Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies | Principal Platforms: Nintendo 3DS | Developer: Capcom | Publisher: Capcom | Genre: Visual Novel | Year: 2013

Dual Destinies walks a fine line between challenge and accessibility, graced with as many embraceable concessions and fun moments as it is beset by technical niggles.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies Nintendo 3DS Box Art

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies

Six years after Ace Attorney divided fans with Apollo Justice, came the franchise’s long overdue return, this time on Nintendo 3DS. The reinstating of Phoenix Wright as a lead character combo-ed with the game’s exclusivity to Nintendo’s digital store front suggested that Capcom were taking fewer commercial risks this time around, especially since the series creator, Shu Takumi, was busy working on other projects and wouldn’t be directing the new instalment.

Dual Destinies has a few things in common with Pokémon Black and White. Both games are the fifth entries in their respective franchises, and both tried solving some of their lineage’s most persistent aggravations.

Indeed, some of the improvements made here are so good it makes you wonder how Capcom ever managed without them. The replay arrow that finally makes it clear where testimonies end; the helpful conversation history window; being able to skip text right from the beginning; and a much faster process for saving your progress mid-game. It’s all good stuff, and there’s a lot more of it to mention.

The navigation screen now displays all destinations on one panel (which makes exploring much easier); there’s a task list that tracks each chunk of the investigation; and a new consulting feature that offers hints whenever players are struggling to pin down a contradiction during cross examination.

The highest rank of awesomeness is reserved for the tweaks made to the penalty system, where a player can now return to an incorrect deduction from the exact point they failed it. This simple change saves players a whole heap of hassle, as they no longer need to skip through multiple pages of text following a game over. Like the execrable “HM” moves that Pokémon Sun and Moon finally did away with, this was a long-awaited change that does Dual Destinies a real favour in the playability department.

Whilst I would never question the decision to finally address this dumbfounding issue, I’m not sure I understand why the penalties are even needed anymore. All that triggers following a game over now is a redundant continue screen that doesn’t need to be there, so why not just remove the penalties altogether and save us the bother?

Similar issues concerning accessibility appear in other areas. Series beginners will appreciate the verbose hinting for instance, but the excessive reliance on flashbacks to repeat important information is not so elegant. The button that allows players to examine the environments has been simplified too. Although we lose a lot of additional flavour and character banter because of this, I think the new approach is easier and more streamlined overall.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies Gameplay Screenshots

Several (arguably inferior) remixed tunes appear on the soundtrack. The brand new music is better, but the common courtroom themes are not as strong as the ones heard previously. Overall Duel Destinies has one of the weaker soundtracks in the series.

In terms of actual gameplay, Dual Destinies remains very similar to its predecessors, with the exception of a brand new interrogation gimmick that’s introduced alongside its innovator, Athena Cykes. Cykes is a psychology graduate (get it?) who utilises her empathic powers to coax further testimony out of her traumatised witnesses.

This is accomplished via a screen layer where players must detect mismatches between what a witness is saying and what they are feeling. Using a device called the “Mood Matrix”, players flip through a short storyboard sequence before tapping on an emotion bubble adjacent to the visual feed. This activity is incredibly basic, but the presentation of the Mood Matrix itself is excellent. It’s often clever how these sections play out, and even better is how they help flesh out character motivations.

An early example sees a defendant recounting her fear at being trapped under a pile of rubble, only for the Mood Matrix to indicate how happy the memory makes her feel. Teasing out the reason for this anomaly reveals a previously obscured character in the scene, which increases a player’s understanding of not only the correct sequence of events, but also the subconscious emotions of the woman telling the story. Whereas Apollo Justice featured a similar gameplay gimmick that acted merely as an activity to break up long testimonies, the Mood Matrix is a demonstrably more substantial and better integrated tool for storytelling purposes.

The new 3D game engine will take some getting used to if you’ve been weaned on past entries. On one hand the combination of 2D and 3D graphics has created some handsome results. It can be a stunning game to look at, at least when the console’s stereoscopic settings are behaving themselves.

And yet there are times when the new art style looks weird. This is most noticeable in the returning characters like Wright himself. Whereas new personalities like Athena come across as bubbly and expressive when fully animated, older characters like Phoenix Wright and Miles Edgeworth often look goofy. Wright’s iconic palm slam feels tame for instance, and his common dejected expression actually looks quite terrifying here.

It’s not just those characters that have suffered in the transition either. The classic outburst graphics are back, but their associated voice clips don’t sound right. Dual Destinies really struggles when it comes to sound effects, for that matter. The aforementioned Mood Matrix has a particularly loud siren noise, and case #3 – ever the underperforming case in this series – also uses several looping SFX that get to be really annoying.

But the one presentation complaint that I find very hard to ignore concerns the screen text, which looks fuzzy when compared to the crisp lettering of past versions. Reading accounts for a huge percentage of what you actually do in this game, so the blurry font rendering is tremendously off-putting, and the situation only gets worse when you factor in the excessive number of typos in the script. It’s a pity that the move to 3D brought so many technical challenges, with further performance problems including jittery panning shots and laggy button commands that rob the production of smoothness.

These technical gripes are particularly dispiriting considering how much the presentation has improved in other areas. The hi-res evidence photos are tremendous. Also commendable is the reduction in distracting visual effects, and the redesigned court record which uses tabs and expanded previews to great effect.

I must also mention the new “Revisualization” feature. Revisualization occurs during the climactic moment of each major case, whereupon the active character enters a trance in order to assess the facts in their head. Once again the gameplay is here is very simple, but the dramatic presentation makes it extremely entertaining to watch.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies Gameplay Screenshots

Dual Destinies is an easier game on the whole. It’s not a huge problem considering the franchise’s fondness for story-driven mechanics over skill-based ones, though it is an important consideration for players who like their detective work to have more bite.

Dual Destinies also has a decent plot, with five reasonably consistent case files available in the base game. Phoenix Wright may have shed his street clothes and returned to the world of law in his snappy suit (plus one awesome fob chain), but he personally handles only a couple of cases here, instead making way for Apollo and Athena to get their own time in the limelight.

The writers haven’t ditched many of their old cliches, and the biggest mystery can be tricky to follow because it unfolds out of order. But then you have returning fixtures like the Judge, whose ever-charming look of disbelief continues to bring in laughs when they’re needed the most.

The overall consistency of its storytelling is similar to Trials and Tribulations, but Dual Destinies can’t match it in terms of scale or drama. Players get bashed over the head with a central theme of the law “going dark”, and even though it’s great to see so many new characters taking the stage, there isn’t any satisfying payoff yet for their individual arcs or relationships.

Dual Destinies still has a serviceable finale despite some wobbles and excessive cameoing towards the end. What’s clever is how case #4 and #5 constitute two parts of the same mystery; splitting up their investigations and trials for better pacing than you’ve come to expect from a concluding chapter.

Throw in some nice twists, memorable villains, and a surprisingly colourful DLC episode, and what you have is a solid Ace Attorney whose best contributions to the series result in a (mostly) frustration free gaming experience — long may it remain so!