Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney Trilogy is doing fine!
In the legal world, things rarely go exactly as planned. The original Ace Attorney trilogy helped set me on the path of practicing law, and throughout the many trials and tribulations I’ve encountered since, I’ve consistently found there to be no such thing as a perfect trial. You can’t prepare for every eventuality: unexpected facts may come to light, the case may shift at the Judge’s discretion, and people may say or do the wrong things. How well you adapt to the many twists and turns humanity throws your way determines the final outcome more than anything else. The Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney Trilogy collects a run of games that demonstrates this idea better than any other portion of the Ace Attorney series. These games may not be the perfectly planned continuation you’d expect, but they each build towards a grand conclusion that all works out in the end.
Whereas the original run of Ace Attorney games were penned by the same author and built out of the same parts, this sequel trilogy proves more eclectic. Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (which I’ll be referring to as Ace Attorney 4) released in 2007 for the Nintendo DS. After this, the mainline entries took a break for six years until the release of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies (Ace Attorney 5) in 2013 on the Nintendo 3DS, which was then followed by Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice (Ace Attorney 6; perhaps you can see why I’m using shorthand with names like these) in 2016. Put simply, these games are separated by technology, by time, and by the teams that put them together.
They ultimately fit together fine enough, they just lack the strong cohesion that comes from crafting a trilogy in short succession. You can easily differentiate the voices behind each of these games. The realities of their production undeniably give this “Apollo Justice” trilogy a different feel from its predecessors.
The way I see it, the original Ace Attorney team told their story and it stands on its own just fine. There’s nothing wrong with new stories using these characters coming from people with different perspectives. It’s not dissimilar to how the comic book industry functions. Characters like Spider-Man endure due to the pantheon of legendary creators that built his mythology, not just one specific team. Ace Attorney itself has indulged in reinterpreting long-running characters like Sherlock Holmes to its own benefit, so complaining about the same thing happening to Ace Attorney would be hypocritical.
Still, the disparate nature of this trilogy makes for a tricky package to talk about. To keep things simple, I’ll state my case for each game and how this collection handles it individually. Once you’ve heard all the testimony, we’ll reconvene for a final judgment on the package as a whole.
Ace Attorney 4 - Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney
Shu Takumi, the writer and director of the original Ace Attorney trilogy, did not want to make an Ace Attorney 4. Capcom overruled that objection, and so Mr. Takumi compromised by penning a tale starring a new protagonist – the titular Apollo Justice. However, that would end up being far from the only compromise. Phoenix Wright effectively stole the spotlight after he was forced into the game by the higher ups. At the same time, the legal system in Japan was changing in ways that the higher ups felt should be reflected in the story. On top of all of this, an entirely new team and director that struggled to understand Mr. Takumi’s vision for Ace Attorney assisted in bringing it to fruition.
To put it bluntly, while I’m sure that everyone on the Ace Attorney 4 team worked hard, I don’t believe that Mr. Takumi’s heart was in this project and it shows in the final product. Ace Attorney 4 aimed to kickstart a bold new era for the series. Unfortunately, this new era comes across more like a mountain of vague ideas haphazardly tossed at the wall to see what sticks.
Ace Attorney 4 fails to stand on its own or even apart from its predecessors, instead using them as a cheap crutch to keep you invested. It tarnishes the legacy of the previous entries in an oddly cruel way, uses contrivances to a degree that actively harms both the mysteries and the plot of the game, and sets up ambiguous narrative beats with dubious value. Most importantly, it doesn’t justify why Apollo Justice should be the protagonist over Phoenix Wright. Apollo lacks both autonomy and personality as Phoenix Wright drives the game forward. The team may have set out to make a compelling new character for a new era, but the one they made isn’t named Apollo Justice. Instead, this new interpretation of Phoenix Wright steals the show.
Despite Mr. Takumi being just as involved with Ace Attorney 4 as he was in the previous games, it doesn’t feel like his vision. It feels like a game comprised of a multitude of visions, corporate-mandated or otherwise, that never fully meld together. To date, this is the only entry in the Ace Attorney series where after completing it, I was strongly dissatisfied. I was not happy with how it used the old characters or excited for the potential of the new ones. Instead of leaving me with anticipation, Ace Attorney 4 left an empty feeling in my heart.
It may surprise you, then, when I say that Ace Attorney 4 is absolutely worth playing. While a lot of the ambiguity in the narrative likely comes down to aimlessness or development compromises, it gives Ace Attorney 4 a unique atmosphere if you’re willing to buy into the smoke and mirrors. A darkness lies at the heart of this iteration and it seeps into every area of the game. The characters and their circumstances have an ever-so-slight edge to them that take them to places previous games wouldn’t go and the soundtrack amplifies the general air of nihilism and unease. Visually, it refreshes the art design by taking things in a more stylish and serious (but not too serious) direction. There’s no getting around it – Ace Attorney 4 is a cool game aesthetically. Its style carries it far further than its substance.
