I played the original Ace Attorney trilogy back-to-back-to-back in 2008 because I genuinely enjoyed them. But by the third entry I felt things were getting a little fanservicey and sloppy and it irritated me that they never felt the need to bother to correct the handful of glaring shortcomings in the game's largely recycled engine. I played the 4th entry in the series, Apollo Justice, several months after that and while it wasn't a bad game, it went even further down the animu/fanservice trail while also having even sloppier and less engaging writing and characters than the previous games. AA Investigations: Miles Edgeworth was announced right around this time and came out in the U.S. in 2010, but it would take me over three years to get around to it. It wound up way, way on the backburner thanks to Apollo Justice and also my concern that it was being made purely for the Edgeworth Squee Girls dollar.

Now that I've finally played it through, it turns out it wasn't really made so much for the nerd girls to squeeee at Edgie and twiddle themselves as it was a running general fanservice fest/pander for all fans of the series. In a way, Ace Attorney Investigations is like the Metal Gear Solid 3 of the franchise, where Apollo Justice was the Metal Gear Solid 2. With MGS2 and Apollo Justice, the writers jumped the series into the future and belabored it with all these crazy and unpopular plot developments such that the series was basically thrown off its rails. MGS3 and AA: I represent the writers ducking and covering by returning to the series' past to try to win back the fanbase they lost and as a temporary reprieve from having to write their way out from under the giant mess the last game just made. Unfortunately, while Metal Gear Solid 3 ended up arguably being the best game of that series, AA: I is more middling in quality.

But it got a 3/5, so it certainly isn't bad. The Ace Attorney formula and engine is strong enough to hold up after five rather samey entries and still be a decent experience on the whole. But when the engine is largely recycled between games, it's the little things that really matter, and while the game returns to the world of the original trilogy the little things just aren't executed as well here as they were there.

AA: I takes place a few months after the events of the third game, with chief prosecutor and big ascot fan Miles Edgeworth returning from the long sabbatical he took to study the justice systems of Europe or whatever. Things immediately get hairy as he has to solve a murder on the plane trip home, then another one in his office, then a few more in the next two days. The game's big change is that it takes you entirely out of the courtroom. It was billed as being more like an adventure game in the pre-release hype, but really the gameplay doesn't turn out to be very different - it's like you're constantly in one long investigation segment from the previous games, but it's frequently punctuated by one-on-one "logic duels" that are just like the ones that play out in the courtroom in previous entries. There are five cases in this game, and they usually begin with Miles having to defend one of his friends from false murder charges, then interrogate a bunch of people to gather evidence, then eventually force the real criminal to hoist themselves upon their own petard by picking apart their testimony and blowing them away with Force Blasts of pure logic.

The one really big change is purely visual - instead of navigating crime scenes using menus and static pictures, you now get full-body sprites and can walk around freely using the stylus. Aside from it just being neat to finally see sprites of these characters (and much of the pixel art is actually quite nice), it also improves investigations in a number of ways. Poking around the crime scene feels a lot less constricting, and the sometimes obnoxious menu-hunting of previous games investigations is eliminated. You generally only inspect one crime scene at a time and the game makes it clear what you need to do next and when you're finished with it, rather than having to flip between a handful of locations frantically re-checking every menu choice and using every inventory item on everything to progress the game.

Unfortunately, this streamlining takes things a little too far and makes the game a little TOO easy. It's by far the easiest of the first five Ace Attorney games (I can't speak for any past that.) The only time it gets difficult is when it decides to be stupidly obtuse or vague about what you're supposed to present or in what order; that's something that carries over from the previous games, but there's less of that here as you're usually being led by the nose right to everything. You're constantly given huge hints during cross-examinations, and investigating crime scenes pretty much consists of just lawnmowing the screen from one end to the other examining everything you can then talking to everyone you can. And even the somewhat confusing moments aren't that difficult as there's never situations where big chunks of your life bar are at risk; there's no all-or-nothing challenges during "boss battles" toward the end of cases, and there's only one segment in the entire game (near the very end) where pressing an irrelevant statement docks your health (and it's still a miniscule amount.) Part of this had to be in response to the complaints about the save system of the previous games, which could require you to replay 30 to 40 minutes of tedious text in some cases if you screwed up at the wrong point. But why not just fix the save system instead of watering the game down so much?

