Visual Novel Theatre – Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies

PWDD Lawyers

I am a man who enjoys the finer things in life. I like good wine and fine company. I have an eye for the great wonders nature has to offer, such as the steadfast mountain vistas, the pristine lakesides, and of course, my own gorgeous hair. And, as anyone who’s been following this blog for a while is aware, I have a great appreciation for the twin arts of literature and video games.

For most of my life, I have been forced to enjoy these two loves separately. It wasn’t until 2005 that my eyes were finally opened, with the release of one specific game. A game that combined the two art forms, delivering action primarily through narration and dialog as a good book might while still requiring reader involvement to work through its many puzzles as a video game. A game that served as introduction to the world of Visual Novels for both myself as well as so many other English-speaking individuals. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

The original game definitely made an impact on me. With its unique blend of strong writing, adventure-style gameplay, and great characterization, the game drew me in so hard that I’ve replayed it more times than I can count, even after I’ve memorized the solutions to its logic puzzles. This was the game that brought me to the Visual Novels, and the series is still my favorite example of the genre.

So, I thought it fitting that with the recent release of the latest entry in the Ace Attorney series, Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies for the Nintendo 3DS, that I revive our Visual Novel Theatre and give the new game a good working over. Sound solid to you?

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Just to get the uninitiated up to speed, let’s start from the ground floor. The Ace Attorney series, as the name implies, generally put you in the shoes of a criminal defense attorney, struggling to defend your clients against murder charges in a heavily unbalanced legal system. Generally, gameplay is divided into two segments. There’s the investigation phase, where your title character collects evidence, interviews witnesses, and builds his or her case in gameplay that harkens back to old school adventure games. After the investigation phase, you’re presented with a courtroom phase, where the game’s visual novel roots shine through. Here, you work your way through dialog as your attorney, the prosecutor, and a variety of witnesses constantly argue with each other. Gameplay here revolves around finding inconsistencies and either pressing the witness to discover more information on them or presenting evidence that contradicts it entirely. The series as a whole is known primarily for its strong and diverse cast of characters. Phoenix Wright is usually the lead player character, although Phoenix’s friend and rival in the prosecutor’s office, Miles Edgeworth, has two side games to is name and Phoenix’s protege, Apollo Justice, has one game of his own.

Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies is the latest game in the Ace Attorney chronology, with Phoenix Wright just regaining his attorney’s badge after being falsely convicted for forging evidence seven years prior. The suspiciously unnamed but totally not Japanese country that serves as Ace Attorney’s setting is currently undergoing what the game calls “the dark age of the law”. Starting with Phoenix being framed for evidence forgery and followed by a prosecutor’s high profile arrest for murder, the populace have lost all faith in the justice system. Rather than trying to fix this problem, lawyers involved in the countries justice system have instead taken it as carte blanche to do whatever they want, because hey, it’s not like public opinion can get any worse. This leads to both side adopting an “ends justifies the mean” mindset, with prosecutors trumping up charges and essentially framing defendants while attorneys freely forge evidence to get their clients off the hook. Enter the three lawyers of the Wright Anything Agency. Three of the few honest attorneys left. While they’re not specifically trying to end the Dark Age of the law, in a game like this, you know they’re going to anyways. In any case, it’s up to them to defend their clients against a system that would sorely like to see them dead for crimes they didn’t commit.

Perhaps the most obvious change from previous incarnations in the series is in the presentation. The biggest difference is that they’ve dropped the 2D sprites that we all know and love in favor of cel-shaded 3D models, which leads to a huge change in the way characters move. They’re all drawing on the same poses they used to, but now their movements into and out of said poses are a lot more fluid. Whereas before, characters would simply snap into whatever pose the story called them to be in, now they’re actually animated enough that you can see them adjusting from one stance to another. It’s a little jarring for those who are well used to the visual style of the previous games in the series, but one becomes accustomed to it fairly quickly. For what it’s worth, the old characters transfer pretty well into their new 3D forms. The visuals aren’t going to be blowing anybody away, but they serve the story well enough while still retaining that old Phoenix Wright charm.

