It's quite impossible to imagine a gaming crossover that is more perfectly suited than Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright.
Despite being conceived by two completely different minds, cultivated by two separate studios and released by two different publishers, both Level-5 and Capcom's protagonists offer the same kind of experiences for the same target audience.
They have done so for years now, with six Professor Layton games and seven Ace Attorneys released since 2001, many of which are blessed with fantastic English-language dialogue handled expertly by talented localisation teams.
Despite the clear differences between both star characters (Wright is a daring lawyer whose inexperience sometimes gets the better of him, while Layton is an avuncular, gentlemanly professor) both have die-hard followings of fans eager to test their grey matter with their next brain-teasing instalments.
So it's easy to be allured to what could be the cleverest crossover in games since Smash Bros.
Does it work in practice? For the most part, yes. Fans of both series can be satisfied that each game is respectfully handled and well represented in this joint-venture, though there's still room for improvement.
First, a note. With a game so dependent on its storyline, it should go without saying that anyone avoiding all spoilers altogether should be particularly vigilant from this point. That said, the plot details revealed below only take place during the Prologue section, which consists of the first few of hours of gameplay before Chapter 1 begins proper.
The game opens with a section involving Professor Layton and his companion Luke. A young girl called Espella - who is central to the plot - turns up at their office seeking help. Before too long she's kidnapped, prompting Layton and Luke to head out into the streets of London to see if they can find where she's gone and who took her.
Anyone familiar with previous Layton games will be right at home here, because there's little to no difference in gameplay mechanics. Once again the player is presented with a number of single-screen locations which can be explored by moving a cursor around with the touch-screen or Circle Pad.
As in the other 3DS Layton games, moving the cursor is a little fiddly and not quite as intuitive as the earlier DS titles, which allowed players to directly tap the screen. Things are made slightly easier with a new sparkle effect which appears when the cursor hovers over a secret hint coin, but other than that it's business as usual.
There's also a familiarity to the puzzle solving sections, which are introduced to the player through narrative links so tenuous it has become a Layton signature. Townsfolk will segue in challenges with lines like 'I won't trust you until you solve this puzzle. If you've already played through any of the six previous Professor Layton games, this won't come as a shock.
After a couple of hours of traditional Layton exploration, the narrative reaches a cliffhanger and switches to the Phoenix Wright storyline.
Getting Wright and Layton in the same place may seem like a tricky concept given that the Ace Attorney games are set in LA whereas Professor Layton lives in London, but this is solved with a lawyer exchange programme, in which Wright and his assistant Maya are flown to London to take on a few cases and see how the British legal system works.
Curiously, the first case Wright is given is to protect Espella, who has been accused of assaulting someone on a ship. Here too, familiarity is welcomed, with the accusation spilling out into a court trial that is the bread and butter of the Phoenix Wright series. Players will hear testimonies, question witnesses and use evidence to point out discrepancies.
After the prologue ends, the narrative opens with Layton, Luke, Wright and Maya all finding themselves in the mysterious Labyrinthia, a strange medieval-type town that believes in witchcraft. And, for the sake of spoilers, that's where our references to the plot end.
The rest of the game follows the same structure as that featured in the prologue: a Layton exploration section, then a Wright courtroom section, then back to Layton again and so forth. Given the story's unusually long adventure - taking us around 30 hours to finish it, it's twice as long as an entry from either series - it's essentially two full games split into chapter-sized chunks and mixed together.
This undoubtedly represents great value for fans of both games, but it's also worth bearing in mind if you wanted something less compartmentalised. If, for example, you're a Phoenix Wright fan but find the Layton games boring, you're going to have to eventually slog your way through a full Layton game's worth of content in order to play all the Wright sections.
While the Layton chapters retain their predecessors' gameplay mechanics almost exactly - wander around, talk to people, discover clues and solve puzzles - the Phoenix Wright sections do differ slightly from other titles in the Ace Attorney series as the game progresses.
This is mainly due to the witch trial chapters, in which Wright is asked to defend someone who is accused of practising witchcraft. Whereas previous games had the player hearing a single testimony and trying to pick holes in it, here the entire village is against the defendant, leading to occasional scenes in which numerous testimonies are given simultaneously.
This adds an extra layer of logic and challenge to the proceedings. Rather than simply having to find inconsistencies in one person's statement, you're instead dealing with a number of statements and tasked, at times, with looking for contradictions between multiple versions of the same story.
There is little that merges the two projects aside from its currency. Coins, found in the Layton sections, can either be used for hints in the puzzles in traditional Layton style or instead can be used during Wright's trials to help the player out when they're seemingly at a dead-end.
Because the crossover means each series is potentially introducing its gameplay mechanics to a new set of fans, both the Layton and Wright sections are a little easier than in each character's standalone games.
Stat screens during the Layton sections make it clear exactly how many puzzles and hint coins remain in each area, and the courtroom cases - while still tricky at times - are never quite as convoluted as they are in the likes of Trials And Tribulations.
Since the game feels like both series merged together, it also means each series' niggles are carried over too. In particular, the Phoenix Wright trial sections suffer from that ever-present 'guess what we're thinking' syndrome that spoils the previous Ace Attorney games, in which the player has started to figure out what's happened but is restricted by the game's narrative and has to uncover the truth on Wright's terms.
Likewise, during the Layton exploration sections it becomes quickly apparent that, just like the NPCs in previous Layton games, the people of Labyrinthia just aren't particularly interesting. At least other titles in the series had an engaging supporting cast of regular characters, the vast majority of whom are absent here.
"It's essentially two full games split into chapter-sized chunks and mixed together"
Still, these are downsides that fans of each series have learned to live with by now, and aren't going to suddenly deter them all these years later. For the most part it's hard not to be thrilled to see two of the DS's most popular franchises working together.
This is obviously most notable when the game's four heroes finally meet up and start interacting with each other, but it's present in other aspects of the game too, such as its tremendous soundtrack. There are few things more glorious in Nintendo handheld gaming than hearing memorable Phoenix Wright themes played in a Professor Layton accordion style.
If ever there was a game to bring an end to the "fans of the series..." cliché, this is it. Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright essentially takes two cult handheld series, creates a new game for each, and merges them both with an epic storyline. The result is a lengthy story that nevertheless doesn't outstay its welcome. Despite the few problems carried over from each franchise, this merger proves that the obvious path for both Layton and Wright is still the smartest.
A huge adventure that ensures fans of both series are catered for, and whilst still carrying their own blemishes, results in one of the finest puzzle games on a handheld yet.
- Excellent visuals and audio
- Typically twist-heavy plot
- Takes thirty hours to finish
- Fans of only one series will have to endure the other
- Not enough crossover gameplay ideas