Sometimes prequels feel superfluous - but at their best, they feel a masterstroke. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is the latter.
As a fan of the core Ace Attorney series, I’d always sort of written off The Great Ace Attorney. A pair of spin-offs that was previously a Japan-only affair, I found myself inherently less interested in the concept of games disconnected from the main cast and narratives I’d fallen in love with back on DS. It’s because of that I didn’t even cry out too loudly when these releases were never localized. Now they have been, and I’ve played them, I can hold my hands up in an emphatic mea culpa: I was completely wrong.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is interesting for all the reasons that it’s different to the rest of the series as much as it is for all the reasons that it’s similar - and in many ways, it’s the differences that makes it really exciting.
At their heart, these are still spunky adventure games with one foot in parody and the other in heavy-handed but heartfelt storytelling - but also, these are games about the time in which they’re set.
The idea is that Ryunosuke Naruhodo is seemingly an ancestor of the present-day lawyer Phoenix Wright - and this tells the story of him - also in the law business - in the age where Japan first began to open itself up to the world. As part of this upheaval Naruhodo finds himself in Victorian England, complete with a legally-distinct Sherlock Holmes-alike Herlock Sholmes (yes, really) helping him out on his adventures.
Basically, there’s a switch in tone and attitude here that makes sense for the setting and time period. Where the core Ace Attorney games are set in some facsimile of the real world, the historical setting in this pair of games awards the writers an opportunity to be surprisingly introspective about Japan’s relationship with burgeoning empires and the country’s role in the world both then and now. There’s also an opportunity to examine and lambast British culture in the fun and slightly silly sort of way you only get when it’s Britain-via-Japan - which is generally lovely.
Also interesting throughout are the appearance of familiar figures. Some are pastiches of real historical figures, while others are versions of literary characters from the era, including several characters from other Holmes stories. Some of these land better than others, but it’s nevertheless fascinating to see the patented Ace Attorney charm, including in the localization, applied to figures we know from elsewhere.
The developers, meanwhile, can also use the setting to their own advantage. The legal systems established in the modern games are switched out for a British-style system, and though it doesn’t change the flow of trials too much, it’s a refreshing adjustment that helps these games to stand apart.
Likewise, Herlock Sholmes uses all of the deductive powers he’s known for in a new system that’s an analog for some of the supernatural elements used to break cases open in the other games. It works, and again has its own energy and attitude that just feels right for this package.
In particular, the fact that Sholmes isn't actually that good a consulting detective feels rather a stroke of genius: the way you untangle the mysteries is by listening to his generally wildly incorrect hypothesis and then working to correct him, step-by-step. Again, the energy is just ever so slightly different from the past games in a way that'll be sublime for returning players but also an enhancement over predecessors that might draw in newcomers: you often feel more busy and more engaged mid-case, even if the plotting isn't generally as strong as the original trilogy.
Being a spin-off does somewhat free the series from some of its localization foibles established in the earliest titles in the series. In the West those games have famously been unable to quite decide if they’re set in the US or Japan; the first game localized as if it were in America, while later ones had elements that made that illusion impossible to maintain. Here, the game is unashamedly Japanese, with the characters from Japan having appropriate names and such. The clean break is useful in this sense, too.
By far my favourite character in the game is Naruhodo himself, though. His characterization is well-played, the best of the bunch in an already excellent localization - and it’s difficult not to root for him and fall in love with him in the same way you did for Wright. It’d be easy to play this ‘ancestor’ thing cheaply and just have him be Wright in period costume - but he isn’t. He’s his own character, and one I really enjoyed spending time with.
Indeed, I’ve enjoyed all of my time with The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles so far. I’ve not completed it at time of writing - I’m about one and a half games into the two-game package - but it’s already quietly sneaking its way onto the list of my favourite games of 2021. Returning to this sort of game is rather like getting a lovely, warm hug. It’s just different enough to the regular Ace Attorney games to feel like something new, but also close enough that it ignites a similar fuzziness in me - and I’m loving it.