The music’s been bumped up a notch as well; fitting, given the differences in hardware between the original games on the Game Boy Advance and the state-of-the-art equipment of the 3DS. It’s not much, but the soundtrack is a bit deeper and contains more parts, leading to a somewhat more satisfying sound. The game uses the same composer as some of the later entries in the Ace Attorney series, and the soundtrack is very well suited for the game.

PWDD Cutscene

The game’s also got cutscenes as well! Specifically, anime cutscenes with full voice-acting for the main characters, so if you’ve ever wanted to hear what Phoenix sounds like when saying something other than “OBJECTION!” here you go. This is actually one addition that I don’t think really adds to the overall product. The cutscenes are a little too limited in scope and scale, and for whatever reason don’t cover the most important bits of the story. They mostly seem to be thrown in there to let the team play with the 3D functions of the 3DS. The DLC mission does get some significant use out of them, but otherwise, they’re merely a distraction.

Speaking of the 3D functions, the 3D in this game is… not really that great. You don’t exactly go to a visual novel hoping for great graphics, but still, if any of you were getting your hopes up, well, don’t. 3D really doesn’t work with the Ace Attorney format, and unless they were going to change that, which I’m glad they didn’t, it was never really going to be great.

The writing is pretty much the same as it always was. The humor’s still hitting the same notes, the character quirks, with one major exception, are just as strongly presented, and the game’s got about as many typos as it always had. Nothing really major, nothing like the first game majorly throwing me off by accidentally having a witness say she saw the victim get stabbed in the front when everything else said he was stabbed in the back, but still, could have used just one more draft. In all, everything’s very consistent with the Ace Attorney we’ve learned to know and love.

The game is the latest in the series’ chronology, taking place a year after Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. As you might expect, it directly follows events in that game, with Phoenix just finding redemption, Apollo and Truci still part of the Wright Anything Agency, and all the old characters that reappear are sufficiently aged up to account for the time skip that preceded Apollo Justice’s game. However, if you’ll recall, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney left a few major plot threads hanging at the end of the game. You might expect some resolution in this new game. After all, that’s what sequels are for, right? Well, strangely, Dual Destinies never really addresses them at all. All those big revelations at the end? They may as well have never happened for all Dual Destinies cares.

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Dual Destinies does reach a pleasant mix of old and new, holding onto the core gameplay while still introducing new elements. For the first time, the Ace Attorney series has three lead playable characters, who you’ll change between by the chapter. Phoenix Wright and Apollo Justice both return from their respective games, and are joined by newcomer Athena Cykes, whose Emotional Matrix ability provides an all new way to break a witness down and get to the truth. Also new is a sort of logic string ability all three of the attorneys demonstrate. At certain, stressful moments during the trial, your character will briefly pause to collect his or her thoughts. During these sequences, you’re called upon to draw a sequence of conclusions based on established facts, eventually landing on an unexpected truth that turns the whole case on its head. Of course, everything else we’ve seen in the series are still present. Phoenix has still got his psyche-locks, Apollo still has a habit for detecting a liar’s tells, everyone still goes through the traditional pressing of statements and presenting of evidence and shouting “Objection!” with pointed finger at every opportunity. For a fun nostalgia trip, you’ve got a few of the more notable characters returning to varying degrees of usefulness. Although, Godot doesn’t make it in for a return trip, so it’s not like it even matters.

