A partnership between Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright just clicks. Both long-running handheld franchises center around logic puzzles, so the announcement of a crossover, titled Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, just made sense from the start. The result of this marriage takes the best parts of both franchises, but brings their shared baggage along for the ride.
The adventure begins when both the puzzle-loving archeologist and the bumbling lawyer are drawn into the fantasy world of Labyrinthia, where witches with magical powers terrorize the populace and a mysterious Storyteller acts as an omnipotent being. Both are accompanied by their respective sidekicks, Luke and Maya, but as always things in Labyrinthia aren't quite what they seem.
The courtroom antics are kept intact as witch trials, and they provide a nice break from the brain-teasers. However, Layton really feels like the star here. He's usually portrayed as the smarter of the two, and when it comes time for resolution he's the one who figures out the mystery and guides the rest of the characters through. It's as if an Ace Attorney game got a special cameo from a considerably less abrasive Sherlock Holmes.
Most of the cross-pollination is in the direction of Ace Attorney too. This installment slims down the largely unnecessary interview and investigation portions in favor of Layton-style puzzle hunting, complete with Hint Coins. These can then be used for the usual Layton style puzzles themselves, or to point you in the right direction during courtroom sequences. It's a lifeline for an Ace Attorney game that has been sorely lacking from the main series, and especially appreciated in this particular game where the logic of "magic" can be obtuse.
Inside the courtroom, Phoenix Wright gets a new tool at his disposal: cross-referencing testimonies. Labyrinthia's court often summons more than one witness to the stand at a time, and so pressing a witness while observing the reactions of others can lead to new revelations. Of course, Layton is the one to first realize this, because again, he's treated like the star.
Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney is one of the most story-heavy to date in either series. The critical path alone will take approximately 20 hours to finish, and a significant chunk of that time is spent wading through the excessive dialogue. The story is intriguing, with all the twists and turns you might expect from these two series, but by the end I felt tired of the endless talking.
As usual for Layton, the practical explanation for seemingly paranormal events feels even more implausible than the paranormal itself. At this point, part of the fun of playing a Layton game--or a half-Layton game, as the case may be--is to get a good chuckle out of the plot contrivances that explain all the extraordinary things we've seen.
As a fan of both series, it was fun watching the two learn about each other and gain mutual respect for each others' talents. But, since Layton is so clearly the smarter one, it doesn't exactly paint much reason why he needs Wright. In exchange for various gameplay mechanics and story revelations from Layton, Wright gives him... his panache for finger-pointing? It's not a very even trade.
If the gameplay owes itself more to Layton, the art style is definitely more Phoenix Wright. Most of the major characters have a distinct anime style, as opposed to Layton's more playful European cartoon flaire. It can be jarring seeing Layton or Luke side-by-side with almost anyone, because they don't match. Worse yet, this game preceded Dual Destinies in Japan, so the shaky 3D modeling in this game will look like a step back for those who have kept up with the Ace Attorney series.
Reservations aside, Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney comes out with a game that in many ways improves upon both formulas. It may be too bogged down in its own story and look slightly dated, but the pure puzzle mechanics still work both in and out of the courtroom, and are bolstered by the crossing of ideas. It's more than the sum of its parts, and as a result is a nice treat.
Final Score: 8 out of 10.
This review is based on a downloadable 3DS code provided by the publisher. Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney will be available in retail stores and on the Nintendo eShop on August 29, for $29.99. The game is rated T.