This is the eighth in a series of Ace Attorney reviews and I recommend reading the others before this. This post will contain spoilers for Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies and all the games preceding it. Thanks for reading!
The hype cycle for Dual Destinies happened around the time I was properly getting active in the Ace Attorney community – posting thoughts on Court-Records.net and consuming the sizable amounts of fanworks that had sprung from the series’ many talented fans. I luckily didn’t, then, feel that long wait between the release of Apollo Justice and Dual Destinies. But in going to the Dual Destinies launch party hosted by Capcom UK, I could sense it. The weight on Dual Destinies’ shoulders was immense. This was to be the first return to the courtroom in six years, as well as the first Phoenix-fronted title to be written and directed by an entirely new team.
It’s fitting then, that the game’s first case, Turnabout Countdown, sets a clear mission statement for the story to come. This, proclaims Yamazaki, is not the Ace Attorney of the past. The courtroom you spent all your time in previously has been literally blown up. Phoenix has a new suit, Apollo has some fresh scars and there’s a new playable attorney who carries some mysterious baggage of her own. There’s even a new ‘rookie killer’ attorney. It’s actually with Gaspen Payne that Dual Destinies starts to reveal the cracks in its own confident beginning. Because who is Gaspen Payne really? Well, he’s basically just Winston with some spiffier hair. And the new courtroom? Functionally and visually identical. Apollo may have been bandaged, but he acts pretty similar and for all his talk of the recent ‘Dark Age of the Law’, Turnabout Countdown plays pretty similar to any other opening case from the series’ past.
The defendant this time is Juniper Woods – like Larry Butz she’s a childhood friend of the new playable attorney; Athena Cykes. Athena’s introduction is incredibly ‘anime’, for lack of a better word, and it makes sense that people might take against her. While Phoenix and Apollo were both nervy but snarky young men in their courtroom debuts, Athena is far more emotional in a purposefully exaggerated way. While Apollo may have felt too similar to Phoenix for some, Athena runs the risk of feeling too different – too much like her own character rather than a player avatar. I personally think this is a positive, because it not only adds variety but goes some way to justifying her appearance in the game. One of the central themes of Dual Destinies is the importance of injecting emotion into the legal system, so a character that’s more open with their emotions is a natural fit.
Of course, Athena is ceremoniously pushed aside into the assistant role about five minutes into Turnabout Countdown, when Phoenix emerges back into the courtroom decked out in a swanky new suit and an old familiar attitude. If someone got off on the wrong foot with Athena, this is certainly the worst way to get them back on side. The game basically tells you in the subtext here that Athena, as well as Apollo, are only playing second fiddle to Phoenix.
This is a similar problem to one that Apollo Justice also faced. There Phoenix also high-jacked the first case to make it his own, and his presence often bared down too heavily on the audience trying to get to know a new character. But at least that game had something new to do with Phoenix. Sure, he sometimes felt like a distraction, but it was at least an interesting one. The Phoenix here is basically the Phoenix from the trilogy, but writing him in that way asks us to forget that the events of Apollo Justice ever even happened. It’s refocusing the series’ lens back on a character that had, to all extents and purposes, ceased to be after Bridge to the Turnabout, and with no seeming reason other than he’s popular. Seeing Phoenix take a damage animation from Gaspen Payne feels bizarre in a post Turnabout Succession world.
That’s not the only thing from Apollo Justice that gets brushed under the rug, but at least the removal of the Jurist system and the side-lining of the Gramarye plot make some sense. It’s fair for Yamazaki and his team to not want to have to tell a story about a world where the Jurist system exists (although the story they do want to tell ends up being pretty much the same as the one in Apollo Justice) and while a cursory mention of what happened to it might have been nice, it’s not a deal breaker, similar to Phoenix not mentioning Thalassa. However, with how skilfully Maya’s non-inclusion is handled in the game’s final case, it does seem like some more effort could have been exerted to explain these discrepancies.
Although Phoenix may ostensibly replicate his former self from the Trilogy, Yamazaki and his team have failed to capture Takumi’s games’ excellent writing and balance of tone. It’s shocking just how prevalent this is even in the first case. Athena’s breakdown and blood-soaked flashback is the first example of a game that might not be in complete control of its own mood. We’ve only just met Athena and it was in a comedic anime cutscene, but only a few minutes later we see her suffer what appears to be a complete mental breakdown. The whiplash is intense. I’ve talked about this before, but while Takumi’s games often mix their tones, he’s always careful to not create these kinds of jarring moments, instead giving the heavier stuff time to breathe. It’s fine to have sad things in an Ace Attorney game, it’s just less fine to sandwich them so closely between the comedic and the triumphant.