The courtroom system in Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies is still just as horribly one-sided as ever. Based on the infamously prosecution-biased courtrooms of real life Japan, who boast a conviction rate of over 99%, seemingly every facet of the Ace Attorney court seems designed to screw your client over. Modern western concepts such as ‘reasonable doubt’ and ‘human rights’ have no place in these courtrooms. Your client is guilty until proven innocent beyond any shadow of a doubt; even if you blow apart the prosecution’s theory and firmly establish your client’s alibi, they’re still heading for death row unless you can find the true culprit and secure his or her guilt in court. On top of that, the defense’s powers are limited compared to the prosecution. You can only call witnesses with the court’s and prosecution’s blessings, you’re only able to get access to crime scenes and evidence if the police are in a generous mood, and even the most transparent statement from the prosecution is treated as absolute truth until you’re able to disprove it. On top of that, verdicts must be rendered within three days. Fail to score a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict in the time frame, and… well, they do get another trial at a higher court, because the country of Totally-Not-Japan aren’t animals, but they’ll have to go through that trial without your help, and since you three are apparently the only lawyers in Country able to score a true victory, things don’t look good for them.

The game as a whole’s a fair bit easier than previous games in the series, which veterans of the series may have mixed feelings about. It seems the developers were desperately trying to avoid forcing players into the really obtuse logic puzzles that the series fans know so well, because there’s a lot more kindnesses available to the player that weren’t there in previous incarnations. For one thing, they’ve finally done to the save system what seemed obvious to everyone who’s ever used it; namely, you don’t have to quit the game to save anymore. Run into a problem you’re not sure about? Just hit the save button and you’re right back in the game with no breaks. They’re also a lot more lenient as far as losing the game goes. If the judge runs out of patience with your mistakes and declares your client guilty, you can just continue from the beginning of the most recent testimony with your ‘life’ bar completely filled. If you fail to figure out a problem with a specific piece of testimony three times in a row, your co-counsel will point out the suspicious statement for you. Not only that, but the game only allows you to search for clues when you know you need to, thus avoiding wasted time by checking every individual blade of grass for evidence. Evidence regularly gets disposed of when there’s no further use for it, avoiding confusion. And while the cases themselves can be just as complex as the best of them… well, it may be that this is the sixth Ace Attorney game I’ve played and I’ve gotten used to what narration and writing tricks to keep an eye out for, but the cues and tip-offs for the contradictions seem far more obvious than they ever were before. There was only one puzzle I can think of for any real length of time, and while the developers did do a good job of avoiding the crazy moon logic, I would have appreciated a bit more mental challenge.

In fitting with a plot revolving around the “Dark Age of the Law”, the tone of the game is a little darker as well. Not by a whole lot, certainly nothing deserving of the M rating the ESRB slapped the game with, but it’s definitely noticeable. Previous events have been retconned to have more severe implications, such as Phoenix’s disbarment heralding a dysfunctional justice system and Apollo’s nervous tic of claiming “I’m fine!” taking on new meaning. The game also involves a complete monster of a man who’s probably the most sinister killer the series has seen thus far, gives Apollo some more backstory only to use it to twist the knife in further, and has one character dealing with serious childhood trauma up through the end of the game. The tone is definitely fitting for the stories they’re trying to tell here, and helps a bit to deliver some more mature stories without being too strongly applied. As for the game’s M rating, a first in series history? I honestly don’t know where it comes from. It does have a child directly involved in one of its cases, but so did Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, and that game sat comfortably with a T from the ESRB. It could also be that this is the first game to imply that people who have a personal affection for other people with the same types of genitals exist, but I would really hope that acknowledgment of different types of sexuality wouldn’t cause the ESRB to bump them up a rating level.

This is also the first game in the Ace Attorney series to use DLC. The game’s made by Capcom. Capcom really doesn’t have a good track record in respecting the consumer in regards to DLC. So how does this one work out? Well… that’s a hard question to answer. The extra DLC case covers Phoenix’s first case after regaining his attorney’s badge. Aside from that, it doesn’t really tie into the overall theme or storyline of Dual Destinies. While the vanilla game is on the shorter side of Ace Attorney games, it’s not so much so that it seems like this was cut out of the original game to sell separately later. Aside from that, though, the case feels exactly like any other Ace Attorney case, for good or ill. When I pay extra for something more on a game I’ve already bought, I usually prefer the DLC to add something new to the game. Not just a continuation of the gameplay already present, but something that presents a new way to play the game. The DLC case… doesn’t really bring that, there’s nothing we see there that really pushes the envelope. That said, new Ace Attorney content only comes along so often, and the DLC case is a good enough example of the form.