There's two new features to the investigations here - the Deduce system, where sometimes you get a first-person view of part of the crime scene and have to click on a suspicious point and then present evidence related to it, and Logic, where investigations will sometimes plant ideas in Edgeworth's head which you can later go and make connections between (at the penalty of some health if you try to connect two unrelated things.) But Deduce is really just a slight expansion of the way the inventory was handled in previous games; it's welcome and adds a little depth, but with all the handholding it feels kind of irrelevant. Logic is almost completely irrelevant as Edgeworth can't seem to hold more than 4 thoughts in his head at a time and you're never really pressured to force connections - if two things aren't obviously related, just let them sit and Investigate Moar and maybe another thought will pop up that's more clearly related to one of them. In the third case (of five) you get a gadget called Little Thief that, at certain story-mandated points, can virtually recreate a crime scene by using the data you've uncovered - initially it looks like it's going to be the game's killer app (a la Apollo Justice's bangle), but after being used twice in the third case it disappears for the fourth and only makes one reappearance in the fifth. Oh well.

Pacing is a problem. The game is just too needlessly verbose on the whole. A big part of that is Detective Gumshoe's constant jokes and antics, which sometimes were witty in the original trilogy, but are just largely unfunny and terrible here. The text speed is also generally really slow for no good reason and can't seemingly be adjusted. In the fourth case they rub it in by introducing a detective as a major supporting character whose gimmick is to talk really slowly ... and hey, he comes back in the fifth case too :(.

A related problem to this is that the writing just isn't as good as it was in the original trilogy either. Series creator and lead writer Shu Takumi only ever envisioned this being a trilogy and only wrote those first three games. When Capcom decided to Capcom and bleed the franchise for every last sales dollar it would bear, Shu moved on to other things and left Apollo Justice and this game in the hands of less capable writers. As with Apollo, it just isn't as witty or well-edited, the cases make less sense and tend to require deus-ex-machina evidence appearing out of someone's butt when all seems lost, and spends too much time trying to cram in every last character cameo and call-back to previous games it can. I admit one of the highlights of the game was running around in the 4th case with rookie Edgeworth and teenage Franziska being a couple of goofballs, but otherwise all the cameos seem hammered into the game at the expense of coherency. To be fair, this may be on Capcom management rather than the creative team, as they may have simply decided to cut a skimpy budget for the game and thus force them to creatively re-use as many assets as possible. This theory is supported by the soundtrack, which is good, but that's largely because it's recycling good music from the previous games (the handful of new themes are a seriously mixed bag and a couple are outright obnoxious.) Either way, could have been a lot better, as could the English localization, which is almost shockingly rife with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors.

The one thing that came off really well is the one thing I was most worried about coming in - making Edgeworth the star. Mercifully there are no inexplicable group trips to the beach or pool, in fact the SqueeGirl content is really exceptionally minimal. Edgeworth actually comes off pretty well as a main character as a contrast after four games of the bumbling Phoenix and Apollo. It's nice to play as someone who doesn't need constant outside help and who has a cool Sherlock Holmesian control of the situation at all times. Also helps that he has the best Objection theme yet in the series. This is the one place where I felt like the writing team did really well. Thanks for no random shirtless shots guys. Appreciate that.

So what's the final verdict? While it's debatably the worst yet of the series (I think I'd give Apollo the slight nod), even subpar Ace Attorney is better than a bunch of other games on their best days, and big fans of the series will probably find enough to like here as it delivers a mostly passable dose of the series' unique mix of courtroom drama and silly animu hijinx. As for me, despite my lukewarm feeling to it, I'm actually interested in playing the sequel. I think if they upped the challenge (but not in a bullshit way), did more with the logic system, and wrote a wholly original story that didn't lean on constant fanservice pandering, this could actually be even better than the mainline Phoenix games. Especially since they're now burdened with the Apallin' Justice plot developments. The sequel has been out for a while now but apparently it's locked off in Japan for now. So maybe in another 3 or 4 years?
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