Turnabout Time Traveler

This is the eleventh and final post in a series of Ace Attorney reviews, and I recommend reading the others before this. Although this post is called Turnabout Time Traveler, I will not be talking about that case in detail. However, this post will contain spoilers for all Ace Attorney games discussed prior. Thanks for reading!

I wrote the first post in this retrospective around two years ago, and if I’m honest I never imagined getting this far with it (long time readers will remember my efforts with other retrospectives). I wanted, in writing this, to accomplish two things. The first was to provide some kind of companion piece to the series – for first time players or re-players to peruse as they made their way through the games. I’m not sure if anyone has done this, but I can dream. The second purpose was a more personally important one. I wanted to challenge my own long held beliefs about the series and rethink my opinions. Is Trials and Tribulations really the best game in the series? (Sort of, but not by a country mile.) Is my favourite case still Farewell, My Turnabout? (It’s great, but no.) Is Dual Destinies really that bad? (It’s certainly not a good game, but I found much more to love in it than I expected.)

I’ve now come to the end of this series, and so it’s time to look back and come to some conclusions about the series as a whole, how it has changed and what should happen to it from now.

I think one of the first things to discuss is the many clear ways in which the series has changed since the original game. Many people attribute this change to Takeshi Yamazaki taking over as series lead from creator Shu Takumi from Ace Attorney Investigations onwards. It’s a very easy and clear line to make, especially as the main series moved from the DS to the 3DS and changed from having one lead writer and director to having a team of writers lead by Yamazaki. I think it’s a slightly misleading change to make, however, and can lead to too much of something that I’ve been guilty of, which is pitting the two series leads against each other. It’s very simple to prescribe all the negative points in the series to Yamazaki and his team not understanding the vision of Takumi, but a lot of people’s criticisms of the newer games can be traced back to elements of Takumi’s games.

Of course, when I say ‘Takumi’s games’, I’m referring mainly to one specific culprit – Trials and Tribulations. Although regarded by a lot of people as the peak of the series, Trials and Tribulations lays the groundwork for a lot of commonplace criticisms for the new games. The most obvious one is the idea of an overarching plot shared between cases – although Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Justice for All had some linked elements between cases, it was the success of the Fey family plotline from Trials and Tribulations that made every game in the series since then crib from this playbook in some way or another. Prosecutor’s Path is the game most clearly affected by this, with its attempts to link each case of the game together creating what can best be described as a bloated mess of a final case, but everything from Apollo Justice onwards falters slightly by attempting to create some kind of narrative path in the pursuit of trying to emulate something that I personally never even thought worked all that well in Trials and Tribulations.

The problem with the idea of an overarching narrative is not an inherent one, but more links to something that inflicts any long running narrative series; a continuous effort to “raise the stakes”. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney actually has some pretty high stakes elements as it runs up to its final cases, but what’s most important is that it all remains grounded in the personal. Even the game’s ‘final’ case, Turnabout Goodbyes, is rooted in a relationship between the two central characters of the game. It’s similar for the final case of Justice for All, where Farewell, My Turnabout anchors its legal thriller storyline in a story of personal development for Phoenix, giving him something genuine to learn about his job and his sense of morality.

Trials and Tribulations, despite some attempts, has a final case with a far less personal grounding. This is perhaps a result of trying to balance too many plates in the air at once; it has to create a conclusion to the story of Mia, Maya, Godot and give some kind of final victory to Phoenix all at once. This leads to a situation where the characters don’t get as much time to their own personal arcs within the case; Mia is dead, and Maya and Godot are missing for most of it. But this doesn’t really hurt the game too much, because Trials and Tribulations is at the end of a trilogy, where a plot heavy conclusion with more of a focus on big hitting moments makes sense. Just as the incidents from the past have already been dealt with in earlier cases, we already know the characters well enough by this point to not have to spend too much time on them.

Once we get to Apollo Justice, however, Takumi seems to not have learnt from his own lesson. Although I love the cast of Apollo Justice, the final case doesn’t really do much for any of them save for Phoenix. Turnabout Succession revolves not around some personal relationship for Apollo, Trucy or Klavier, but with a revenge story for Phoenix where the character he’s battling is too much of a cipher to ever feel quite like a villain you really ever get to know. Takumi may have assumed that he, or whoever followed him, would have more time with the cast in later games, but Apollo Justice itself is still hurt by this lack of personal stakes in the final case in service of a longer overarching rivalry between Kristoph and Phoenix.