You can also pay for new clothing too, if you’re so inclined. The costume pack gets you Phoenix’s old outfit from the first three games, a schoolgirl uniform for Athena, and a jacket for Apollo. It’s certainly… there, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Of course, one of the best things about the Ace Attorney series is the quirky cast of characters, and we’ve dithered long enough! Let’s get some profiles going!

Phoenix Wright

PWDD Phoenix Wright

The man himself. Legendary defense attorney, champion of truth and justice in the legal system, and owner of the Wright Anything Agency, a talent management company that employs three lawyers and one illusionist. He’s (in)famous for his bluffing ability, his skill at bringing up unprovable scenarios in court that nonetheless explain everything and are always either proven correct at a later date or delay the guilty verdict long enough for him to put together a much stronger case based in evidence. For a title character, you’re really not in his shoes as much as you’d think, only using his viewpoint for perhaps half of the vanilla game.

He’s definitely a lot stronger than he was in the first three games, no longer needing to rely on the advice of his dead mentor (don’t ask) to get him out of jams. That said, he’s been walked back a bit from the ruthless machinator he was in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. We see a bit of a new side of Phoenix in this game, serving as a mentor and instructor to both Apollo and Athena in the ways of the law, and a steadfast defender of his clients. In his new role, he shows a lot more confidence and capability, although his inner monolog does occasionally show times when he loses his calm.

Phoenix’s special ability is to view people’s Psyche-locks, using a psychically charged pendant to see when someone’s hiding something and systematically break through their resistance using evidence and guessing at the truth. He’s used this in the past to test whether his clients are truly innocent of the crimes they’re charged with, although it depends on using exact words and is definitely not foolproof.

Apollo Justice

PWDD Apollo Justice

A former Phoenix Wright fanboy, although his esteem of the titular character has fallen to more sensible levels since he’s started working for him. The second of the three lawyers employed by the Wright Anything Agency, Apollo spent most of his career previously as both Phoenix’s protege and pawn, but it seems Phoenix is now starting to trust him enough to let him lead cases himself.

Fiery and emotional, Apollo is best known for the volume of his voice. A devoted practitioner of the “Chords of Steel”, Apollo does pretty much everything besides think at a volume generously described as ear-shattering. He’s adamantly focused on bringing the truth to light, at times even turning against those close to him when they’ve done something wrong.

One of the biggest complaints about Apollo has been that, even in the game that bears his title, it was always Phoenix leading the story rather than him. They remedy that a bit in this game, giving him a bit of extra backstory and some decent character development. He still ends up acting like a bit of a wiener at the end, though.

Apollo’s special ability is to Perceive, to use his genetically gifted sight and sense to immediately detect a person’s tics and tells when they’re lying.

Athena Cykes

PW Athena Cykes

Because it wouldn’t be an Ace Attorney game if you weren’t surrounded by teenage girls. The third defense attorney at the Wright Anything Agency and a new character for this game, Athena is a rookie lawyer with a dark past who ends up playing heavily into the plot of the game. She mostly plays the same role that Maya and Trucy played in previous games, a constant assistant serving largely as a humorous foil to the straight-man player character while still providing insights towards the proper direction during a case, although she does get to lead one and a half cases herself. She does get some significant victories, but her inexperience makes her the least capable lawyer of the crew. She can’t even handle Payne, the traditional speedbump tutorial prosecutor without Phoenix’s help.

