My client stands accused of being a witch. The sentence is death by fire. The prosecution is an Inquisitor, clad in armour and wielding a sword. No one here seems to have ever heard of fingerprinting, or even of logical thinking. Everyone in the court, from the audience, to the judge, to the inquisitor, to the witnesses themselves, want to see my client burn. As my attempts to point out a contradiction fail in the face of such hostility, and the judge’s gavel is raised, an interruption provides me with some decisive evidence. A grimoire of magic spells, information brought to me at a decisive moment by an archaeology professor with a penchant for puzzles. This might be the strangest situation I’ve ever had to play as Phoenix Wright, and that includes moments like defending a whale accused of murder in Dual Destinies or beating a god like devourer of worlds in Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. This is Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and I’m trapped in what seems like a fairy tale come to life.
As you might have already figured out, Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright is something of a misnomer. As much as the title conjures up images of the spiky headed lawyer facing off against the puzzle solving professor in court, or perhaps Layton bombarding Wright with a series of brain teasers in a competition to find the most oblique thinker in video gaming, or maybe even the strangest fighting game Capcom has ever made, that sadly isn’t the case. Rather, the game features Hershel Layton, Phoenix Wright, and their respective assistants teaming up to solve mysteries and defend the innocent in court.
In true Professor Layton fashion, the storyline is rather fantastical, with the protagonists having been absorbed into a magical book while in process of helping a mysterious young woman in separate circumstances. There, they find a medieval, almost fairy tale like town known as Labyrinthia, where people live in fear of witches and an apparently godlike figure known as the “Storyteller” determines the fate of everyone with a few penstrokes. It’s a rather interesting plot and it gets surprisingly dark at times, particularly in regards to the witch trials. Considering that the preferred method of dealing with women accused of being witches is fire… Well, the contrast between the rather cheery visuals and the unpleasant subject matter can be rather unsettling.
Given that the townsfolk seems to have two major hobbies; solving puzzles and conducting witch hunts, that means there’s quite a bit of puzzle solving and courtroom antics to be found. In fact the game is roughly thirty hours long and divided into multiple chapters. Half for Layton and half for Wright, with their sections embodying the best aspects of their respective series. The Layton segments are heavily story driven, with lots of wandering around, digging up information and solving puzzles. These then lead into the Wright sections where people are on trial and the information found in the previous sections come into play as court evidence. A rather elegant way of combining the two gameplay styles. In terms of new gameplay additions, while the Professor Layton segments of the title remain more or less the same as previous titles, with the traditional formula of puzzle solving, hint coins and picarats, the Phoenix Wright segments of the game have been changed in interesting ways.
Due to the difference in setting, cross examination is done in a rather novel way. Witch trials are run differently, and rather than questioning one witness at a time, instead you are given an entire panel of witnesses. While they’re usually hostile, intent on corroboration, and hell bent on proving and burning your client as witch, their testimony doesn’t always link up. So, in addition to pressing for information or presenting evidence, you find contradictions in what the group is saying. While one person gives their statement, you can inspect the other witnesses to see if they react and press them to find the contradictions. After multiple Ace Attorney games where the trial system remained unchanged, this new spin on things is quite a pleasant change.
The presentation is also quite impressive, although the difference in art styles between the two series makes the game’s visuals rather jarring at times. Looking at rather cartoonish characters standing next to comparatively more realistic ones is rather odd. Still, the backdrops are gorgeously depicted and the cutscenes lovingly animated. There’s a decent amount of voice acting in this game for either series, with animated clips and the climatic moments of chapters being voiced. The music is absolutely superb, with a number of excellent orchestral versions of classic Ace Attorney and Professor Layton songs.
That being said, the game does have a potential problem. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney really depends on the player enjoying both franchises. If they do, then this game will certainly impress. If however, you only enjoy one part of the crossover, then that’s half the game which becomes a chore. As someone who loves the Ace Attorney series, but has been largely disinterested in the Professor Layton series, the portions of the game not spent in court dragged on horribly. It felt like a more sluggish version of the already slow investigation portions of a Phoenix Wright game, but with a bunch of random puzzles thrown in.
The game also felt tonally different to regular Ace Attorney games, drawing more from the Professor Layton series with their less cheesy, but more whimsical narratives – albeit with dark underlying themes. I imagine that similar criticisms regarding the reduced focus on puzzles or the addition of witch trials might apply for someone who was a fan of the Layton series, but not Ace Attorney. In combining the two and splitting the focus between two separate playstyles, it doesn’t quite equal the best offerings of Ace Attorney, and were I a Professor Layton fan instead, I imagine that I’d feel similarly when comparing it to the best efforts of the Layton series.