Yamazaki’s team seems so enamoured with Takumi’s work in Bridge to the Turnabout, however, that some of their games are so built up around the idea of large climatic endings that they forget to involve characters at all. While Sebastian’s arc in Prosecutor’s Path is good, it’s only a tiny part of the mammoth Grand Turnabout, and both Athena and Apollo’s relationships are pushed aside for the final movement of Turnabout for Tomorrow in favour of a hitherto unforeseen international man of mystery. There are the broad sweeps of character development – such as the introduction of Clay Terran or in the cross examination with Apollo, where he adopts Kristoph’s animations, but they’re far too thinly sketched, feeling more like an afterthought than what the case was built around.

The second problem to be discussed comes not so much from Trials and Tribulations specifically (you can probably trace it back to the design of Franziska von Karma if you care to do so), but can be perfectly summed up in the appearance of Marvin Grossberg in Turnabout Memories. I mentioned this in my review of that game, but Grossberg’s new red suit and haemorrhoid fixation is a clear shift in series priorities. The central cast in the first game are clearly larger than life, but they’re a few shades subtler than the background characters, who are made memorable despite their short screen time by the wacky designs and character quirks given to them. Grossberg is technically a background character, but as an important symbol of the court’s degradation, he’s given a relatively normal design and speech patterns. In Turnabout Memories, it was clearly decided this wasn’t fun enough for him, so he gained some nasty haemorrhoids.

While this is a relatively minor problem with Trials and Tribulations, it became more pronounced once Takuro Fuse took over as art director for the series for the development of Dual Destinies, though this is to say nothing of his quality as an artist. In fact, his designs are often some of the best parts of the new 3D games, as they seem built to creatively move around in that kind of space. In particular, his idea of “design = motion” works well for both Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice, with designs that look fine on the page but brilliant squirming around on the witness stand. Athena Cykes, though, is a good example of both the pros and cons of Fuse’s design philosophy. On the one hand, I’d call Athena a well-designed character with fantastically expressive animations that make her spark in 3D far better than Phoenix and Apollo. However, when you read Fuse’s comments on his design process, there are a few red flags.

         “Wearing a suit is important for creating the image of a lawyer, but that also makes for a visually weak heroine, so we intentionally scrapped the idea of Athena wearing a traditional suit and gave her a silhouette more suited to manga.”

I don’t want to imply that all Ace Attorney protagonists have to have the same design. And it’s impossible to deny that the series has a manga/anime style. However, when looking at the designs of Phoenix and Apollo, you can see a concerted effort to balance giving them a character while allowing them to play the straight man to the rest of the cast. When surrounded by wacky kooks, there should be some balance to ground the audience. Why should I think Florent L’Belle is wacky when the character I’m playing as looks more like a high school student from the future than a lawyer? Fuse’s fundamental misunderstanding of the Ace Attorney design philosophy is that he assumes that because some of the most memorable characters in the original Trilogy are kooky, everyone in the games should be. But it’s the contrast that makes them matter.

One place where this problem is self-evident is in the design of the series’ prosecutors. I mentioned how you can trace this back to Franziska von Karma, but it really ups the ante from then onwards. Von Karma, Godot and Klavier at least have a lot of personality to prevent them from being seen as simply defined by their gimmicks however, even as those gimmicks come to bleed more and more into their design and their behaviour in court. When we get to rivals like Justine Courtney, Simon Blackquill and Nahyuta, however, you get the sense that the design process fronted their external design traits before focusing on how their character would affect the story of the game, or even what their character might be. In Blackquill’s case, his mess of quirks (Samurai, British gent, prisoner) makes him an inconsistent character at best, and while Nahyuta might be more simply designed, his religious adherence to the ‘Edgeworth model’ of being a character from Apollo’s past who is reformed in the final case makes any kind of development unsurprising and unearned.