Even then, I’d be lying if I said I disliked the substance entirely. Many of this game’s twists and turns are great – the first case in particular stands out as one of the best introductions in the series. For me, it’s less about the ideas and more about their execution and where they lead. With some clever rearrangement, I believe that this game could work much better, yet even in its state of disarray it remains an intriguing experience.
As for how well that experience holds up in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney Trilogy, things are suitably ambiguous. Much of the 2D art looks great in HD, and it appears that the development team went the extra mile in reworking the art for backgrounds when necessary.
While I know some will miss the pixelated look of the art from the Nintendo DS, Ace Attorney 4 gains more from the HD art treatment than it loses. This entry previously had some odd quirks when it came to returning characters – most of them would reuse their art from the previous games, which would clash heavily with the modernized artwork of the newer characters. The HD-ification process puts everyone on more equal artistic footing, even if you can still spot the stylistic differences.
Not all HD-ifications are made equal, however. Some of these assets simply weren’t meant to be looked at on anything other than a tiny sub-HD screen. Some segments zoom your perspective in the courtroom out, and the sprites for these sections look like they were hit with the world’s ugliest blurring filter. Series veterans will likely remember that the third case of the game features a concert video that the game will subject you to multiple times. It already looked strange with its bizarre 3D models, but the cleaned up HD versions are now just straight up unflattering.
Ace Attorney 5 - Dual Destinies
Ace Attorney 5 may be the most excited I have ever been for a video game. While Ace Attorney 4 slightly soured the series for me, it didn’t kill my interest in becoming an attorney. By the time Ace Attorney 5 was announced, years had passed since the last game and I was actively pursuing my legal education. I had made my decision by that point – I was going to be a lawyer. Finding out that Phoenix would be returning to the courtroom at around the same time felt like fate. If nothing else, Ace Attorney 4 made for a tricky act to follow, so I was excited to see how the development team would handle it.
As for whether or not Ace Attorney 5 lived up to the hype… it did for me, anyway. I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest Ace Attorney game, but I do think it’s exactly what the series needed.
That statement may make some Ace Attorney superfans cringe, as this is the first mainline game that Mr. Takumi had nothing to do with. Instead, the team that had been developing the Ace Attorney Investigations spin-offs took over, which gives Ace Attorney 5 a team with a rather unique perspective. They were both familiar enough with Ace Attorney to understand the series while separate enough from Mr. Takumi to tackle things from new angles. This mixture of reverence and freshness defines both Ace Attorney 5 and 6.
Whereas Ace Attorney 4 felt like many disparate ideas with no clear vision of what it wants to be, Ace Attorney 5 feels like many disparate ideas in service of exactly what it wants to be: everything. It wants to be a sequel to Ace Attorney 4, it wants to give fans of the original trilogy a respectful follow-up, and it also wants to be an entirely new game with a new protagonist. It stretches itself thin – arguably too thin – in service of these goals.
This approach offers more positives than you’d think. Ace Attorney 5 constantly propels you forward with both the new and familiar. The 3D visuals capture the essence of the 2D visuals of its predecessors while offering new possibilities with dynamic camera angles. Old anthems get revitalized with new sounds. Longtime fans get to catch up with Phoenix and Apollo while the game doles out new characters and ideas in equal measure.
It’s the kind of game that only “outsiders” to the series could make – it’s not overly preoccupied with subverting fan expectations or giving them what they want. It simply takes the world of Ace Attorney as it is and has as much fun as possible with it. It’s not Mr. Takumi’s Ace Attorney, but rather a collective understanding of the Ace Attorney he made.
Obviously juggling so much comes with drawbacks. Not every lingering thread from Ace Attorney 4 gets addressed gracefully and not every new development is a winner. Juggling the many kinds of sequels it wants to be sometimes makes Ace Attorney 5 feel like a whirlwind devoid of moments to catch your breath. The developers noticeably simplified many mechanics of the gameplay to keep the player moving. Compromises made to satisfy Ace Attorney 5’s ambitions are evident throughout.
To me, removing the ability to examine every background in the game represents the biggest blow. A seemingly small change like this sucks out a lot of the life that usually inhabits every screen of Ace Attorney. This actually bothered me so much that I personally whined to the Producer of the game about it, so you may have me to at least partially thank for the feature returning in Ace Attorney 6.
With Ace Attorney 5 marking the series’ official transition to 3D, it jumps to HD in the Apollo Justice Trilogy unambiguously well. Outside the loss of the 3D effect from the 3DS, Ace Attorney 5 looks the best it ever has. I absolutely love the work that character designer Takuro Fuse did and how it transitions to 3D, so I’m incredibly pleased to be able to play HD versions of these games outside of my phone.
The Apollo Justice Trilogy also collects the downloadable content for Ace Attorney 5…or at least most of it. Both the bonus case (which I recommend playing after the second case) and the alternate costumes report for duty. Sadly missing, however, is a Japan-exclusive Quiz DLC mode. This DLC never got a localization due to it “requiring in-depth knowledge of Japanese culture” but it would have been nice to see them try, or at least include the Japanese version for those who can read it.
