phoenix's main heroic attribute has always been played up as his ability to turn a bad situation around just when it seems hopeless, whereas Layton is clearly meant to be an erudite Renaissance man in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, but it still gets a little annoying at times.

The puzzle gameplay is fairly straight forward and, I imagine, not changed much from the Layton games from which it was drawn. There aren't really many ways you could change that kind of gameplay mechanic. The court room gameplay, however, undergoes a massive change from other Phoenix Wright games: Namely, that you can cross-examine multiple witnesses simultaneously.

Not just two or three either. In the second trial of the game, where this gameplay element is introduced, you are interrogating five people simultaneously, finding contradictions between their testimonies, and watching for everybody else's reactions to other witnesses' testimony. In the final trial, in a twist that utterly delighted me as much as it left me stunned, you are called upon to simultaneously interrogate ten witnesses: A guard captain, his pale subordinate, his tan subordinate, his black subordinate, his subordinate with all his limbs broken, a man desperately in love with a dominatrix, the dominatrix, another man desperately in love with her (they're not in competition, it's a threesome), a child, and an old man who had shown up in every witch trial and never had anything useful to contribute.

Look, this game has a lot of pretty artwork, okay?

It's enormously fun, and perfectly captures the chaos of a medieval trial, and the wacky humour of the Phoenix Wright games in general, especially when combined with other hijinks taking place at the same time: At one point, you have to cross-examine a parrot (a second for the series), and at several points during the game, the trial will be interrupted by some random person from the gallery declaring that they will join the witnesses.

So the gameplay is fine. Where the game really shines, though – and where it really falls down, at points – is its story. As you explore Labyrinthia and discover more clues, you uncover the legend of the Great Witch Bezella, a witch who destroyed Labyrinthia in the past and who, it seems, resides within Espella, who is also revealed to be the daughter of the Storyteller, the ruler of the city whose stories always come true. You meet numerous interesting characters, including stalwart Inquisitor Zack Barnham, who swiftly became my favourite character, and enigmatic High Inquisitor Darklaw, who swiftly became my second favourite character.

It's a solid fantasy plot and, to be honest, it's pretty clear pretty early that there's going to be a reveal that the witches don't really exist, there's no such thing as magic, and that Labyrinthia isn't what it seems. How that reveal happens is … odd.

Because Labyrinthia is actually a giant research facility testing hypnotic substances for a massive pharmaceutical company.

Thank you, Prosecutor Godot.

Which is in turn an elaborate ruse by the Storyteller to convince a traumatised Espella, who accidentally caused the fire that burnt down the town she lived in, that she isn't the (entirely fictitious) Great Witch Bezella.

Thank you, Judge.

And this is all funded by the British government.

I'll be honest, the Tories have made far more stupid decisions.

This is never foreshadowed.

As I said earlier, it's made fairly obvious fairly early that Labyrinthia isn't what it seems, that magic and witches don't exist, etc. What isn't foreshadowed at all is the hypnotic drugs, research facilities, big pharmaceutical companies, and so on, and so forth. That all comes out of the blue.

It also comes out of the blue in a really long-winded way. I meant to post this review in the morning. As I write this sentence, it is the mid-afternoon. Why? Well, because I didn't plan this very well, and because I didn't realise that the epilogue where this is all explained would literally take hours.

I began to hate Layton by the end of the epilogue, because every time I thought the game was finishing, he would go “Ah, but that's not the whole truth, is it?” and I would nearly throw my 2DS across the room in anger.

But it's a good game with a good, if completely off the wall, plot. When it finally does end, you get to see what all the characters are doing afterwards, including Darklaw, Barnham and Espella, and you even get a fully voiced cameo by Phoenix's long time rival, Miles Edgeworth.

So, overall? Solid. Really good, actually, even if it was exhausting enough that by the end it was a little bit of a slog to get through. There are some clever puzzles, some great court cases, and some excellent humour tied together by a great storyline here. If you're a fan of Phoenix Wright or Professor Layton, I strongly suggest you pick it up. If not, then I still suggest it, to be honest. It will give you a good taste of what both game series are like, and doesn't really require knowing either.

I mean, really, though.

The British government.

I mean really. 

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