This problem extends to the location and the case design as well. I refuse to say anything too negative about Apollo Justice’s character designer Kazuya Nuri, who I think is one of the best in the business, but I can’t look at the new design for the Wright and Co. Law Offices and not see how it was easy for the Yamazaki team to have this misunderstanding. The old offices from the Trilogy were boring, but again they provided a stable and relatable base for the audience to attach themselves to as a contrast to the slightly more ‘out there’ locations visited for the case. This isn’t the case for the Wright Anything Agency offices because they are as twee and quirky as anything outside them. Aside from this, however, the cases and locations in Apollo Justice seem to work pretty well in the world we know of the Trilogy; each one is aesthetically interesting while still seeming to be a part of our universe, and they don’t seem to be built just to service the mysteries.

The Investigations games, perhaps because they take place entirely at the crime scene, don’t seem to have gotten this message. With maybe the exception of Turnabout Visitor and Turnabout Reminiscence, all the cases in the Investigations series are set in locations that feel explicitly built to be both as visually in line with the background characters and are twisted to constrain themselves around the murder mystery in ways that simply make both things suffer. You can see the solution to a mystery more easily if the location feels contrived to work for it, but it’s also not as satisfying. Locations like a three-storey airplane or a mansion turned food art gallery are fun in principle but difficult to reconcile with the mostly realistic locations of the Trilogy. This is of course, to say nothing of the Kingdom of Khura’in.

These criticisms might all seem old hat or common sense, which is fair. I’ve made some of them before in my previous posts, so let’s look at something a bit more divorced from harping on Trials and Tribulations. Let’s look at how Ace Attorney has, or rather hasn’t, developed thematically.

The first game is one that is perhaps light on heavy theming. There’s more of a focus on creating an engaging legal drama, with perhaps some light social satire and a good character arc for Edgeworth. Still, with regards to Edgeworth’s arc, it would be retrofitting to claim that his story in the first game was always planned to lead to Justice for All’s ideas about the importance of truth as the most important thing in the courtroom. At the end of Turnabout Goodbyes, Edgeworth has had more of a personal breakthrough about his role as opposed to any wider ethical one. But it works incredibly well feeding into the ideas of Farewell, My Turnabout, which puts forth the single most important moral thesis of the series; in the courtroom, it is more important to discover the truth than simply to fight for your client.

Here’s where it gets tricky – before, the message of the first game, in so much as it has one, was Mia’s message to Phoenix that no matter how hard it gets, the lawyer’s first duty is always to their client. In Justice for All, Matt Engarde disproves this, but this ethos from the original game still sticks around into Trials and Tribulations. This flags up two important facts about how Ace Attorney approaches its philosophy. The first is – it doesn’t. Ace Attorney certainly has themes – most revolving around ideas of justice, but it’s reluctant to probe into them, to really explore what they mean in any proper depth or detail. That’s why you can have two contradictory mantras stuck at the heart of any of these games – because the series is perfectly content to trot them out when it matters and forget about them when it doesn’t.

We can see this in the presentation of the themes of justice, but it’s equally the case in the treatment of the theme of ‘family’, which also runs through most of the games. The Fey family politics is injected throughout the Trilogy, but these ideas have plagued the mind of any Ace Attorney writer – the Kitakis, the Gramaryes, the Sahdmadhis – all these and more deal with some family struggles. Mostly these are to do with issues of succession; who will be next in line to inherit whatever special power or privilege is held by that family. But again, what does Takumi or Yamazaki really want to say about family or family ties? In none of these cases is there anything that ever crystallises into a real discussion of the idea of family or succession. If you could say anything, it’s that Ace Attorney values a linear family dynasty – villains such as Morgan Fey or Ga’ran are those from the branch lines that are just trying to get a piece of what doesn’t belong to them by birthright. It’s not something I personally subscribe to, but it’s the closest thing that Ace Attorney seems to have to a unified theory on family. 

The second thing it shows is that the depth of Ace Attorney’s themes have really always just been shallow platitudes. I’ve criticised Yamazaki’s team in the past for their over-reliance on meaningless affirmations repeated ad nauseum by his casts, but Takumi simply used the same methods more subtly. I’m sure people still think I’m strange for having Recipe for Turnabout as my favourite case, but that case still manages to have better theming than any of the grander cases that try to encapsulate anything big about a sense of ‘justice’.

Well, that is of course except for Rise from the Ashes. After completing the Trilogy, I think Takumi might have wanted to go into some greater depth into ideas of actual courtroom moral dilemmas. Rise from the Ashes is a great example of this; Joe Darke is clearly a serial killer, but evidence has to be forged in order to convict him. Damon Gant is himself a murderer, but Lana Skye is equally as guilty in the realm of evidence forging – even if the game stops short of calling her out for it – allowing some moral ambiguity.