The other key to Takumi’s writing is in his character relationships. In the first game, we open with one of the Trilogy’s ‘strongest’ friendships – between Larry and Phoenix. When we meet Larry, he’s crying and annoying. Phoenix calls him one of his oldest friends, but they don’t immediately act friendly to each other. You can probably see where I’m going with this – the relationship between Phoenix and Larry feels real not in spite of its imperfections, but because of them. Athena and Juniper’s friendship is incredibly neutered in comparison, more like acquaintances trading niceties towards each other. This isn’t to say that all friends have to be constantly insulting each other, but some light banter or trading of in-jokes, memories, stories – these are the things that make a relationship feel real in the eyes of the reader and help get us invested in them.
It’s not just the broader strokes – occasionally the lines are simply just awkward or clunky. Take a gander at this from the introduction of the Mood Matrix as an example;
Phoenix: Athena, I want you to use the analytical psychology you studied and listen to the testimony of Ms. Woods’s heart.
Athena: Okay boss! I’ll give it a go! After all, this is the whole reason I put all that effort into studying analytical psychology!
There have been worse exchanges written in the history of literature, but the level of unnecessary exposition in those two lines really stood out to me as an early example of a game that is often sloppily written. This might be more subjective, but I also just think Dual Destinies isn’t as funny as any of Takumi’s games. Payne and Athena’s banter about him attending manners class every week feels forced to me, based more on a bad punchline than any sort of actual relation to Gaspen’s thinly sketched character.
This isn’t to say that I hate Turnabout Countdown; I actually think its general inoffensiveness makes it one of Dual Destinies’ better cases. It inherits the problems that all the game’s cases have but doesn’t really add anything particularly egregious. Apollo’s sudden attack midway through the case is clearly placed there to spice things up but its inclusion shows the writers were aware that the case was getting a bit too long but didn’t know how to fix it (move the attack to the start so as to stack the odds against you, make it feel more personal for Phoenix and justify his nervousness), but as a cutscene it’s at least effective.
Likewise, Ted Tonate proves to be an able first case villain. Takuro Fuse, the new art director for the series, has a skill at designing characters for the game’s new 3D engine. While some of the old characters like Phoenix and Apollo don’t translate well, all of Fuse’s original designs are brimming with personality and fun animations. It’s almost too much, with some of the designs feeling almost entirely based around a wacky gimmick. It’s all Max Galactica, no Penny Nichols. Tonate’s plan is pretty solid and the idea of killing someone with a weapon that will self-destruct is clever. The saving grace of the case is the final bluffing confrontation between Phoenix and Ted, which reaffirms what Yamazaki has been proving in the Investigations series, which is that the guy can write a solid tense, dramatic moment when he wants to.
The “high” of that moment is followed with Apollo dramatically announcing his departure from the Wright Anything Agency and a flashback to the introduction of Athena in The Monstrous Turnabout. Why the game has a non-linear structure is beyond me, but it doesn’t impede much in terms of the actual story. What’s more offensive is the rest of The Monstrous Turnabout, which is in my opinion, the worst case in the Ace Attorney series.
Let’s be up front about this – as a case I think The Monstrous Turnabout embodies the worst impulses of Dual Destinies. Let’s take its numerous faults one by one, starting with the most obvious; L’Belle. The case starts with a cutscene showing us the case’s murderer, much like Turnabout Sisters. I think it’s an unnecessary addition, although it highlights that the game is trying to appeal to newcomers (and thus reaffirming that the series is more about catching murderers than figuring out who they are). It’s strange, though, seeing as the game is so steeped in Ace Attorney lore. Two of the game’s playable attorneys are old characters with their own baggage, and as the game progresses, its reintroduction of series staples like Pearl and Edgeworth would only prove to be confusing to newer players.
L’Belle himself doesn’t make an appearance until the game’s second investigation day. It’s worth saying that as an original character I think he’s the closest the case gets to something worthwhile. Sure, he cribs heavily from the holier-than-thou Redd White/Luke Atmey playbook of second case villains, but some of his jokes do manage to land. I particularly like the throw-away remark that he has his own personal style brand that he refuses to sell to the general public. Or at least I would like it if it wasn’t later forced in as his motivation for murder.
Let’s talk about that murder then, shall we. Now, much like The Inherited Turnabout, the actual plot of this case is so baffling that I had to write it out on a separate piece of paper just to understand it, and I’m still not totally sure I get it. But let me try anyway. So, L’Belle, in huge debt, finds out through threatening the Alderman that the demon Tenma Taro is actually a gold ingot that he can use to repay his debts. Not knowing that the ingot had already been stolen long ago, L’Belle plans to force a merger between Tenma Town and Nine Tales Vale so that he can have access to the forbidden chamber where the gold is stored. He forces the merger idea by blackmailing his boss, the Mayor. Now, why a merger is the only way L’Belle thinks he can get into the chamber is beyond me, but who am I to know the mind of this dude?
