Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was definitely a game that turned some heads when it got announced a couple of years back. On the surface it seems like a very odd pairing but when you dig into it you start to realize how similar the two franchises really are. Both center around solving mysteries, both revel in the twists those mysteries inevitably take, and both games deep down are about pointing out contradictions and thinking logically. Those inherent similarities though end up acting as a double-edged sword here; the games mesh better than one would expect but there isn’t enough contrast between the two to really make things interesting. At the very least though this is still both a very competent Professor Layton game and a very competent Phoenix Wright game, made with care by both series’ respective design teams; that alone will make it worthwhile for fans of either franchise.
So you might be wondering exactly how these characters meet up and to be honest it’s somewhat contrived. One night a young woman in medieval garb named Espella shows up on Layton’s doorstep looking for help escaping from her pursuers who happen to be witches. She was led to him by one of his former students and claims to be from a mysterious town called Labyrinthia. One thing leads to another and while she manages to escape with the Professor’s help, Layton and his apprentice Luke get sucked into Labyrinthia via a book Espella was carrying around with her. Not long afterwards Espella gets accused of a crime and is taken to court where she is defended by Phoenix Wright and Maya Fey, who are visiting England on an attorney’s exchange program; Of course they too then get sucked into Labyrinthia. Some time later Espella and the groups meet up with each other, and after Espella gets accused of being a witch herself, they decide that they need to solve the mysteries of Labyrinthia so as to stop the fantasy town’s ongoing witch trials. While the medieval setting does act as a nice blank slate and creates a level playing field between the Layton and Wright, it takes far too long to set up itself up and is ultimately kind of dull compared to the places Layton and Wright normally hang out in. It’s just too occupied with its own back story and circumstances and as a result doesn’t feel true to either of the franchises involved. The characters that inhabit Labyrinthia strike an odd balance between Layton’s dry witted cast and Wright’s wacky ensemble; the end result is a milquetoast group of ren-fair rejects who don’t go far enough in either direction. That fence sitting between the two franchises defines the experience and ends up being its major downfall. The Layton games are all about silly looking people talking seriously about silly things whereas the Ace Attorney games are all about serious looking people talking about serious things in a very silly fashion, when put together they essentially cancel each other out. That said it still has at least some of the charm that you expect from both of these franchises and if you’re fan of either one then you’ll get what you need.
While the narrative very much feels like an attempt to combine things, the gameplay is a clear 50/50 split with each series’ style of play remaining more or less untouched. The game alternates back and forth between the two types of gameplay, with traditional Layton style puzzles acting as the investigations which then lead into Phoenix Wright style trials. That’s not to say it’s all just business as usual but side by side; while the Layton stuff sticks close to the same mechanics it always has, the court cases come with a few new interesting wrinkles. In addition to Wright getting to use Layton’s hint coins during them (which can be a real help) the game also has you cross-examining multiple witnesses at the same time which is a real game changer. As a facet of that, not only are you looking for contradictions within the evidence, but also between everyone’s testimonies. You’re observing how witnesses take to what each other has to say, getting their comments on it, and having them point out the flaws in each other’s stories. In the end it all still breaks down to looking for contradictions and trying to parse out that particular case’s string of logic, but the new kinks to work out definitely add some extra flavour which makes this feel different from the other Ace Attorney games. The added bickering helps legitimize the whole witch trial aspect and highlights how different it is in comparison to Phoenix Wright’s other adventures. It makes these trials the highlight of the game, because while the puzzles are still fun, they’re not all that different from those in the other Professor Layton games. One other thing that’s interesting to note but is not mechanically relevant is the fact both Wright and Layton participate in both styles of gameplay. Who’s doing what doesn’t change actually anything gameplay-wise but it’s still cool to see Layton throw out an objection or Wright get that look of smug satisfaction that comes from completing a puzzle.
Moving onto the presentation they again try to strike a balance between the Professor Layton and Ace Attorney styles, which works in the case of the music but not in the case of the visuals. Despite how similar the two series can be in terms of narrative concept, their visual aesthetics are very disparate. Professor Layton is full of goofy cartoon caricatures and sweeping painterly vistas whereas Phoenix Wright has always gone for a more grounded and realistic look that is simply punctuated by notes of silliness. Just like with the story, the two essentially cancel each other out and neither the characters nor the environments feel like they go far enough in either direction. There are certainly places where it leans farther to one extreme or the other but overall it makes for a weird pairing and everything ends up running together as a result. Also on a more technical note, there are some weird frame rate issues going on with the 3D models in this game. Whenever someone does a particularly elaborate animation, their model drops down to about 10 frames a second; it’s really noticeable, looks awful, and happens far more often than it should.
Let’s close on a high note though and talk about the music which is a perfect of combination of classic Layton and Phoenix Wright tunes done in that very evocative Level 5 style. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “Level 5 style“, I mean their nigh obsessive need to put concertinas and violins on all their soundtracks, which is something they’ve been doing since the original Dark Cloud back on the PS2. It’s always lent their games a very peaceful and soothing Mediterranean air that has come to define Level 5’s output in a way and this title is no different. Surprisingly though, when paired with the fast and upbeat Ace Attorney music, it all ends up really working. I’ve long-held that the original Phoenix Wright soundtrack is one of the best in gaming history and hearing how well all those classic themes adapt to these new medieval influences and Level 5’s specific instrumentation only helps prove that in my mind. Every piece brings forward just the right amount of tension and curiosity and perfectly underlines the flow of the trials. Similarly the familiar Layton themes on display do their job in keeping your mental juices flowing during puzzles, they’re unobtrusive but provide a slight stimulus to help you suss out the grains of logic you’re trying to find.
Despite my complaints, Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is still a fairly fun experience that will serve fans of both franchises well enough. But while it certainly provides what you would want from both a Layton and Phoenix Wright game, it is not a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. I was hoping for some fun made with the marked contrast between the visual and thematic styles and perhaps some innovative combination gameplay but instead it all just ran together into a palatable but somewhat bland package. Again it’s not necessarily a bad game, just a little more dull than I was hoping for, as such I’m giving Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney a 3.5 out of 5 stars.