Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Adventure of the Dancing Men

"There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet."
"His Last Bow"

I've reviewed only one mystery game this year, it seems (and a couple of other game-related materials). Huh. Still have a few more planned for this year, but still, that's surprisingly few game reviews this year.

The greatest challenge facing the Meiji government in Japan around the turn of the 19th century was the modernization of all facets of the country, including its legal system. One year ago, Naruhodou Ryuunosuke made his way from the Japanese capital to Victorian London to study as British law as part of an official government exchange mission. He became friends with the brilliant, yet very eccentric Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, the renowned detective whose exploits have become known all over the world thanks to the stories published in Strand Magazine. Ryuunosuke eventually made a name for his name in Old Bailey, as he learned that wherever on the world, defendants will always need the help of defense attorneys to stand by them in their time of need. The truth behind the at times zany, but always complex cases Ryuunosuke solved not only showed that London's perhaps not the bright place he imagined it to be, but little could he have guessed that all the adventures he had over the last year would all intersect and come together to reveal a truth about the darkness that envelops modern, enlightened London. Standing in court to protect other asks for courage from a defense attorney, but does Ryuunosuke also have the resolve to remain there even in the most difficult of times in the 2017 Nintendo 3DS game Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 ~ Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Kakugo ("The Grand Turnabout Trial 2 ~ The Resolve of Naruhodou Ryuunosuke").

Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 is a direct sequel to 2015's Dai Gyakuten Saiban, a spin-off game of the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney game series. In this series of comedic adventure mystery games, you take up the role of a defense attorney solving cases and revealing the true culprits behind murders in the courtroom. The original series was conceived by Takumi Shuu, who would eventally leave the main series for side-projects like Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban. He brought us Dai Gyakuten Saiban in 2015, which was a spin-off game set in the London of Sherlock Holmes, who also played a big role in the story. The sequel Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 was long-awaited, mostly because the first game was clearly just the first half of a story: many plot points were not resolved in the first game, and this left a pretty bad aftertaste for what was in fact a fun game, but which was clearly not "complete". Whereas previous games in the series were always designed as standalone games, Dai Gyakuten Saiban simply could not stand on its own with all those unanswered questions and hooks, so fans were quite eager to see how Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 would turn out.


The essence of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 is of course still same as always. The core has always been built around solid mystery plots with a good touch of comedy, set in the courtroom, featuring the so-called contradiction system. The player, as defense attorney Ryuunosuke, needs to point out contradictions between witness testimony and evidence. Pointing out a contradiction leads to new testimony, which in turn leads to new contradictions and by slowly unraveling the thread like a True Columbo, the player eventually figures out the identity of the true murderer. In the two Dai Gyakuten Saiban games, you'll also occasionally have to reason with the jurors in order to turn their guilty vote in one of not-guilty, which you of course do by pointing out contradictions in their lines of thought. Nothing has been changed in these mechanics for this second game, but you don't have to fix what's not broken, right? Finding contradictions by carefully comparing what the various weird witnesses claim, and the evidence you have at hand is still a great feeling, as you really feel that you, as the player, figured out what's wrong. I reckon that's how Columbo is feeling all the time. As you solve each contradiction one by one, you also gain better understanding of how each case unfolds, rather than havng a detective character explaining everything at the end of a tale in the denouement. Few games have come up with better ways to translate the "puzzle solving" of mystery fiction into such an intinuitive game mechanic.


Sherlock Holmes plays an important role in the Dai Gyakuten Saiban games, not only as a character in the story, but also as a game mechanic. The Holmes in these games is quite comedic, with a very silly side to him (don't forget, the stories in Strand Magazine are fiction!), and that side to him is also reflected in his deductions. For Holmes once said "From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other." and that is basically what Holmes does in this game. He presents brilliant deductions based on very small clues. The problem: He's usually looking at the wrong clue, which means that while his method is good, his starting point is usually wrong, which results in him arriving at very surprising (yet "brilliant) conclusions (to use the example above, he's supposed to start with a drop of water, but deduces a desert based on a grain of sand). In these scenes, you're supposed to 'guide' the flow of Holmes' deductions the right way by ever so gently indicating the correct clue/starting point. It's a very fun mechanic, that reminds of mystery writers like Queen, Brand and Berkeley, who often show in their books how chains of deductions can change completely just by adding or removing one single clue. Conan also often does the same by 'nudging' Kogorou in the right direction in Detective Conan. The presentation of these scenes is excellent by the way, showing off how Holmes' mind works in a very extravagant way, and there is one scene in particular in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 that is absolutely amazing.

So you use these mechanics (together with simply talking with all the suspects/investigating the crime scenes) to solve various cases over the course of the game, which brings us to the mystery plots. We are treated to familiar tropes like fantastical, yet baffling locked room murders (especially locked room murders, now I think about it), and most of the cases make excellent use of the setting of late nineteenth/early twentieth century, with some of them very unique to the time period. Efforts are of course taken so the 'modern player' knows what's up, but the fact that these cases work because they are set in that time period is definitely worthy of praise. There are some unique settings, like a Chamber of Horrors in a wax museum or a shabby apartment building with walled-up windows because of window tax, but also a case revolving around a daring scientific experiment gone wrong, which adds a bit of a steampunk feel to the setting. The London of this game is definitely not historically accurate in every detail, but the world-view is consistent enough for every player to know what is possible, and what is not, and that is the most important for a mystery story.