So, L’Belle’s plan is threatened by the Mayor dressing up as a wrestler and opposing the merger. Again, how a wrestler actually helps oppose a municipal merger is also a mystery. What’s wrong with the merger? How would it affect the people living in these towns? The answers to these questions of local politics are, of course, never explained. But here’s where it gets even weirder. L’Belle plans to set up a meeting between the Mayor and the Alderman, then drug them both and kill the Alderman while putting the blame on the Mayor. This will somehow speed up the merger. Please don’t ask me how.
L’Belle drugs the two men, then stabs the Alderman. The Mayor then wakes up somehow, forcing L’Belle to knock him out again with a statue. L’Belle then places the Mayor inside the Forbidden Chamber, dresses up as the Mayor’s wrestling alter-ego, ‘confesses’ to murder to the Mayor’s daughter who somehow does not notice the voice or body build disparity between her Dad and the person talking to her, then opens up the Forbidden Chamber again, removes the Mayor, allows him to somehow swallow the key, then… I dunno, knocks him out again? Of course, when he’s in the Forbidden Chamber, he doesn’t look around to see if the gold is still there, because he probably had a mild stroke when he was planning and enacting this plot or something. I hope you can at least start to see the absolutely bizarre nature of this plan – first and foremost why a murder or even a merger was even needed in the first place.
Like with The Inherited Turnabout, I don’t believe that this was some intentional oversight by the writers. Instead it seems to speak to a fundamental misunderstanding of an Ace Attorney murder. Yes, murders in the series are often complex and involve the murderer’s plans failing on their feet. It’s the mistakes people are forced to make when thinking on the fly that open up the contradictions and gaps in their testimonies. What this doesn’t mean is that the initial plan is complex and nonsensical. In the best Ace Attorney cases I have a solid grasp of not only the murderer’s plan, but also the little ways it went wrong. In this case the motivations and method are so nonsensical that it begins to read like someone took a five second glance at the wiki page for a case like Reunion and Turnabout and decided to write a case solely based on that.
This is maybe also why the character relationships are so similarly misguided. If you were to write a ten minute cheat sheet on making a good Ace Attorney case, you may emphasise that family connections have always been an important theme throughout the series. You might say that often cases involve one member of a family or a family-like group being the defendant and other members being important witnesses. You could, perhaps, give the example of Turnabout Corner having Wocky as the defendant and Big-Wins and Plum Kitaki as your periphery characters.
Saying all this would technically be correct but also miss why these themes are effective. The Kitakis are memorable characters because they feel like a dysfunctional family and share meaningful moments together. When they aren’t together they talk and worry about each other, and the final interaction between Wocky and his dad hits hard because of that. The Tenmas, by contrast, don’t feel like a family at all. Damien’s love for his daughter is trivialised for an unfunny joke about him pretending to be a demon and Jinxie never even seems to mention her dad. Most damningly, they don’t share any meaningful interactions. Even at the end of the case more focus is given to Damien as the ‘Amazing Nine Tails’ than as a father.
In this theoretical Ace Attorney writing guideline you might also add that your case should have some kind of unifying theme if possible. In Recipe for Turnabout, the theme is one of the power and influence of money on our daily lives. It doesn’t say too much about money beyond recognising the power disparity between those with money and those without it, but it lends depth to an otherwise simple case and cast of characters.
The Monstrous Turnabout seems to be reaching for themes without really knowing what to do with them. Is it, perhaps, about superstition? Yōkai and masked wrestlers might lend credence to that idea, as do the encoded village superstitions. But what about L’Belle, or the merger or any of that plot? The case has some basic ideas about the follies of superstition, such as that they’re easily exploited – but after the masterclass exploration of the problems with superstition delivered by cases like The Fire Witch and The Golden Court it all feels shallow and empty. Perhaps it’s because the cases of Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney mixed its ideas of superstition with those of paranoia. Themes like the impact of money or distrust are relatable to a wide audience and allow us to further our understanding of these characters. The Monstrous Turnabout takes its theme of superstition too literally, creating characters and situations entirely unrelatable to me. I can’t imagine being so superstitious that I’d impede a murder investigation, but I can imagine being so financially troubled or paranoid that I’d lie in court.
All in all, then, The Monstrous Turnabout feels like a bad fan case version of Ace Attorney; a vague approximation of tropes and themes common to the series tied together with the most convoluted and frankly rubbish murder plot yet devised. Even saying that feels insulting to fan cases, which mostly manage to see the appeal of Ace Attorney far better than this case does. Instead, perhaps it would be fairer to say that this feels like Ace Attorney as written by someone being told about Ace Attorney, but not by someone who has ever played it.
