Like any fan, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the North American release of Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney ever since it made its Japanese debut in 2012. Both series, which masterfully combine the niche visual novel format with the (slightly) more accepted form of the themed adventure puzzler, were standouts on the Nintendo DS, and the thought of seeing them all mashed-up together on my current favorite handheld, the 3DS, made me positively giddy.
This makes my lingering disappointment after playing the game over the past couple of weeks all the more unfortunate.
Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney‘s greatest strength is that it never strays too far from established convention. Even when our heroes cross paths in what is quite literally a storybook world of knights and witches, they’re still cross-examining witnesses, picking up hint-providing Picorats and solving fun but generally derivative logic puzzles in service of a plot that’s ultimately as silly as it is surreal. After dual prologues, Phoenix, the Professor and their sidekicks, Maya and Luke, are transported from London to the mysterious realm of Labyrinthia, where magic is the order of the day. In this land inhabited by characters of myth and fairy tales, the quartet ultimately finds itself on the wrong side of a witch hunt.
From there twists and turns abound, and, as trippy as the story is, that’s not my problem with the title. You see, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney‘s greatest weakness is also that it never strays too far from convention. It alternately feels like a Layton story or a Wright story, but never exactly the bold new hybrid I’d hoped for. When Layton and Luke are unravelling puzzles as they comb the city for clues or Phoenix and Maya are defying the prosecution in an attempt to uncover the real bad guy—who is, it turns out, both the first and last person you’d suspect—the game is still enjoyable and engaging, despite the fact that both franchises appear to be getting a bit long in the tooth.
When you’re sorting through a mountain of text or, worse yet, watching it come by a trickle at a time, though, things just feel stagnant. Even the glorious animated video sequences that have served as a highlight in the Professor’s recent 3DS escapades never quite gel, as the cartoon-y look of the Layton cast (and some of the citizens of Labyrinthia) often look strangely out of place next to the more realistic design of Wright’s legal team (and others).
The end result is a game that’s markedly uneven, with puzzles and court battles that are at times far too simplistic, and an overarching story that’s as much filler as killer. While I wouldn’t actively direct people away from Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (especially at the $30 price point), I’m also not inclined to shepherd any but the most rabid fans of either series toward it. There’s certainly some unique story elements in this shared chapter of the two big names, and the bulk of both series’ charm does tend to bleed through in all but the dullest moments, but, in a game that’s all about finding contradictions, it manages to pile on the highest highs and lowest lows without offering anything truly groundbreaking.
Review materials provided by: Nintendo of America