Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney | Principal Platforms: Nintendo DS | Developer: Capcom | Publisher: Capcom | Genre: Visual Novel | Year: 2007
Ahh, the awkward fourth game. Is it any surprise that so many of them struggle to be memorable? With trilogies wrapped up and development teams restructured, franchise fatigue setting in, and the pressure to innovate looming larger than ever, video games carrying the dreaded number “4” can be feeling the pressure before a single line of code is even written.
Are examples like Halo 4, Sonic 4 or Mass Effect: Andromeda too modern for you? Try Warlords IV, Heroes of Might and Magic IV, Metal Slug 4, or maybe even Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Those who believe in gaming “curses” will surely find vindication in that dubious collection!
Whether you like those examples or not though is secondary to understanding the challenges that awaited Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. As its Japanese title (Gyakuten Saiban 4) helpfully illustrates; this is not a spin-off by any means. It’s a proper, direct sequel to the original Phoenix Wright trilogy, whilst also acting as a fresh start for its new cast of characters. Apollo Justice had a lot to live up to and like many fourquels, it falls short of expectations.
Now, I haven’t said all of this to try and excuse the game of its shortcomings. We’ll certainly get to those. I say this more to set the scene. Apollo Justice continues to polarize audiences to this day, but I’d argue that the risks it takes with its storytelling weren’t done for the sake of being different.
More on that later though because another important matter concerns the game’s former exclusivity to the Nintendo DS. Whereas the first three games had 32-bit DNA, Apollo Justice is purpose-built for more powerful hardware. The result is a tremendous presentation all round.
Visually speaking, every aspect of the experience is improved. The courtroom glistens with renewed grandeur, locations pop, and the all-new cast look equally incredible in 64-bit. That slightly fuzzy look of the previous games is gone, and the aforementioned character sprites benefit from much smoother animation.
Apollo looks totally crisp whenever he’s in motion. His rockstar rival, Klavier Gavin, is no slouch either; dazzling audiences with air guitar routines where you can see his individual fingers moving over the imaginary strings in perfect 2D harmony. The art design is so good that it actually looks distracting whenever older sprites are mixed into the scene as part of a cameo or flashback.
It’s lucky then that the focus remains on new content. Phoenix Wright returns as a supporting character here, but even he has been completely redrawn with a new outfit and personality to suit the rejuvenated art style.
The animators have also experimented with full-motion video to present 3D reconstructions of crime scenes and the like. It’s a cool idea, that whilst not realised perfectly in every case, does compliment the re-introduction of 3D evidence tools for blood testing and fingerprinting.
Not a great deal has changed in terms of gameplay, though there are a few differences in how the cases are broken up. Players only present witness profiles to answer explicit requests from the judge, which is a smart change, and there is a new gimmick that has Apollo detecting lies via his magical bracelet. Lies are manifested not as padlocks (as was the case in Wright’s escapades), rather they appear as behavioural tells that players must identify as part of a cross examination mini game.
Detractors of this feature dislike how it basically turns some conversations into a Where’s Wally? exercise. They’re not wrong, honestly, but the mechanic is well presented and the lack of penalties for clicking the wrong thing keeps things from getting frustrating.
That’s probably all I need to write about penalties considering my previous rants on the subject. Suffice it to say that the problems with the returning Confidence Meter remain largely the same here, only with the refills being far more generous and thus a bit less annoying than they were before.
Much like Justice for All though, Apollo Justice presents four cases of irregular quality. After an uncharacteristically hot opener, the middle stories become much spottier, with the third case being particularly awful on account of its telegraphed twists and over-reliance on tedious FMV material.
And from what I can tell, developing an appreciation for this particular sequel is highly dependant on your reaction to its final case. These of course tend to be the longest and most complex stories of Ace Attorney fame, and it’s no different here. However, the final case is also where the writers’ deviations in tone and formula are the most noticeable. I wouldn’t say things are necessarily darker than before, but they certainly feel less optimistic.
Take Phoenix Wright as a perfect example. The man makes several appearances throughout, albeit lacking his trademark swagger and snappy dress sense. Since his sudden departure from the world of law, Wright has become a middle-aged man living on the fringes of society. He’s more confident, underhanded, and jaded than he was before; fitting traits for someone who lived through hell and survived.
Some players take serious issue with this sort of deconstruction, but it is a mature approach that adds buckets of charisma to an already well-established figure. It’s true that Capcom puts a lot of focus on Wright (especially considering his name isn’t on the box), but it works seeing as Apollo is making the same hero’s journey in some ways. Nobody gets to that position without help along the way, and yet Apollo continues to get shine as events unfold.
The intricate final case has some innovative investigation scenes and some marvellous twists, though I must admit to being a little disappointed in the finale. The otherwise gripping courtroom scenes run out of steam in the final stretch, leaving players with a tidy resolution that nevertheless feels a little deflated compared to the epic conclusions seen in the original trilogy. It’s an uncharacteristic absence of sparkle that extends to other areas of the script, and it has to be said, some of the duller side characters who inhabit the flabby middle portion of the game.
You could argue that the series’ trademark humour serves a crucial purpose here considering the greyer shades that have been used to decorate Apollo’s world. Suspects and defendants are notably less sympathetic than in previous generations, and there’s quite a lot of discussion on what constitutes a fair trial and the punishment awaiting those who would take the law into their own hands. This material sometimes creates a gloomier atmosphere than was intended, but then as Henry de Montherlant once said: “Happiness writes in white ink on a white page”.
Overall Apollo Justice is a worthy sequel that doesn’t quite live up to its full potential. Those beautiful graphics cast an enthralling spell, and after the red-hot opening is a sense that this could have been an all-timer. The spell begins to fade when the game has to develop its plot, sadly. But even if it isn’t as sharp as its predecessors, there are enough bright spots to recommend trying it and forming your own opinion.