As the game’s second case, it also introduces a lot of Dual Destinies’ new staple cast of characters and mechanics. Take, for example, the game’s new detective Bobby Fullbright. Fullbright replaces Gumshoe here, but that’s not really a bad thing. Gumshoe’s mode was downtrodden but tenacious, much like Phoenix. Likewise, Ema was doing her best to fight a system that had done her dirty, again echoing Phoenix and Apollo in Apollo Justice. Fullbright is an energetic, overly emotional shot of energy akin to Athena. Gumshoe is always a fan favourite but I’m glad they didn’t choose to have a detective so at odds with the game’s mood. Fullbright may be a bit of a one note joke, but he’s likeable and energetic enough that it doesn’t matter that much. It also helps that, like Sebastian, the game is consistently willing to poke fun at him and his justice shtick, making it a little more endearing than it would be otherwise.
It’s a shame that the investigations he appears in have been so streamlined. Ace Attorney has always been linear, but it often gave the illusion of non-linearity in its investigations by obfuscating the path forward or providing moments where multiple paths of investigation are open at once, such as with the Psyche-Locks. There was also always the option to just swan around and click on random items so as to read the entertaining cast banter, something which has been almost completely stripped away in Dual Destinies. Only certain crime scenes are able to be examined now and it’s a real shame. The banter is still pretty sharply written and Athena and Apollo make a surprisingly fun double act, at least in these brief moments where they’re allowed to just hang out and investigate, so it’s regrettable it’s doled out so sparingly.
The mechanics of the Psyche-Locks and Perceive make a return in Dual Destinies, with Perceive now also used in the investigation sections. I think mostly limiting Perceive to investigations is generally a good move and one that alleviates some of my problems with it in Apollo Justice, although my other issues still remain. The Psyche-Locks, which are re-introduced surprisingly late into the game, are much more neutered, no longer requiring finding new evidence to break. It’s no longer a mystery set up at the beginning of the investigation that leads you through it, but instead a simple barrier to the next piece of dialogue.
The new mechanic used in court is Athena’s Mood Matrix. The Mood Matrix was clearly conceived, like I imagine Apollo’s bracelet was, as a thematic device first and a gameplay one second. Yes, it works in the story that Athena’s goal is to bring more of an understanding of emotion to the courtroom; thematically that idea of breaking the court’s reliance on physical evidence for something more human is a good one (although treading on the same ground as Apollo Justice). But the constraints needed to make this work as an actual mechanic are far more reductive of human emotion than even Perceive was. The notion of therapy here is turned into a ‘spot the out of place emotion’ with four emoji representing the depths of the mind. As a pure puzzle I think it’s better than Perceive, because it at least works on a system of logical contradictions, but it’s still a bizarre way of realising this idea. This is of course, to say nothing of the fact that everyone just lets Athena use the Mood Matrix in court without really objecting, despite the fact she’s a rookie lawyer. The series has stretched the limits of plausibility before in its mechanics but this one does ask you to suspend your disbelief a bit too far.
Once again, leave it to The Monstrous Turnabout to fully showcase how bad the Mood Matrix can be. Halfway through the case you’re made to cross examine a clearly traumatised Jinxie Tenma, the first to discover her father’s unconscious body and the Alderman’s corpse. Her brain rationalises her fears as yōkai, which Athena then rationalises as schizophrenic hallucinations. Now, I don’t know enough about psychology to know if you can experience schizophrenic hallucinations without being schizophrenic, but either way this is a pretty serious subject being bought up. Ace Attorney has dealt with similarly grave ideas in the past, but it’s generally managed to do it tastefully. Solving a spot the difference mini-game to help someone more clearly remember their trauma while in a hostile courtroom surrounded by unfamiliar faces is not one of those occasions. Similar occurrences of this in Turnabout Academy are also troubling, but I think Jinxie’s is by far the worst example of a trivialisation of mental illness and a misunderstanding of the game’s own themes. Athena may be trying to bring compassion back into the courtroom, but this doesn’t seem to be the way to do it.
Before we move on from The Monstrous Turnabout, it’s worth touching on Simon Blackquill, the game’s new prosecutor. I generally find Blackquill an entertaining addition to the game’s cast, but this is mainly due to him being one of the funnier additions, especially in his double act relationship with Fullbright, which is an escalation of the Edgeworth/Gumshoe dynamic from the Trilogy. One shining example of their interactions comes in Turnabout Academy, when Blackquill pulls the old ‘threaten a pay cut’ move, and Fullbright moves on from it completely unfazed.