Takumi followed this path into Apollo Justice, where the central conflict revolves around a murderer who can’t be caught using traditional means. The first case introduces forged evidence that Phoenix gets Apollo to use in order to catch Kristoph, while the fourth case involves Phoenix revolutionising the entire court system in order to create one where Kristoph cannot escape the crimes of his past. If Takumi was allowed to continue, it’s possible he’d explore some more into these or other legal topics in detail that he couldn’t during the Trilogy. Even Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which has some horribly messy ideas, the explorations of mob psychology and witch hunts within the courtroom are often more interesting than anything Mia ever had to say.

Sadly, however, Yamazaki’s team seems to have taken the wrong lessons from this. It’s difficult to blame Yamazaki himself, who worked on both Rise from the Ashes and Apollo Justice, for this; in fact, it’s worth noting that his mainline games were explicitly built with the idea of revolving around a central theme or motif. It’s more that these themes are handled with all the grace of a reversing dump truck. The Dark Age of the Law is so obviously bad it’s not worth spending time explaining, but the central thesis around it, that the end doesn’t justify the means, is contradictory to the ideas of Rise from the Ashes and Turnabout Trump, yet never involves Phoenix or Apollo questioning their actions from the previous games. Most importantly, Yamazaki’s games remove all elements of subtlety and uncertainty from their storylines; in none of the non-Takumi games are you ever in doubt about whether what Edgeworth, Phoenix or Apollo are doing is right. In Investigations, you’re asked whether you should use illegal evidence as Edgeworth to take down Alba. Unlike in Turnabout Trump, where another character makes you, here the choice is up to you, presenting it like a moral dilemma – except no matter what you choose, the game forces you to use the evidence. There is never any room for moral ambiguity in the Y-Team games. Compare this to the two endings present in Farewell, My Turnabout, and you can see where the presentation of a moral dilemma falls short. 

If there is an Ace Attorney 7, then, it will likely not be helmed by either Takumi or Yamazaki, the latter of whom has recently left CAPCOM. Instead, a new figure will take on the helm of the series. So, what should they do next?

Well, the way the series is as of now is a mess. It is caught between past and future. The case that mainline Ace Attorney has been left on is nothing more than a naval-gazing nostalgia trip, with Phoenix, Maya and Edgeworth trapped in a dull time-loop. To continue the series in this fashion seems a waste. Those characters are beloved, but they’ve had their time in the spotlight. As for Apollo and Athena, it’s clear from Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice that the writers have no idea what to do with them. To my mind, this signals that the series needs to start anew. There has been a real power creep, a real shift away from the fundamentals of Ace Attorney. This doesn’t make the newer titles inherently bad, but a move to larger stakes and away from more personal stories means that I personally am not too interested in seeing a continuation of the current storyline. There’s only so many times you can tease Thalassa without my losing much interest into what actually happens to Apollo’s family. Sometimes, you simply need to start these things anew.

Although we haven’t heard anything on the series in terms of new game output since the release of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 in 2017, I’m optimistic about the future of it. Even in the worst games, there’s a charm to the way Ace Attorney is written that shines through, the unique blend of comedy, mystery and character. It’s easy to complain about the changes (and lack thereof) made throughout the series, but ultimately all these games have their problems, and all have their unique draw. In focusing on the changes made here, it might appear like I’m holding up the first game as the only valid form of Ace Attorney, but that’s not the case – the kind of cases and stories that can only be told in a game like Spirit of Justice are also exciting to me. But in looking back at the series, you can see where the changes work, and where they don’t. I can only hope that the next series lead also has the idea to look back and reflect on the series’ past, before they decide its future.

I have written probably more than 60K words about Ace Attorney on this blog now – more, probably, than I should have. But I really can’t stress enough how much I appreciate all the readers of this series, all the people who helped me out writing it and anyone who has ever commented on it. I realise there’s still more for me to cover, and if Ace Attorney 7 ever does rear its ugly head, I’ll have to write about that as well. But for now, at least, this is the end of this particular series. If you want to scream Objection into the mic – now’s your chance.

If you can spare a dime, I’d love it if you could support me on patreon or, if you prefer the free option, follow me on twitter. Thanks so much for reading!

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