Although both gameplay styles never really mix, the combination they create here leads to some astonishing results
Chemistry dictates that oil and water do not mix; their molecules just do not get along with each other. Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright, however, are a match made in heaven. Though different in their execution, both series were fruits of the same tree: a line of games centered around their script and punctuated by engaging gameplay that would gain notoriety in the shape of the point-and-click adventures masterfully chiseled by Lucas Arts.
Although completely unexpected, the combination of the two franchises on the very same cartridge makes a lot of sense. They each feed on mystery in order to deliver a plot that is constantly progressing and that is bound to feature more unpredictable twists in a few dozen hours than a long-running televised drama is able to pull off in a dozen seasons. They, however, unlock the secrets of their scripts in totally different ways.
While the professor’s saga hides the answers to its numerous question marks behind mind-bending puzzles, the truth of the attorney’s cases is often found through sweat-inducing court battles ridden with details, cold evidence, and false testimonies. Capcom and Level-5’s decision to join them is mutually brilliant and daunting. We are, after all, talking about two incredibly successful franchises whose alternation between investigation and and action is very similar, but whose universes and storytelling quirks are awfully hard to tie under the same umbrella.
Smartly, it is through the story that the two companies start creating a rather elegant and alluring frankenstein. Following a rather surprising and exciting turn of events in London, both Layton and Wright are thrown into a medieval town called Labyrinthia. To its bones, the place is a signature Layton setting: it is cozy and charming, but there is something distinctively unsettling about it.
Here, that unshakable feeling that there is something very strange taking place is produced by the fact that a quiet but beloved man who carries the title of Storyteller is believed to have the power to write the fate of every single citizen and of the town itself. In addition, not only does magic exist, it is also strongly looked down on, as this seemingly quaint setting is home to brutal witch trials where those accused of using magic are burned to death if found guilty.
Such mixture fits like a glove for both Layton and Wright, aided by Luke and Maya, can use their respective skills to work together and get to the bottom of what exactly is happening. Phoenix, naturally, is frequently called to court in order to defend those who are wrongly charged and point out the identity of the real magical culprit. Layton, meanwhile, mostly focuses on exploring the town, solving the eventual puzzles, talking to the townsfolk, and using his intellect to reach conclusions that support Wright’s judicial struggles.
A great part of the fun surfaces from the fact that it is common for the characters to alternate their roles. In other words, sometimes Layton’s interventions in court are more significant than Wright’s, while Phoenix is occasionally the one that goes to town to explore, Luke and Maya also follow through with the same logic. That strong bonding and mutual support between the characters make the script much stronger and the cooperation far more palpable. This is not fan-service for the sake of fan-service, it is fan-service held together by a plot created to let these two distinct worlds collide and work as partners.
Although they are definitely joined in the great script and in the amazing dialogues, the same does not happen in the gameplay front. The puzzle-solving and the trials never truly mix, the game is – instead – neatly divided in chapters that focus on each of the styles. It is not exactly a flaw, for the game works wonderfully within its segregated structure, and – most importantly – that separation makes sense in light of the storyline. However, those who come in expecting the two franchises to borrow each other’s quirks to add some spice to their established and well-known gameplay will be certainly disappointed.
Truthfully, the constant switching between gameplay styles, which occurs as one chapter transits into the next one, benefits the game in two very important ways. Firstly, the adventure never really stagnates because it often feels – in spite of the smooth transitions – that players are tackling two different games located in the same setting and dealing with shared problems. Secondly, the brilliant writers have taken advantage of the numerous perspectives of the same world to create some fair cliffhangers as it moves from the outside world to the court and vice-versa.
Whether players are scratching their heads trying to answer the riddles correctly or going through testimonies looking for false affirmations, the game is endlessly entertaining. Overall, the set of puzzles fails to measure up to extremely high bar set by the other Layton games, but they remain amusing nevertheless and always perfectly adhere to the context on which they are found.
The star of the show here, then, is – unquestionably – the witch trials. The revelations uncovered within them tend to have some considerably big ramifications within the overall scope of the plot, making the navigation through all the witnesses something utterly fascinating. Moreover, given this is a world where magic exists, sometimes logic that is completely out-of-the-box and outrageous on the average Phoenix Wright courtroom can make a whole lot of sense Labyrinthia.
Lifted some miles above reality, the judicial system allows for some delightful wackiness that includes the use of a book with various spells as evidence, the chance for members of the audience to jump straight to the witness box whenever they have something important to add, and even the cross-examination of up to ten people at once – allowing the defendant to scan the whole group for suspicious reactions while one specific member is talking.
Both the Ace Attorney and Professor Layton series are known for their stellar writing and fantastic humor, with the former being more extravagant and the latter much drier. Through the adventure, which lasts for well over thirty hours, the game gets plenty of chances to display and merge each element, and it does so remarkably well. The distinctions in humor and art style of the two worlds are handled and stitched up together with grace, giving birth to a pairing that looks and sounds impressively natural.
The plot’s construction has blatantly gained a lot from the joining of the talents of Capcom and Level-5. The game keeps the ball rolling at all times, with the characters progressively and constantly making discoveries about the world that surrounds them. That constant sense of discovery, not to mention the fact that it is seemingly impossible to reasonably explain everything weird that happens in Labyrinthia, make the game very addictive; having to put it down for a few hours, hence delaying further reveals, is a sad exercise.
The good news is that, despite the uncanny nature of Labyrinthia and the borderline impossible events that occur through the game, the whole package comes – via a series of shocking twists – to a very satisfying conclusion when the dust settles. Sure, there are some plot-holes here and there, but the fact that both companies were able to build a story this ambitious and with so many obscure corners that are eventually illuminated by bizarre turns, and deliver it without major damage is flooring.
The whole act acquires an extra flash due to its extremely high production values. The visuals are incredible, and so is the music. The locations that are visited are infused with the amazing and distinguished art that is characteristic of the Professor Layton universe. And beautiful and decently frequent cutscenes adorn the smooth storytelling.
All in all, though some will certainly argue that Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright is not exactly a blend of both series, just the placing of the two characters inside the same case, the game is a great success. The division between exploration segments and trials does wonders for the pace of the adventure, and seeing Layton and Luke interact with Phoenix and Maya is an amazing feeling to those who know both franchises.
In the end, though, regardless of whether one comes from the Layton camp or the Ace Attorney corner, one thing is hard to deny: it is hard to find a game that is so incredibly rich on its story while being balanced on its gameplay. Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright delivers in those two fronts, and although – like water and oil – both gameplay styles never really mix, the combination they create here leads to some astonishing results.