However, the game expects me to think of Blackquill differently. He’s introduced as a ‘master of psychological manipulation’ and a fearsome prosecutor to be reckoned with, but this is some severe telling rather than showing. The only people we really see Simon manipulating are those who are weak anyway. Convincing the Judge to make the opening statement isn’t all that impressive given that we’ve seen him be pretty much won over by every other prosecutor and witness since April May in the first game. Likewise, Solomon Starbuck, a man who has just lost everything, is another easy target. This is a particularly egregious example. Blackquill starts to convince Starbuck that prison might be alright after all, Apollo mentions that Clay believed in Starbuck and Starbuck snaps out of it immediately. Athena remarks that Apollo has ‘broken Blackquill’s hold over him’, but this is an extremely hyperbolic summation of what amounts to about ten lines of dialogue showing not that Blackquill is a master of manipulation, but that Starbuck’s mental fortitude is about as strong as Blackquill’s chains.
In design, Blackquill continues a trend that’s been going since Franziska – a prosecutor designed around some sort of central gimmick. I think this generally cheapens the prosecutors and makes them feel too much like monsters of the week, but Blackquill’s design is certainly the worst. That’s not to say it doesn’t look cool – I think it does, but it’s overall too messy. Franziska looks like a dominatrix because she’s bossy, Godot drinks hundreds of cups of black coffee because he’s a poser trying to be cool. Klavier is in a band because he actually is cool. But what of Blackquill? Blackquill is a prisoner samurai English gentleman who talks about swords and says things like ‘claptrap and balderdash’. His personality is clearly trying to be about honour, but then why make him a psychological manipulator, someone who tries to play dirty? Or maybe he’s supposed to be a harsh prisoner who is just constantly trying to restrain his urge to kill? But then why have all this noble samurai talk? Blackquill is too messy to be a particularly well-designed or written character. He’s fun to be around, but that’s mainly because he’s a collection of tropes that are individually cool, but fail to coalesce into something that feels like a genuine character.
I think we’ve all had enough of The Monstrous Turnabout, so let’s turn our heads to the next case, Turnabout Academy. My friend The Storyteller on Youtube has already made an extremely entertaining breakdown of this case, but I think that it deserves some defence in comparison to Monstrous. Although I’m also not a huge fan of Turnabout Academy, its commitment to a unified tone is one I can half-heartedly commend.
That tone is of course, a light-hearted one, as Turnabout Academy plants itself firmly in the field of the high-school comedy genre… except this time with murder. The main characters represent different high school archetypes; there’s a creepy teacher; a budding journalism student; a school fair etc. It’s fitting, then, that this case is handed over to Athena, who is the most optimistic of the three protagonists and the most willing to engage with this kind of revelry. This case is really great for exemplifying her chipper demeanour. Sure, she often dips into shocked or downbeat expressions, but when faced with her first ever cross examination in court she’s raring to go – a far cry from the nervous wrecks that were Phoenix and Apollo.
I think the light-heartedness of it all does serve as the case’s greatest crutch, and one that it falls back on a lot. ‘You’re a goner’ turning into ‘Hugh O’Conner’ is the kind of shit that I would have never excused in even the lighter Trilogy cases, as are lines like ‘This is badder than bad’. I would never say that either of these are examples of good writing or that I’m totally willing to forgive them, but it’s shocking what difference a wink and a nod will do for my ability to look past lines like these. Of course, you can overstep the line. Wasting my time with a few bad lines is one thing, but wasting my time with an entire court day is another. Blackquill renders the entire first day of investigation and courtroom time practically useless when he pulls a photo out of his ass showing Juniper and Courte in the room together five minutes before the murder, and it’s baffling as to why he didn’t show it before. Again, this stretches the limits of a prosecutor trying to play with you by hiding the upper hand. The updated autopsy report is not a trick that can be extended to a whole day’s worth of play time without making the player resentful, rather than fearful, of the prosecutor.
What’s worse is that the case sometimes forgets its own raison d’être. I’m fine with a funny case if you commit, but Turnabout Academy can’t even do that right. Robin Newman’s story is the first example of the case fighting itself. Her being forced to live a life in the wrong gender is pretty traumatic, but the game laughs and giggles its way past it, doggedly pursuing a tone that just doesn’t fit. This isn’t a case of tonal whiplash like I talked about before – the tone is still light, but the subject matter isn’t. It might be that the writers do think Robin’s predicament is a matter of amusement, but I don’t, and I struggle to think of sympathetic people who would.
Even if the writers don’t care about their own characters, you’d think they’d care about their themes. So when they choose this case to go all in on the “new” idea of the so-called ‘Dark Age of the Law’, it’s similarly strange. Why choose the comedy high-school case to fully introduce the player to a subject matter this heavy and vital? Professor Means is the wrong character to do this with – when he’s reduced to a joke at the end of the case, the ideology he so clearly represents (it’s in his name), gets thrown under the bus with him. The power of the ‘Dark Age of the Law’ and the ‘Ends Justifies the Means’ ideology is already laughing stock before we even reach the game’s final chapters.