Athena is a women possessed by very powerful emotions. When she’s happy, she’s just one step short of breaking into song in public. When angry, nothing can contain her fury. These emotions play well with her special ability; using her extraordinary hearing and her knowledge of psychology, she’s able to detect hidden emotions behind statements, allowing her to give impromptu psychologic sessions in court and help witness recall their true and hidden memories.

She has a few character quirks, as does pretty much everyone in this series. Namely, her robot necklace, Widget, has a habit of speaking out loud her hidden thoughts, and her European upbringing lends a multilingual flair to her speech. Oddly though, these quirks don’t come up very often. It’s almost like the writer kept forgetting about them as the series went along.

Trucy Wright

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Phoenix’s adopted daughter and Apollo’s old assistant. Bright and vibrant, she’s a very talented illusionist, publicly performing several magic shows even at her young age. She’s nearly always happy, smiling even through the greatest trauma. She also has a very deductive mind, easily able to figure out important factors in a case.

Unfortunately, she really doesn’t have much to do in Dual Destinies. She’s always there, sure, but her father has her focusing on her studies rather than murder cases. She has one important part to play in the final case, but beyond that, she’s pretty much an extra.

Pearl Fey

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Yes, she’s still alive. Maya too. She plays a prominent role in both the final case and in the DLC case. She’s all grown up now, although she still has a lot of her same personality. A talented spirit channeler from the remote Kurain Village, she finds wonder in nearly every aspect of modern urban life. She’s very naïve and innocent, yet always seems to have something to hide whenever you see her.

Gaspen Payne

PWDD Gaspen Payne

A prosecutor self-dubbed the Rookie Humiliator, Gaspen is the younger brother of Winston Payne, the weak-minded prosecutor who routinely gets humiliated in the first case of every game. He plays the same role here, although he manages to put up a good fight against Athena at first. Once Phoenix shows up, well, you didn’t expect him to put up much of a fight against a legend, did you?

Simon Blackquill

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Each Ace Attorney game, save for the Investigations side series, has a single prosecutor serving as a constant rival most of the game. Blackwell serves it this game.

A prisoner on death row whose conviction was the second step in ushering in the Dark Age of the Law, Simon Blackquill is, never-the-less, an exceedingly honest prosecutor, one of the few left in the modern system. If you’re thinking there’s something deeper there, you’re correct, but for fear of spoilers we’re going to leave it at that. Even on death row, he’s still regularly released an put to work, although he has both the troubling ability to break free of his bonds and the fearsome skill of cutting things with his fingers. Blackquill is a devotee of samurai culture, viewing every twist and turn in court as a sword fighting metaphor and modeling himself after the Japanese warriors of old. Like Athena, he’s an expert in the field of psychology, and is said to be able to use it to trick defendants into confessing right on the stand. He doesn’t in front of your lawyers, merely using his skills for his own amusement, getting the judge and defense to make his case for him. Much like your defense attorney’s he’s absolutely relentless in his pursuit of the truth, although he’s certainly a lot less nice about it.

The Ace Attorney games live or die on the strength of their main adversaries. Blackquill is… well, he’s certainly good, but I can’t quite say he’s as high quality as we’ve seen previously. That’s probably more a testament to the strength of the rivals we’ve seen thus far, but even so, Blackquill falls a little short. He’s certainly better than Franziska Von Karma and Shi-Long Lang, but he still doesn’t draw in the viewer like Miles Edgeworth, as memorable as Klavier Gavin, or as absolutely wonderful as Godot. He’s definitely still interesting and really does help drive the plot along, but the game might have benefited by having him as a mere side character for one or two more cases.

Bobby Fulbright

PWDD Bobby Fulbright

Blackquill’s handler and your main contact with the police department, Fulbright is one of the better new characters this game introduces. He fills the role Dick Gumshoe and Ema Skye held previously, being the detective in charge of every case you work on, but he’s also a veritable justice superhero. He is far more likely to help your lawyers out with a case, caring only that justice is served and the proper verdict is reached.

