I devour crime fiction. Whether it’s Veronica Mars or Sherlock Holmes, television shows or novels, there's something about a mystery that I just can't resist. But when it comes to games, great detective stories are surprisingly hard to find. There are, however, two big exceptions: Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright. They're very different series — one tells the story of a puzzle-loving professor, while the other is about a loveable defense attorney — but they scratch that mystery itch like no other game.
Now the two have joined forces in the ultimate fan-fiction made real, the aptly named Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for the Nintendo 3DS. It's basically the video game equivalent of Sherlock partnering with Doctor Who. And while the combination doesn't always work perfectly, gaming's best crime-fighting duo are still a lot of fun together.
It's like Sherlock teaming up with Doctor Who
Both series can be a bit over-the-top, and that extends to the set-up that brings these two characters together. Layton vs. Wright transports both characters and their assistants to a fairy tale town, one where magic is real and everyone is terrified of witches. The narrative consists of a series of relatively small mysteries; you'll be investigating crimes, talking to townsfolk, and defending supposed witches in court. All these mysteries are used to tie together a larger plot involving a mysterious man known as the Storyteller. Everything he writes comes true and the townsfolk regard him as something of a god, but who he really is isn't exactly clear.
Bizarre setup aside, the two games are a natural fit, but ultimately they don’t merge together quite as well as they could have. Despite tackling similar subject matter, the Layton and Ace Attorney series actually play very differently. In Professor Layton, you play the consummate English gentleman Layton as he investigates mysteries, but the actual gameplay revolves around talking to other characters and solving lots of puzzles. The puzzles aren't even always directly related to the story: sometimes a character will simply ask you to solve a brainteaser before giving up any information. It's weird, but it's lasted for six games thanks to sharp writing and clever puzzles.
The crossover isn't always seamless
The Ace Attorney games, on the other hand, put you in the role of a defense attorney. Like Layton, there's a lot of text-heavy dialogue where you talk to other characters, and you'll spend a bit of time analyzing crime scenes in search of clues. But most of your time is spent in court: you listen to witness statements, press them for contradictions, and use evidence to help prove your client is innocent. It may sound a bit boring, but the wacky characters and complex cases make it incredibly engrossing. There's something so satisfying when things click and you know just which piece of evidence to show after yelling "objection!"
Layton vs. Wright fuses these into one, slightly disconnected whole. The vast majority of the game feels like a typical Professor Layton adventure: the town is filled with interesting characters to chat with, and most of them have puzzles for you to solve. They even speak with charming English accents, just like in the Layton games. It's during these sequences that most of the story unfolds — sometimes through wonderfully animated cutscenes that look ripped out of a Studio Ghibli movie — and where you'll learn about all of the many, many secrets the seemingly tranquil town is hiding.
Most of the cases you'll investigate involve women who have been accused of witchcraft. When it comes time to prove those accusations false in court, the game switches over to Ace Attorney mode. It's not exactly a seamless merging of the two franchises. Instead it feels more like two different games squashed together. But those two games are actually pretty complimentary. If nothing else, the courtroom scenes provide a nice distraction from the constant puzzle-solving, which is fun but can overwhelm you with the sheer number of brainteasers. And for Ace Attorney fans, the new game actually adds some interesting new gameplay tweaks, including sequences where multiple witnesses testify at the same time. It's also a lot of fun trying to logically prove someone innocent in a world where the judge believes in magic.
Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright isn't a game for people new to either series; it's complete fan service. It's for those people who wondered what it would be like to see the pair standing in a courtroom together, pointing their fingers and finding contradictions. And for those fans, it's exactly what they've been dreaming of.