That’s nothing to say of the completely ham-fisted way in which it’s written, or the contradictions it raises with the plots of Apollo Justice. Until the final showdown (which I will admit is pretty funny), Means only shows up to deliver the same old lines about how the end justifies the means and to that end he’ll forge evidence to get Juniper acquitted. Athena and Apollo seem disgusted by Means’ ideology, so I hope no one mentions to Athena that this is exactly what Phoenix did to get himself off in Turnabout Trump. It’s a conflicting ideology but nothing that Dual Destinies ever wants to address because all of its ideas are only skin deep. It can’t even really commit to its joke case without adding in something serious and it clearly doesn’t have the guts to write something like Recipe for Turnabout where the comedy is undercut with a layer of sadness.
It’s worth noting that Turnabout Academy seems to borrow quite a bit from an earlier case – fan not-quite-favourite Turnabout Serenade. The most obvious reference is Juniper’s cloak, inexplicably the same as Lamiroir’s in that case. This seems to be the writers nodding to the fact that the whole subplot of the mock trial script informing the real murder is in itself a cribbing of the murder being based on the song. This isn’t just a Turnabout Academy thing – The Monstrous Turnabout takes heavily from Reunion and Turnabout and The Stolen Turnabout. It’s unclear why these allusions are drawn, though. Perhaps it’s in some kind of misguided attempt at fanservice, the same as bringing back characters like Pearl and Klavier (or even Phoenix). Whatever the reason, though, this does nothing to help the case. Reminding fans of better written cases doesn’t make them like your case more, it only helps them see the flaws in comparison.
This isn’t to say I prefer Turnabout Serenade to some great extent; both have some tedious moments, strange plot-holes and mishandled usage of the game’s key themes. The most key similarity they have, however, is characters that I simply don’t care that much about. Serenade manages to make up for this to some extent by utilising the core Apollo Justice cast well, but as I mentioned in my critique of that game, the case-specific characters are just a bit boring. The problem Academy has isn’t that Juniper, Robin and Hugh are ‘boring’ per se, but more that the case assumes we’re going to be more invested in them and their friendship than we actually are.
I think the crux of this problem is Juniper. Were her and Athena’s friendship better established in Turnabout Countdown, we might care slightly more about her relationship to Hugh and Robin. But as is, the case does a pretty lousy job at making us actually feel for any of these characters, so that when the twists start flying, they don’t land as well as they should. Hugh and Robin are almost written with the express purpose of being annoying. Hugh’s selfless actions halfway through the case are rapidly dismissed by Athena and Apollo, so that when we find out his predicament, we’re expected to do a complete 180 on a character we’ve previously been told to hate. It also doesn’t help that everything else about their friendship is the definition of cheese, from the corny anime cutscenes, to the forced love triangle, to the very literal proof of their friendship they all wear (as a side note; how did Hugh get that bracelet around his neck?)
The final chapters of Dual Destinies; The Cosmic Turnabout and Turnabout for Tomorrow are linked – not in the Trials and Tribulations way, but literally leading on from one another – the case introduced in Cosmic isn’t solved until Tomorrow. Turnabout Countdown sort of slots into the middle of these two cases (Tonate shows up at the end of Cosmic to announce that the courtroom is about to explode), and again I start to question the Nolan-eque structure of this game. Like, why split up these two finales? There have been longer cases before. It seems like an effort to create a game’s story that links the first, fourth and fifth cases akin to Trials and Tribulations, but it just ends up confusing more than it creates any sort of fun sense of interconnectedness.
The Cosmic Turnabout finally introduces the player to the corpse of Clay Terran, Apollo’s best friend. Apollo has been dropping subtle hints to the fact that he definitely has friends since The Monstrous Turnabout, including a poorly phrased mention at the end of Turnabout Academy that sounds like someone talking about their girlfriend who goes to another school and that’s why you don’t know her. As such, a lot of the emotional impact of Apollo telling you that his best friend is dead is lost. It’s confusing to introduce and then kill off a character we never meet within the span of one game and it certainly seems to me that some more direct introduction to Clay would better sell the meaningfulness of his and Apollo’s relationship.