Ace Attorney 6 - Spirit of Justice
I vividly remember staying up late into the night watching a Japanese livestream about Ace Attorney 6. Big mistake, normally. If you’ve never watched one of these things, let me tell you – they’re brutal. Even if you speak Japanese, these streams often consist of anywhere from 90-100% mindless chatter not worth listening to. The reason you subject yourself to these streams is that every once in a while you’ll encounter the rare 90% ratio where the other 10% consists of actually exciting information like new details about the game or, if you’re really lucky, a trailer.
This particular evening, I hit the jackpot. A new trailer appeared from the mind-numbing depths of the Capcom PR dimension, and it revealed the one thing everyone had been speculating about since they saw the setting of the game: Phoenix’s long-absent assistant Maya Fey was set to return in Ace Attorney 6. It was the greatest trailer ever. Ace Attorney 5 satisfied me overall, but some things remained conspicuously absent. Maya was one of them. Her reveal characterizes Ace Attorney 6 as a whole to me – it’s the culmination of this strange series Ace Attorney had become.
If Ace Attorney 4 left me feeling empty, Ace Attorney 6 closes the hole and patches this series together. In its admirable if misguided attempt to shake things up, Ace Attorney 4 damaged what came before it while also leaving its successor in a difficult position to follow up its ideas. Ace Attorney 5 addressed what it reasonably could, but was too stuffed to finish the job. This time around, Ace Attorney 6 laser focuses on providing a satisfying conclusion to longtime fans over anything else.
Whereas this game serves as the most straightforward sequel of the bunch, that gives it room to execute on its goals in the strongest ways possible. This is easily the best game on this collection and it’s exactly because it doesn’t concern itself with needing to reintroduce players or begin a new storyline. Instead, it concentrates its newness on solid mysteries and an overarching plot that takes full advantage of the entirety of Ace Attorney history. Everything matters in Ace Attorney 6. It weaves together old and new into a conclusion that’s emotional, impactful, and satisfying.
Fanservice often gets treated like it’s something to be avoided at all costs, but as with most things in life, it depends on the execution. Ace Attorney 6 isn’t automatically good just because it rewards longtime devotion, just like how Ace Attorney 4 isn’t automatically good because it majorly shakes up the status quo. Ace Attorney 6 is good because it understands what makes Ace Attorney compelling and uses every element from prior games to its advantage while further enhancing them with some of the strongest ideas and presentation the series has to offer.
Speaking of presentation, the Apollo Justice Trilogy includes the previously online-only prequel anime movie for your viewing pleasure. Outside of that, there’s not a whole lot to say about its inclusion that I didn’t say about Ace Attorney 5. It looks great and it includes (again) most of the downloadable content. For reasons I cannot comprehend, the Asinine Attorney segments, which were actually localized this time, are not included. You also can’t dress Phoenix up as Masamune Date. Lame!
Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney Trilogy is Fine
As you may suspect from the above paragraphs, I’m a little nitpicky about certain things. Thanks to Ace Attorney, I’m now a professional nitpicker, so let’s not stop now. This collection features plenty of bonus material to dissect.
The language options may be the most interesting tertiary feature. You can set the language of the text and the voices separately, meaning that you can play the games in English while getting the attorneys to yell “Igiari!” instead of “Objection!” or whatever other language you prefer. Personally, the voice direction of the English versions of Ace Attorney 5 and 6 always stood out to me as noticeably poor, so I greatly appreciate the option.
My favorite inclusion happens to be the Orchestra Hall. You can play the entirety of the trilogy’s soundtracks plus the 2019 Ace Attorney Orchestra performance. What’s that? You have a phone and access to YouTube? That’s nice, but I bet you don’t have access to chibi versions of the Ace Attorney cast playing their hearts out for you as the songs play! The presentation for the Orchestra Hall makes for a cute inclusion, particularly as different characters will pop in and out as cameos. Definitely worth keeping on in the background as you go about your day or especially as you write reviews for Ace Attorney collections.
The Art Hall features all of the concept art and promotional material you’d expect from a collection like this. I must admit, I’m slightly let down in this department – I own the physical art books for all three of the games in the collection, so I didn’t see anything particularly noteworthy outside of the Trilogy exclusive illustrations. I was hoping for some kind of artist commentary or translations to accompany the art. The art book for Ace Attorney 6 never received an English release, so something along those lines for this collection would have been excellent.
Last stop: the Animation Studio. Here, you can place the Ace Attorney characters onto a variety of backgrounds and play their animations. While I suppose it’s neat to be able to view the characters in whatever poses they have and wherever you want, it’s not that interesting. This mode appears to exist exclusively for professional memers to play around with the green screen backgrounds, but I can’t imagine this solves any problems that Photoshop has been unable to address up to this point.
Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney Trilogy does fine as a collection. It presents the games generally well and includes some decent extras. It’s not perfect, but much like the games it collects, it works out in the end as the best way to play Ace Attorney’s most diverse set of games.