Saturday, December 1, 2012

To Switch a Witch

"If she weighs the same as a duck..... She's made of wood"
"And therefore?"
"A witch!"
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

Many moons ago, I bought my Nintendo DS for the sole purpose of playing the courtroom battle detective game Gyakuten Saiban / Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney after seeing this awesome trailer. And then I switched over to a DS Lite, put gave clear instructions that 'my' DS has to play at least one Gyakuten game once a year. And once again, I bought a new game system to play one game.

Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban (Nintendo 3DS) is a grand crossover between Level-5's Professor Layton series and Capcom's Gyakuten Saiban series, the former being a quirky adventure game built around the premise of solving (mostly non-story related) puzzles, while the latter is an adventure detective game built around the premise of courtroom battles. And I like both series. So there was no way I was going to miss this release. Especially not when I heard that Takumi Shuu, the original creater / scenario writer / director of the main Gyakuten Saiban series was involved with the scenario.

The game starts with both professor Layton (and assistant Luke) and ace attorney Naruhodo (and assistent Mayoi) getting involved with a mysterious girl called Mahone in London. After their respective encounters with the girl, both the Layton and Naruhodo duo end up in a mysterious place called Labyrinth City, a medieval town where magic and witches exist. Mahone ends up being arrested for suspicion of being a witch (with her seemingly incinerating two robbers with fire magic according to the witnesses) and it is up to Naruhodo to defend Mahone in the Witch Trials. And Layton is there solving random puzzles and the mystery behind Labyrinth City, like he always does.

This game really did it right by making witch trials its subject, because it is a theme that fits both the Professor Layton and Gyakuten Saiban series. What's more, it brings all kinds of new elements to the familiar courtroom battles of Gyakuten Saiban that really make it a must-play for fans of the series (the Layton part of the game is sadly enough not as interesting, with few interesting puzzles). I already wrote about how detecting works within the Gyakuten Saiban games (multiple times by now), so I will mostly look at the new things here.

And witches are definitely new. Whereas in the main Gyakuten Saiban series, you are 1) trying to prove your client's innocence and 2) trying to find the real culprit, you are doing something completely different here. Technically, Mahone is tried for being a witch, not for killing two men with magic. Naruhodo thus isn't trying to find the real culprit (witch) or trying to prove Mahone didn't kill anyone, he has to proof that Mahone isn't a witch. Which requires quite a different approach to the trials.

One might also wonder, how does a detective game work in a fantasy setting where magic and witches exist? (It is actually a bit like this) Well, by having rules to magic (akin to how alchemy works in Fullmetal Alchemist). In Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban, there exists three conditions to magic: a witch must be holding a staff as she casts magic, she must say the proper enchantment for it to work and the staff she is holding must be equiped with the proper magic stone for the type of magic she wants to cast. These conditions form the foundation upon Witch Trials are based.

The clear rules to witchcraft is what makes Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban work as a fair detective. While set in a fantasy setting, Takumi Shuu made sure that the player knows what is possible (and not) even in a world where magic exists, thus preserving a fair-play setting. Like I mentioned in my review of Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ga ni Naru, not knowing what is possible can have great effects on how one perceives/enjoys a certain detective story. A bit back a Guess the Criminal script presented at the Mystery Club also revolved around the existence of youkai and such, but the clear presentation of the rules of the game made it a very enjoyable story.

Abstractly seen, the whole witchcraft setting isn't that different from what you usually do in Gyakuten Saiban though: like always you're on the lookout for contradictions made by witnesses by comparing testimonies with evidence. This time however, Naruhodo is also in possession of the Complete Works in Witchcraft, where you can check what rules exist for the different kinds of magic. What is considered common sense, might be different in a world where witchcraft exists, but it is the same logic with which you find the real murderer (witch) in this game.

The other big difference in the Witch Trials compared with the main Gyakuten Saiban series is the mob examination. Instead of listening to each witness' testimony after another, you are now forced to crossexamine multiple persons at the same time, with sometimes extra people suddenly dropping in and out! It is supposed to emulate the chaos Takumi envisioned when imagining how a witch trial would proceed, and it works. Witnesses react to each other's testimonies, resulting in some very unpredictable trials. Suspense in its storytelling has always been a staple of the Gyakuten Saiban series and it is only strengthened by the mob testimonies.

It's because of these additions that the Layton part of the game feels underwhelming. Whereas the courtroom segments (i.e. the Gyakuten Saiban part of the game) have all kinds of new things, the Layton part of the game (exploration of the town, solving logic puzzles) features nothing new. In fact, it's not nearly as interesting as a real Layton game, as this game features fewer and easier puzzles compared to full-fledged Layton titles.

Though I have to admit: the new elements in the courtroom segments aren't always used as effectively as I would have liked (especially the Complete Works on Witchcraft feels underused) and the last trial segment is too long and not particularly interesting actually. The Gyakuten Saiban part of the game reaches its climax relatively early in the game, sadly enough.

Some other non-detective points of interest: the game has great production values, as expected from Level-5 (responsible for main programming). Animated sections, music, voiced lines. Seeing Naruhodo as a 3D model (instead of sprites) actually works and the orchestrated music is simply amazing (seriously, I want this running in the background if I ever get to accuse someone of murder). Too bad they used Narumiya Hiroki as Naruhodo's voice actor though: he played a solid Naruhodo in the live-action movie, but he just doesn't work as a game/animation voice actor. It's been a while since I heard such boring voice-acting (well, April actually).

Anyway, this is must-play material for fans of both series, naturally. It especially poses interesting stuff to Gyakuten Saiban fans, as expected because of Takumi's involvement with the development, but Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban also serves as a great example of how to effectively present a fair detective story within a fantasy setting.

Original Japanese title(s): 『レイトン教授vs逆転裁判』

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