Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Adventure of the Unbreakable Speckled Band

"I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection."
"The Sign of Four"

In the late Victorian era, it might have taken two months or so, but nowadays, it doesn't take long for a parcel from Japan to arrive in Europe. Of course, unless there's a labor strike with the mailmen. Then a simple game might take three weeks to get delivered, instead of less than a week.

The turn of the 19th century. In the several decades since the Meiji Restoration, Japan has been making giant steps in the course of modernity. One of the big legal reforms is the 1893s Advocat Law, which legalized the existence of defense attorneys who would act in the interests of their defendant clients. The English language major student Naruhodou Ryuunosuke is one of the first people to "enjoy" this new reform, when he is accused of a murder on an British gentleman in the Japanese capital. He somehow manages to prove his innocence, but circumstances bring him all the way from the Far East to the British Empire, where he is to study law as an exchange student. Ryuunosuke learns that friendship is universal, as he gets acquainted with a certain consulting detective called Sherlock Holmes. But at London's Old Bailey, Ryuunosuke also realizes that no matter where on the world, defendants will always need help in the courtroom. Especially if the trials are as zany and complex as in the Nintendo 3DS game Dai Gyakuten Saiban - Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Bouken ("The Grand Turnabout Trial - The Adventures of Naruhodou Ryuunosuke", 2015).

Dai Gyakuten Saiban is the latest entry in the long-running Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney series of courtroom mystery games. The series was originally conceived by Takumi Shuu (and created with a team of just seven people!), but by now it's grown out to one of developer Capcom's biggest franchices, with spin-off games, comic books, a live-action film, theater plays and even a musical. Three actually. The original games are set in the nearby future, with lawyer Naruhodou Ryuuichi (known outside Japan as Phoenix Wright) defending his clients and unmasking murderers in exciting, but also hilarious courtroom trials. Personally, I think the series is responsible for some of the best mystery videogames of all time and I'm a big fan of Takumi's writing. Takumi Shuu was not involved with 2013's Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney 5, as he himself was heading a new project of his own as the director/writer: Dai Gyakuten Saiban is intended to be the first in a completely new spin-off series, set around the turn of the 19th century. While the game's protagonist is the forefather of the protagonist of the main series, Dai Gyakuten Saiban can be played without any knowledge of the rest of the series.

The heart of the series has always been solid mystery plots with a good touch of comedy, set in the courtroom and built around a contradiction sytem: the player, in the role of defense attorney Ryuunosuke, needs to point out contradictions between witness testimony and evidence. Finding 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. Dai Gyakuten Saiban borrows some systems from Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban (also penned by Takumi Shuu), for example having multiple witnesses on the stand at the same time and them reacting to each other. At the same time, it introduces a new Jury Trials system, where Ryuunosuke gets one final chance to convince the six lay judges in changing their guilty vote in a not guilty one by pointing out contradictions between the ideas of the various judges. Think 12 Angry Men. This latter system is not completely new, as it is still built around contradictions, but it is definitely a welcome addition: it visualizes the 'flow' of the trial, as at set times the jury members cast their votes, making it more obvious whether you're winning or losing the trial (and it feels great when you manage to change six guilty votes into not guilty votes).

While it is still a courtroom mystery game at heart, the new setting in the rather old late Victorian era gives the series a fresh boost. Takumi already experimented with the theme in Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban, which had a medieval fantasy theme. Dai Gyakuten Saiban's London manages to provide surprising ideas to the player, as the city is both a familiar and 'strange' setting: most people will know about 19th century London, but there are still unfamiliar elements that feel refreshing to the modern mystery reader (gamer). The concept of Dai Gyakuten Saiban is interesting not just as a courtroom drama set one century ago, it's also one of the few games that is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche/parody (with a more goofy Holmes than most people are used to), as opposed to the many, many videogames featuring a 'faithful' Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, the presence of Sherlock Holmes provides one of the new innovations in this game. In Dai Gyakuten Saiban, Sherlock Holmes is as brilliant as ever. Maybe even too brilliant. In the original novels, 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." Dai Gyakuten Saiban's Holmes certainly is capable of doing that, but the problem is that he is usually looking at the wrong thing, meaning his deductions go the completely wrong way (in a rather brilliant matter). Sherlock Holmes helps Ryuunosuke out in investigations outside the courtroom, but because Holmes' deductions have a tendency to be slightly misdirected, Ryuunosuke sometimes has to 'correct' the great detective. The new "Joint Deduction" system allows Ryuunosuke to find the flaws in Holmes' deductions and help 'bend' the flow of Holmes' deductions in the right direction by switching out keywords in Holmes' flow of deduction.

