Before starting Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies, I had never played a Phoenix Wright game. A glaring oversight on my record, I had always intended to pick one up but for whatever reason that action never materialized. With Dual Destinies I really had no idea what I was getting into or, really, what genre of games Phoenix Wright subscribed to. "Bonkers Courtroom Simulation" seemed like a good fit, though wholly exclusive to those beloved games in the Phoenix Wright series. In any case if you're, looking for a review designed to inform long-time Phoenix Wright fans - this isn't it (and there are plenty already). If your perspective is that of a curious and open-minded observer, well, here we go.
"Bonkers Courtroom Simulation" is actually the most accurate descriptor that can fit into a single sentence. Dual Destinies is features a judge, defendant(s), and a prosecution team masquerading as a courtroom drama in the same way Zebras, Pomeranians, and Raptors of Tokyo Jungle depict the animal kingdom. Accept them at face value and you might be onto something (and a particularly boring game). Exaggerate these facets through outlandish characters and reality melting circumstance and it suddenly transforms into an object of fascination. Hardcore sims aside, games typically indulge in hyper-realism and unstoppable crises to capture a player's interest. It's what they do, and Duel Destinies gracefully applies equal parts goofiness and bravado to the courtroom scene.
Dual Destinies' chief accomplishment is exhibiting its bonkers scenarios and then grounding them with relatable emotion. In the first hour or so I figured the process of hearing witness testimony and cross examining them would play out similarly to the interrogations in Rockstar's LA Noire. I would have to watch their body language in some kind of hot/cold minigame and hope to pick out some sort of inconsistency. Instead, I found characters whose emotions, however hyperbolic, revealed basic human insecurity, innocent incompetence, and common mistakes. There are sequences that involve catching on to classic tells, but they take a back seat to basic conversation. The interlocking narratives of Dual Destinies are undoubtedly on the crazy train, but it's (mostly) populated with orderly passengers.
Each of Dual Destinies five murder cases unfolds in a similar fashion. While the opening case gets right to the trial, the remaining four bounce back and forth between investigating a crime scene and the accompanying trial. Phoenix Wright, Apollo Justice, and/or apparent newcomer Athena Cykes will visit the scene of the crime, interview witnesses, collect pieces of evidence, and generally observe every facet of the environment. In the courtroom they'll construct arguments using said evidence to build and press their case. It's kind of impossible to miss anything, it's not like you'll forget to pick up an obscured piece of evidence, because Dual Destines is cleverly fixed to a very rigid set of rails. Joy is found watching its progress.
This isn't to imply Dual Destines is completely absent of gameplay. Each attorney from the Wright Anything legal agency comes equipped with a particular gimmick specialized in extracting information. Apollo's justice bracelet came the closest to matching my LA Noire suspicions, allowing him to slow down time and watch for a facial tick that might imply the witness isn't being completely honest. Athena arrives with a robot named widget that can determine a real emotion - happy, sad, angry, or surprised - they may be running counter to that person's physical appearance. Wright himself had a few party tricks up his sleeve, not including the usual abilities of pressing for more information and applying evidence, but for the most part Dual Destinies felt like a game created to flesh out both Apollo and Athena.
If nothing else, Dual Destines does develops its characters and scenarios beyond any reasonable expectation. I started Dual Destines on a Sunday, muting the television with professional football idling in front of me at 12:30pm. When the last televised game was over almost eleven hours later, I was just wrapping up my second case. Given that most of Dual Destinies is composed of pushing next and reading two lines of text at a time, this is either the greatest thing in the world or completely unbearable. There's plenty of game here, and we'll get to it in a second, but Dual Destinies has a penchant for rambling on and on well past the line where it made its point.
Dual Destines also manages a few bombastic Pavlovian hooks. Seeing the classic OBJECTION text blast across the screen, occasionally multiple times during the same exchange, always carried a certain sense of satisfaction. Similar actions like Wright slamming his hands on the table or Simon Blackquill clacking his chains together also create produces brief instances of tension and excitement. These are necessarily large parts of Dual Destines, but I found them charming in their own special way. At the very least they provide a wakeup call whenever the text might be sending the player into an unintentional lull.
The interactive parts of Dual Destinies are well meaning - and slightly suspect. Cases are never what they initially appear to be, often twisting and turning into some kind of monster by the time it's over. As such you may know what piece of evidence may incriminate a certain person, but you won't be able to do anything about it until the narrative of the courtroom drama dictates it’s time to use that particular piece. Instead, you have to go through the motions and apply the proper piece of evidence as the game dictates. I got the impression that this is what Phoenix Wright has always been about, and the enjoyment wouldn't be derived from skipping right to the end. Dual Destinies bets the farm on the journey, and, assuming Phoenix Wright fans typically enjoy a cavalcade of quirky characters theatrically engaged with marching contention – it hits its mark.
Still, I found myself wish there was a better game in Dual Destinies. If you screw up selecting the proper piece of evidence or the wrong moment to press a witness, you may be docked a few points (off of a life bar) from the irritable judge. After four or so mistakes you'll get booted back the title screen - only to resume your game at the point where you failed out. This effectively eliminates consequence in a game where you can already juke the system by saving at any point. It also effectively ensures I'll never lose progress and have to relive another stream of banter that wouldn’t be nearly as witty the second time around. It's a double edge sword and quite honestly I'm not sure where the solution lies. I get the feeling Capcom couldn't figure it out either, and this is the conclusion we're left with. It works well enough, but it leaves any semblance of consequence on the table.
Being the first entry in the series on 3DS, Dual Destinies is packed with moments designed to exhibit the systems 3D capabilities. Usually I wouldn't waste space on this, but the implementation of 3D actually seemed worth it. The quick bullet-time rotation of static moments in the courtroom wreak on early 00's cinema, but the depth it adds to animated cut-scenes, still vignettes of crime scenes, and otherwise normal character interaction really adds something to the game. It's the only 3DS game I've played this year where I've willingly jacked the 3D slider to the max and not regretted it after five minutes. As an aside, I have no idea why the ESRB rated Dual Destinies as Mature. There are a few sequences featuring a dead person and some blood, but it’s unquestionably less violent than Nathan Drake gleefully killing a billion people and absolutely less offensive than Dragon’s Crown’s horrible depiction of women. This has almost nothing to do with anything and with the lack of a physical release probably won’t affect the intended audience, but it’s weird all the same.