Clearly what’s supposed to get us on side is that Clay helped Apollo come up with his “iconic” catchphrase of “I’m fine”, that he shouts as part of his pre-court warm up ritual. In the Trilogy, Mia’s mantra of “The worst of times are when lawyers have to force their biggest smiles” is oft-repeated and has some bearing on Phoenix’s development throughout the series, but it seems Yamazaki has taken this idea too far. Words and mantras carry almost supernatural power in the world of Dual Destinies – ‘I’m fine!’ might be a pretty good pre-trial psych up, but the way in which it’s talked about it might as well be a magical happiness inducing spell. Solomon Starbuck, The Cosmic Turnabout’s annoyingly sigh-prone defendant, snaps out of his cocoon of depression with a few simple I’m fines, as does Athena on multiple occasions. Like in the Investigations games, it seems that everyone in Yamazaki’s universe has a catchphrase that informs their entire personalities and approaches to life. However, the games never actually get to the heart of what makes a mantra or a phrase important to someone beyond its inherent meaning. Perhaps with Apollo’s relationship to Clay they get the closest, but it’s still not quite there.
It’s good that despite the rushed Clay subplot, The Cosmic Turnabout manages to impress overall. The setting of a space centre is pretty cool, and I’m a sucker for intricately designed architectural murder plots. While the rotating Launch Pads do provide an early tip off as to how the murderer may have escaped, it’s still a satisfying moment when you figure out that the astronauts boarded the rocket in the museum rather than the one in the Launch Pad. It’s also nice to see a murder plot that continuously evolves throughout the case. Instead of constantly invalidating your theories like in Monstrous and Academy, The Cosmic Turnabout feels like it’s not wasting your time nearly as much, instead pushing the theory through multiple different iterations as you comb through the testimony of the entertaining Yuri Cosmos. It’s especially impressive when that continues into Turnabout for Tomorrow, as you have to yet again revise your ideas to fit in a new escape route for the murderer.
The Cosmic Turnabout ‘ends’ with Fullbright proving Starbuck innocent at the expense of Athena, who becomes the defendant in Turnabout for Tomorrow. I said before that although Dual Destinies lowers the difficulty and positions itself as a game for new players, that seems quite far from the truth. We see this more than ever in the final case. Phoenix is first joined by Trucy, who appears in order to get kidnapped later on and other than that provides no real input. The case’s prosecutor for the first half is Miles Edgeworth, returning here to fill in the Von Karma role as Blackquill takes the stand. It’s fine to see him come back and works better than, say, Darklaw in Layton vs Wright, as he never really takes away any development from Blackquill. But it’s still odd to see the focus shift so clearly back to Phoenix and his past when the plot of the case revolves so heavily around Apollo and Athena. Likewise, Pearl’s reappearance feels plucked out of nowhere. She contributes nothing, seems to have not changed at all, and is especially disappointing coming off Maya’s letter to Phoenix, which is the best way to handle a character like that.
The court case in Turnabout for Tomorrow is set up at the behest of Aura Blackquill, Simon’s sister and Athena’s mother’s love interest (the world of Yamazaki’s Ace Attorney is absolutely tiny), who believes Athena is responsible for killing her own mother. We’ve seen matricide bought up in the series before, but I think the case that Tomorrow is really trying to ape is Turnabout Goodbyes. Certainly, Athena and Blackquill’s relationship seems to mirror that of Phoenix and Edgeworth, with Phoenix/Athena’s motivation for joining the legal profession being to save their friend. I think the difference comes in the level of involvement – Phoenix’s motivation is ostensibly about Edgeworth, but it’s also deeply personal, to the extent that he’s the only one who even remembers the classroom case. Athena’s version of ‘saving’ is literal – she needs to save Blackquill from being executed for a crime he didn’t commit, but it’s also personal in a different way – she was there during this crime, it was her mother he’s accused of killing and she may well have been the killer. Yamazaki may be a fan of these interconnected stories and lives, but I’m not, because it always feels too contrived for me to connect on an emotional level.
The other difference is how cruel-hearted the game is. Athena is not just accused of killing her mother, she’s accused of stabbing her in the heart with a katana and then putting her on the robot operating table in order to take her apart. You might argue that yes, it’s dark, but the series has dealt with dark subject matter in the past. We’ve even had people stabbing their own mothers with long swords. This may be true, but Bridge to the Turnabout, Turnabout Beginnings and Turnabout Goodbyes never revelled in their darker sides as much as Tomorrow does – there are no images of Maya empty eyed, covered in blood like there are here. Sombre moments are treated with respect, and not dwelt on in the same way. The previous ‘darkest moment in the series’, Fawles’ suicide in court, is comparatively subtle and carries a huge amount of gravitas, while Athena’s alleged murder comes across as much more edgy.
