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APOLLO JUSTICE / Capcom / Nintendo DS
I don't know what the official literary term for it is, but there's a particular style of dramatic fiction that I call the "gradual reveal". It probably dates back all the way to mysteries in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and beyond, but it's best typified by modern examples such as the TV shows "Lost" and "The X-Files". In the gaming world, standout examples would be Hideo Kojima's games, particularly Snatcher, Policenauts and the first two Metal Gear Solid games.
With "gradual reveal", the writers basically drop you off in the middle of one giant mystery, and proceed to drip-feed information to you slowly as the characters work their way through it. The only way you can pull this off without putting your audience to sleep is through compelling presentation, strong writing and a whole lot of regular plot twists.
The problem with "gradual reveal" stories is that any decent writer can craft a fairly good one, but due to the sheer number of plot twists required to sustain interest, it takes an absolutely masterful writer to carry one off all the way through to the end without resorting to cheap "deus ex machina" devices to tie everything together. "Gradual reveal" stories tend to be at their best at the very beginning, when you know next to nothing about what is going on, and then gradually become less fun and interesting as more and more of the plot is revealed (and more crazy, inane shit keeps getting pulled out of the writer's asses in order to keep things moving forward). The X-Files dissolved in exactly this way, as Lost appears to be doing as well; Kojima has consistently only been able to sustain about the first 75% of his games, inevitably lapsing into ridiculousness and disappointment at the very end.
So it goes with the Ace Attorney series. The huge, overarching mysteries introduced in the very first game were all tied together (in deus-alicious style) at the end of Trials and Tribulations, leaving very little for the cast of that game's characters to come back and do. The original writer intended for the trilogy (and series) to be completed there, but of course this is Capcom we are dealing with - any franchise that generates even modest sales is guaranteed to be dragged out for at least twenty sequels and five spin-off series, and apparently things are going to be no different with Ace Attorney. To get around the closure of the last game in the series, Apollo Justice catapults the series seven years into the future, strips Phoenix Wright of his attorney's badge under mysterious circumstances, and instead casts him as the mentor of a wholly new main character.
Apollo Justice is a greenhorn defense lawyer with the ability to scream really loud. Unfortunately, his character doesn't get a huge amount of development beyond that, as even though Phoenix is no longer the main character he dominates the game from behind the scenes.
I do applaud Capcom and the writers for going in a bold new direction, however, as innovation is something this series desperately needs. During the first case, there seems to be a more dark tone than in previous installments, and the new story indeed appears intriguing.
Unfortunately, the series is really in need of more than a dark new story twist, and the designers haven't really added much more than that plus some visual and gameplay gloss. The game's graphics are improved - characters are larger, sharper and have more detailed and fluid animations - but the overall menu-based framework of the game is identical to that of the previous three games. The game makes use of the DS enhancements in a similar way to what was done in the final case of the first Phoenix Wright game, but as in that one the "forensice elements" really add up to only minor diversion at best. At a few points in the second case, you are forced to blow into the DS microphone to spread fingerprint powder, which is really more irritating than fun (and also a bit embarassing if you are trying to play the game on public transportation). There's a few points where you "recreate a crime scene in 3D", but what this ultimately adds up to is simply dragging a pre-determined object or two around until the game tells you that they fit where they are supposed to. A mixing board sequence in the third case that allows you to play individual tracks of two songs is fun, but doesn't really do anything to help the game's linearity and replayability issues. Otherwise, the pattern of investigation-courtroom sequences is exactly the same, and Apollo and Trucy are simply recreations of goof-off Maya and straight man Phoenix. Once you've finished this one, there's still very little reason to ever replay it.
The story starts out interesting, but it is bogged down by the series' usual pattern of having the two middle cases serve mainly as filler and nothing more. All the really juicy stuff takes place in the first and final cases. The game still has great characters, and this is probably the funniest overall of the series - the English localization is superb, as has been with all the other games before it. However, not only does it lean heavily on the old inexplicable "deus ex machina" gimmicks to get by, it also seems Capcom has firmly decided to take this series down Fanservice Alley. Bishy new prosecutor Klavier Gavin, for example, reeks of being created and inserted solely to sell more copy to the large population of girls (and gay guys) that seem to be drawn to these games. And the "Blue Badger" makes so many cameo appearances he just about takes over duties as the new main character. Hell, they even take the first tenative steps into Loli territory by having new (15 year old) sidekick Trucy talk about her panties at least once every five minutes, and make the theft of said panties central to the second case of the game. There's even a furry! Or at least, a guy specifically drawn to appeal to the fox/furry crowd. This kind of thing is all fine for social misfit otaku nerds, but it's going to alienate pretty much everyone else if they continue to trend in this direction.
The one other point worthy of discussion is the new Perceive system. At certain portions of the testimony, Apollo's magical bracelet glows, and this indicates you need to try to find some sort of nervous tic in the witness. You zoom in on them as the text and music slow to a crawl, and as they say fragments of certain sentences, you drag the cursor around a close-up of their body looking for odd and unusual movements to focus on. It's a neat effect and a fun idea, but it could stand a bit of small improvement - dragging the small range of vision around the bodies is a bit tiresome and makes it too easy to miss certain tics that appear for only a second or two. There's a couple of points near the end of the game where you can be stuck on the Perceive sequences for much longer than you really should be. On the whole, I thought it was a welcome addition, but not enough on it's own to spice up the predictable and somewhat rote courtroom proceedings. It is a good concept however, and one that I'd like to see come back.
More problematic is that you still have to wade through quite a bit of text if you make a mistake. The game is less harsh with it's penalties than the previous games, and on the whole kind of easy (the prosecutor has a tendency to help rather than hinder you in this one), but if you make too many mistakes you could face anywhere from ten to thirty minutes of text repeated that you've already read before. From the beginning this has been the biggest problem with these games, and it's been three re-releases and three sequels now with absolutely no moves to fix it.
This series really needs to expand on it's premises and evolve to stay interesting, but Capcom seems intent on following their usual pattern of cranking out sequel after sequel as fast as possible with only very minor updates at best. As such, this game is really only for hardcore fans - newcomers can play it without fear of spoilage of the earlier games, and likely will enjoy it, but if you've become tired of the predictable pattern and repetitive nature of the previous games, this one will just wear you out further more than it will revive your interest in the series.
I do really like the Ace Attorney games on the whole, and I'm hoping that the soon-to-be-announced Gyakuten Saiban 5 features some major new gameplay ideas ... but given the established pattern of both this series and Capcom to date, my hopes aren't exactly up in the sky for that to happen.
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