This new system is not difficult, but oh-so-fun. In a way, it reminds of mystery writers like Queen, Brand and Berkeley, who often show in their books that deductions can change very easily just by adding or removing one little piece in the deduction chain. And of course, helping the deduction of a great detective by nudging him in the right direction is something Conan does A LOT in Detective Conan (where he often has to correct "great detective" Mouri Kogorou's slightly askew deductions by little hints). In fact, I so hope there'll be a Detective Conan game someday with a similar system.

As for the mystery plots; there are some very interesting concept to be found in Dai Gyakuten Saiban. While most cases start out rather simple, the discovery of each new contradiction usually leads to new confusion, slowly making each case more and more complex with each new step. This is basically the opposite of Gyakuten Saiban 5 (not written by Takumi), which always started with 'big' baffling situations right from the start. The third episode, a locked room murder mystery in an omnibus (horse-bus), is probably the best in the game, also becauses it delves deeper into some themes touched upon in earlier games. Other episodes have very original motives, exciting new ways of using the visual medium in a detective story, or feature interesting ways of "legally" cornering the true culprit (as often seen in the best of legal myseries). There are also some ingenious parts where themes and tropes from an earlier episode are mirrored in a later episode in a sort meta-hint-fashion. Interesting is that most of the cases feature a locked room mystery, or more broadly said, an impossible crime angle.

With Sherlock Holmes appearing in Dai Gyakuten Saiban, you can bet there's also a fair share of Holmes references. Episode two in particular is heavily based on a very famous Holmes short story, but manages to add enough original material (and a lot of meta-comedy familiar to Holmesians) to keep it interesting. There are plenty of references to be found in other episodes, both obvious and less obvious ones, so that adds an extra layer of amusement for Holmesians. Until now, I've only read two Sherlock Holmes pastiches from Japan (Shimada Souji's Souseki to London Miira Satsujin Jiken and Yamada Fuutarou's Kiiroi Geshukunin, which both also featured a certain famous Japanese writer in the story. Funnily enough, Dai Gyakuten Saiban is now the third Japanese Holmes pastiche I know also featuring that person.)

As a game, Dai Gyakuten Saiban has attractive visuals as well as an absolutely amazing soundtrack. The one major drawback to the game however is that Dai Gyakuten Saiban is 'incomplete' as it is now. Several important plotpoints are not resolved within this game, with plenty of questions left unanswered and elements still wanting for much more attention. There are simply too many sequel hooks. Previous games were in principle always designed as standalone games, with no major question left unanswered. This is the first time in the series that so obviously anticipates a sequel and it really hurts the game, as finishing the game does not feel nearly as satisfying as with earlier games.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban is certainly one of the most interesting mystery of the last few years, with solid courtroom mystery plots in an original setting, a daring approach to translating detective stories to actual gameplay and an amusing take on Sherlock Holmes lore. Yet, I can't deny it feels incomplete, leaving you wanting for more for the wrong reasons.Still, it's overall a more than solid mystery game that should keep you hooked on the game screen for any hours.

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


  1. Hello!
    Can you tell me if Keigo Higashino's "聖女の救済" and "真夏の方程式" have been adapted into the Galileo TV series ?

    1. 「聖女の救済」 was the two episode season finale for the 2013 Galileo TV series (the second season). 「真夏の方程式」 was released as a film adaptation in the same year.

  2. Any news of a sequel?

    1. Not yet, though with AA6 and an anime already on the schedule, I doubt anything big will be announced anytime soon. Capcom probably doesn't want its own series to compete with each other.