It’s not just the Blackquills and Edgeworth claiming Athena’s guilt, but Apollo as well. He takes the stand to get in some last minute character development by claiming that Athena is indeed guilty. There is, in here, the seed of some good, subtle development. Apollo cracks out some new sprites that are inspired by his old mentor Kristoph Gavin, implying that even he has fallen victim to the game’s ‘Dark Age of the Law’, and lost sight of what’s important. Weirdly though, he hasn’t. He is instead just trying to clear up some doubts he had, and thinks the best way to do this is by endangering his friend’s life. One or the other may well be fine, but the game tries to pull a fast one on you by suggesting Apollo might have fallen to the dark side, when actually he hasn’t. This totally backfires, making Apollo come off like a smug asshole.
This may all come off like I hate Turnabout for Tomorrow, but one thing that hasn’t come across yet is just how… for lack of a better word, badass it is. There’s a lot to be said about the pros and cons of fanservice, especially in a story heavy series like Ace Attorney, but it’s worth reiterating that I’m a fan of said series, and having Phoenix and Edgeworth battle it out in the setting of a ruined courtroom is certainly servicing me. There’s an energy to Cosmic and Tomorrow that pretty much the entire rest of the game lacks and while I don’t necessarily think this duology’s bombast is quite a match for the finales of games prior, I can’t deny the sense of sheer fun that runs through it.
Perhaps the master stroke comes nearer the end, when the game’s final villain is revealed. The scene where Phoenix figures out that Bobby Fullbright is the international super-spy ‘The Phantom’ is almost sublime, a twist so powerful I can remember the moment I first played it. It works using almost every tool in the Ace Attorney tool box. Fullbright’s position as a likable centre-stage cast member makes him an unlikely target for being the main villain; the game obscures enough information that you’re unlikely to figure it out before Phoenix does; the reason for suspecting him hinges on an otherwise throwaway line (which is something that I really love when murder mysteries do), and the presentation is top notch, with the score cutting out and Phoenix narrating his thought process over a steady heartbeat.
The Phantom gets a lot of flack for a couple of reasons, the first being that they are a character devoid of motivation and backstory, and that their distance from the events of the actual case distract from its emotional core. I think a lack of motivation is something that the other Dual Destinies villains suffer from far more than The Phantom. All of them are simply in it for money and pretty much no other reason, and their motivations are swept under the rug pretty quickly – viewed as an unnecessary distraction. The Phantom, despite their lack of emotions, actually gets what is probably the most thorough examination of any of the Dual Destinies murderers. They’re not simply a one note joke like Means or L’Belle, they’re someone who’s learnt to control their emotions to the extent that they’ve become distanced from who they actually are. It’s not explored nearly fully enough, but it’s something, and it baffles me that people are willing to overlook this just because they don’t have some funny hook.
It’s also true that they’re a bit of a distraction from the emotional core of the case, but it’s still not as much as you might think, given that their screen time is pretty limited, and that the rest of the case is spent almost entirely on exploring Athena and Apollo’s development, which it does a poor job of. What The Phantom does link to, however, are some of Dual Destinies’ wider themes. Dual Destinies has spent a lot of time reinforcing in the player’s mind the idea of the ‘Dark Age of the Law’, somehow ignoring the fact that the law has been fucked up since all the way back in the first game. The Dark Age is only ever talked about, and barely shown in practice. But Athena’s plan to inject more emotion into the law is something that applies to the whole series, and makes some sense. While taking down the Phantom is unlikely to end public distrust in the legal system in a literal sense (do you really think dirty lawyers are going to stop forging evidence just because some spy got caught?), it works on a metaphorical and – dare I say – emotional level. Taking down the person who has no emotions in order to bring emotion into court proceedings can be taken as a short-hand for the work that Phoenix and the gang are doing to reform the legal system. Of course, you do have to again forget that Phoenix sort of already did this in Apollo Justice.
In the end, the Phantom is taken down by the power of friendship. The force of joint human endeavour is something that is echoed throughout the end of the game, with elements as obvious as the three lawyers working together, and as ‘subtle’ as the space centre setting. It’s a slightly saccharine theme, but there’s something sort of earnest about it. In fact, there’s something sort of earnest about most of Dual Destinies, a love for the series that shines through even in its worst moments.
But I think it also highlights how difficult it is to write a traditional Ace Attorney game. While I don’t much care for the Investigations games, their relative freedom from series constraints often led to interesting problems that came from experimentation. Dual Destinies, feeling itself even more bound to a formula, sticks instead to unsuccessfully revising cases from the series’ past. When it tries new things, it often feels unable to fully commit to them. This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of triumph in the game – like all Ace Attorney games, there’s some inherent charm. But that charm is often at its weakest here.
In the next entry, we’ll be travelling to Khu’rain to meet up with an old friend. But first, I’ll be taking a short look at Turnabout Reclaimed, Ace Attorney‘s first DLC case. As always, you can support me on patreon or follow me on twitter. Thanks for reading!