The Judge

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Dimwitted, gullible, easily manipulated, yet well-known for always reaching the right verdict. The judge oversees nearly every case in the Ace Attorney series. As of Dual Destinies, he’s gotten a little more stern, and is now a bit more likely to reign in an unruly courtroom or uncooperative witness than to be played along. Even so, he’s still a majorly goofy presence in the courtroom.

Klavier Gavin

PWDD Klavier Gavin

Apollo’s rival from the last game and the prosecutor who temporarily ended Phoenix’s career, Klavier returns for a bit part in this new game. Klavier is an exceedingly honest and upright individual, and struggled for years with his part in Phoenix’s disbarment. He always seeks to pursue the true culprit of any crime he tries, no matter the cost to his own record. He plays a small part in Dual Destinies, but given his part in the game’s marketing, I figured I’d address him here. He helps you work out some circumstances behind one of your case, and pulls some official strings for you to get important evidence analyzed.

Miles Edgeworth

PWDD Miles Edgeworth

Of course, if you’re bringing back characters from older games, there’s not getting around Edgeworth. The most popular character in the series and star of the Ace Attorney Investigations side games, Miles Edgeworth is Phoenix’s childhood friend, staunch ally, and greatest rival. He doesn’t show up until late in the game and pretty much everything he does is a massive spoiler, but he featured prominently in the marketing so I’m including him here.

I may not be able to talk about his actions in the game, but I would like to point out his thematic appropriateness to the game. Edgeworth was the main prosecutor in the first game. Back then, he was known as the Demon Prosecutor and, while he drew the line at forging evidence, was not above “selectively preparing” witnesses, hiding inconvenient facts from the court, and having coroners stretch things a little in autopsies. He was once absolutely committed to bolstering his record as a prosecutor, in addition to honestly believing that it was better to put everyone he encountered in jail to avoid the guilty going free no matter the cost made him a fearsome adversary in court. However, after getting involved with Phoenix, he became enlightened and redeemed, and started focusing purely on finding the truth of each individual situation, no matter how hard it may be, and only imprisoning the guilty. This is exactly the kind of change Phoenix needs to effect on the justice system as a whole, switching from a results-driven system to one where truth is absolute.

Also, Edgeworth’s pretty dreamy.  I mean just look at him!  He wears both a cravat, and that ridiculous jacket, yet he still pulls them off so well!

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And, now that that’s over and done with, one has to ask how does Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies stand up, not just as a game, but as a visual novel? I’d say pretty darn well. The visual novel purist may be put off by the large amount of adventure game elements, but even those are less in number now than they have been in the past. The plot and characters are just as high quality as they always were, and I had a really good time with this product. No, the game does not go in deep. It is, as always, fairly shallow as a story, although the puzzles and court cases are still mentally engaging. Even so, this visual novel is fun. It’s very fun! It’s a whole lot of fun! And you don’t get very many visual novels aiming purely to be fun, and even fewer that succeeded. Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies officially gets the Aether recommendation.

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6 responses to “Visual Novel Theatre – Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies

  1. I grew up with adventure games, so I really like the Ace Attorney series. Discovering the true culprits and watching their breakdown animations after hours of twists and turns never gets old.

    By the way, have you checked out Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors? If not, it’s a visual novel that I highly recommend.

    • Absolutely, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is one of my favorite visual novels! That game uses every single facet of its medium to deliver an excellent, very complicated story that pays off well. It’s an absolutely fantastic experience.

      • I completely agree! The twists in that visual novel blew my mind the first time I played through it. It’s an underrated gem in the DS library!

        Dual Destinies is a solid entry to the Ace Attorney series. Personally, my favorite game in the series is the second Investigations game (the one that, unfortunately, didn’t get an official localization). Thankfully, an English fan translation was released last year and it was awesome.

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