If you wanted to pin down the precise appeal of Sherlock Holmes, how about this: “My method is founded upon the observation of trifles, you see. I announce my findings with a brassy certitude… and more often than not, I’m right!” That is a fitting description of the creature that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrought on the page: the observation, the trifles, the brassy certitude, and the being right. The speaker, however, is one Herlock Sholmes, whose spoonerised name is the result of a copyright issue with the Conan Doyle estate. He is a supporting character in The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles—a double pack including both The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures and The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve. And the irony is that Sholmes is no Holmes. He observes the trifles, he announces his findings… and, more often than not, he’s wrong!
Enter Ryunosuke Naruhodo, a Japanese university student who travels to London. The setting is the late nineteenth century, and the city appears to consist mostly of enormous cogs, which churn through curtains of hissing steam. Ryunosuke steps off a train with his assistant, Susato, and the pair are picked up by a two-seater stagecoach, in British racing green, piloted by a man in a matching top hat, who clatters them briskly through the streets. Naruhodo is a trainee defence attorney, who has twice been wrongly accused of murder and has wrangled his freedom both times. As on-the-job training goes, it doesn’t get more objectionable than that, but Ryunosuke prevails with a mixture of attentiveness, emotional instinct, and friends with greater wits than he. In short, he is a jobbing Watson.
When Ryunosuke first meets Sholmes, on the ship to England, the man seems more Batman than Baker Street; check out his glowing mechanical goggles and his pistol, into which he loads a phial of pink liquid, pulled from his belt, and mists a crime scene with fingerprint-exposing fog. At one point, we catch him hanging out—gripping the pegs of a coat rack and squatting against the wall. I was reminded of a dangling Michael Keaton in Batman, his ankles clipped to a bar, sleeping with a soft squeak. Both men have their sonar tuned to their own private frequency, and Sholmes needs some helpful prodding back into the Land of Normal. As Susato, ever the pragmatist, suggests, “It’s just one or two key words in his deductions that seem to let him down. So I was wondering if we might perhaps tactfully switch them for alternatives.”
What follows is a lightly spiced version of the crime-scene scouring play that defines half the series’ formula. Sholmes asserts his theories, leaping around the room and pointing a finger at his subjects as though it were a pistol, and Ryunosuke—with Susato’s help—must tweak the misfires, keeping the investigation high-calibre. The other half of the formula is, naturally, the courtroom showdowns, which feel closer to gladiatorial Rome than to any modern judicial procedure. Having once served on a jury at the Old Bailey, I appreciated its musty theatre of gowns and silver wigs, perched like wizened poodles on the heads of the prosecution; but it has nothing on Asogi, Ryunosuke’s best friend back home, who wields a katana and wears a blood-red bandana, which is configured to permanently billow, even indoors. Picking through witness testimony, you look for inconsistencies—much as a bird scans for a worm—then you swoop in with a scrap of contradictory evidence and watch them wriggle.
The essential buzz of this procedure—the classical point-and-click piled high with pages of dialogue—is basically unchanged since its first appearance, in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which came out on the Game Boy Advance in 2001. It hopped to the DS in 2005 and found its natural home: a console that had theatre built in. It allowed you to shout “Objection” into the microphone; its stylus was ideal for the gentlemanly jabs of the court; and, best of all, it could be clapped shut at a moment’s notice, giving it the feel (disposable, but indispensable) of a spine-cracked paperback. On console something leaks out of these games. What we have is a visual novel that isn’t visual, spending most of its time boxed into airless chambers, and no longer particularly novel.
None of this, of course, will be admissible criticism for the series’ fans. Until now, neither game has been available outside Japan, and their official translation both to English and to the sharper visuals available on PlayStation 4 and Switch, from the warm grain of the 3DS, will be a case for fevered celebration. Still, I felt the adventures of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles staling well before the end. Often, you arrive at obvious answers and then must drum your fingers while the script catches up. The humour is thankfully intact; “Is the fellow dubious on account of his Russianness, or Russian on account of his dubiousness?” wonders Sholmes, faced with a pale fellow whose beard seems to have wafted onto his face from one of London’s dirty chimneys. But the mysteries of each episode (five in each game) grow as ornate and heavily threaded as Sholmes’s overcoat, as if they were needled by his hunger for challenge.
“Duty and rules are the dull routine of existence that we all abhor,” he says. “Give us interest! Give us fascination!” This is authentically Holmsian in its hatred of the mundane, and you wonder if Sholmes is railing against the series he finds himself trapped in. At any rate, it sounds pretty dubious to me, and it takes a Russian—a blonde, burly sailor by the name of Strogenov—to cut through the clutter. Onboard the S.S. Burya, on its voyage from Japan to London, Strogenov listens to Sholmes’s deductions and delivers his own verdict, rich with impeccable Russianness. “You have talked long time and said many things. What is point?”
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Nintendo Switch, PC
Release Date: July 27, 2021
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