What I thought was unfortunate though was that a lot of the core mystery plots in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 were very easy to identify, as they come from fairly well-known stories. Of course, Takumi Shuu has often used famous tricks and scenes from mystery fiction in his game as a homage/reference (the original three Gyakuten Saiban games have several scenes straight out of Columbo for example), but in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2, it is overly clear where the core trick came from, especially as the source material is not particular obscure. So each time, I was hoping it would turn out not to be the same as story X, only to find out that it was basically exactly the same as story X. I thought this was a shame, as Takumi is usually very capable of building much more around a basic trick, while this time, it seems the effort to rework these ideas into more original concepts was not as intensive. So while the main plots of this game make good use of the time period, I can't deny that it's also because they are based very obviously on stories that actually date from that time period. That said though, Takumi also makes sure to play with the fans' expectations of how things will go. It's something he already did in the first Dai Gyakuten Saiban, but he does the same in this second game (though arguably not as effective).

The experienced mystery fan, or specifically the Holmesians with us, will have a lot of fun picking up on the numerous references to the Canon though. Some familiar names are used in surprising ways, and there's even a very daring take on Holmes lore revealed near the end of the game. Some might find it lacking in respect for the original stories, but I absolutely loved it as an original way to play with the whole idea of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and it's one that fits perfectly within the world of Dai Gyakuten Saiban (which doesn't pretend it's the ultimate interpretation of Holmes anyway. It's simply an original take on the character and everything around him).


As I mentioned earlier, the greatest point of criticism aimed at the first game was the fact that it was clearly just the first part of a longer story, with many plot points addressed, but simply unresolved. The marketing campaign for Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 was thus very eager to emphasize that all the mysteries would be revealed in this second game, which it fortunately did. I can safely recommend people who played the first game and felt dissatisfied about the story to play this second game, as it really does answer all the pertinent questions you may have. But this second game also made clear that this story was really not meant to be split in two. Writer Takumi basically admitted in an interview that the scale of the story he came up with was too large for one game, but that doesn't mean it was a story fit for multiple parts/games. He simply wrote too much. Each of the games is quite long (I ticked in at around 24 hours for each game), so you could hardly expect them to have put everything in one single game, but the story structure makes it clear that most of the episodes originally belonged together, but were sliced up in two episodes, and in some instances, spread aross the two games. One episode in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 is closely related to an episode from the first game for example, but they would've worked much better had they been in the same game in terms of hinting, and in fact, I suspect that they originally did belong back-to-back, or that they were actually one story. The way Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 relies so much on references (plot points/clues) to the first game, and especially the manner in which foreshadowing/clues are structured, make me suspect that this was always meant to be one big story.

There are of course mediums that split their story in two or more parts in an effective manner, for example the two live-action Death Note films or Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, but that does not hold for Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2. I also think the structure of the Gyakuten Saiban series might have hindered the development of the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series. Traditionally, each game has always consisted of distinct episodes (which may or may not also have interlinking story elements), but I feel that some parts of the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series would've worked better as a contineous story, rather than arbirary seperating them in episodes. So following the Sherlock Holmes model, I think a "novel" structure would've worked better for some elements than the short story collection model.


Another reason why the two Dai Gyakuten Saiban games feel like they were originally one set is the extensive reuse of assets. Many characters, locations and music tracks return from the first game, making it difficult to differentiate them. The new tracks are all great, but there are only relatively few original compositions, so that's a bit disappointing. So while it really does look and sound great, there's also a great sense of déjà vu, again weaking the feeling that you're truly playing something new, instead making it feel like you're just playing the continuation of something that shouldn't have been split up in the first place.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 ~ Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Kakugo is an excellent mystery game, but it can not stand on its own. It works because there is a Dai Gyakuten Saiban that posed the questions answered in this sequel. The game offers, on the whole, interesting and captivating mystery plots that make good use of the unique setting, and it also plays a lot with the Sherlock Holmes character for surprising results, but from start to finish you feel that this is simply the second half of a story. So I can only recommend the game if you've played the first game. Together, they form a fantastic series of mystery games that rank among the best, but its ambition is also what makes each individual game not as strong on its own.

Original Japanese title(s): 『大逆転裁判2 -成歩堂龍ノ介の覺悟』

2 comments :

  1. This spin-off series really sounds awesome, I continue to hold out hope that I may yet be able to enjoy in English someday, whether it be fan translation or an official one....

    So basically, in terms of story, Takumi made this a duology? Are there any signs that there will be more to this series in the future or would you say that for now he intends this to be only a two-part series?

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    1. It feels much more like Takumi simply wrote a story so long it could never fit within one game, so they had to cut the story up in two games, rather than him actually planning it to be a duology of games. He basically admitted so much in interviews.

      The two games form one finished narrative together, so it'll depend on sales and the team's own wishes whether they'll build further on this sub-series, I guess. Nothing has been said about that at the moment, I think.

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