All posts by AL Gamer

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (2012)

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a cute little trick of a game with a fast pace and a charming story. I call it a “trick” because it stylishly disguises its actually fundamentally traditional point-and-click gameplay by way of its attractive visual style, which gives the impression of being a classic 2D action game, and a few features such as freezing time.

This game gets by on the strength of its plot and characters, both of which are first rate. It truly feels like a story someone wanted to tell, and a labour of love. Every character has life and feels unique and real. There is a central mystery at the heart of the story that continues to grow in scope and complexity, and continues to develop in satisfying ways. It keeps one hooked like an old fashioned serial.

The story begins with your character’s death. You quickly learn that the dead have special powers with which they can go back in time and save others recently departed. In the one night that your character will have in this world before he moves on to the next, he will hop from death to death, undoing them in the hope of learning his own identity and how and why he died this night. His story becomes tied in with the stories of others, and a bigger picture slowly emerges through many many twists and turns. The story rushes at breakneck speed, and is a lot of fun all the way through. It ends at just about the right time to keep us enchanted all the while, such that we did not even notice that the gameplay was not actually as innovative as it seemed (maybe just a little bit shorter would have helped with this).

Strongly recommended to adventure game fans. A gem.

Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

I think the Ace Attorney series is dead. The first three were great, the third being the high point, and the fourth (Apollo Justice) managed to squeak by with the help of a lot of innovation, but the 3DS entries are shambling corpses. This review will focus specifically on Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I’ll also be reviewing this game as a Phoenix Wright game rather than as a Professor Layton game, as I contend that this is what it truly is.

The Good

This title takes innovation to new heights, with new puzzle-solving gameplay and a bizarre fantasy setting. The setting is so weird and unprecedented in a Phoenix Wright game that it buys a little bit of interest with it. The story drags and doesn’t really start developing until right near the end, but when it finally does, it’s fairly interesting, and it actually left me with stuff to think about. Even the ending itself drags on for two or three twists longer than necessary though — one of which was so meaningless and superfluous it almost feels like a joke twist, if such a thing could be. (I’ll spoil it because it’s so stupid and unimportant — “A character has cancer!” and five minutes later, “Oh, it’s cured!” Just end your story, guys.)

The Bad

Sometimes you have to present evidence in court that does not contradict the witness’s testimony, but merely relates to it. This is also a problem I noted in Dual Destinies, and to me it destroys the fabric of the game. It’s like… what are we doing here. In Phoenix Wright, we present evidence that exposes contradictions. That’s what holds the whole game together. This is how you have to design your courtroom puzzles, else they’re not really puzzles, just guesses.

The Professor Layton-y non-courtroom puzzles are all very easy, with a few exceptions.

The Ugly

The characters. This is the deathblow. It’s the quirky characters that make these games memorable, and in this game they are all beyond terrible. This is especially the case with our central character, whose totally uninspired name “Espella Cantabella” pretty much tells you the story. Everything in the game hinges around her, and she has less than zero personality. I cannot think of a single character trait with which she could be described. The same holds true for the prosecutors and even Layton himself.  It just makes the game lifeless. None of these people are interesting in the least.

Also, the game oddly glorifies suicide. It occurs twice in the game and is invariably presented as something noble. Very strange and uncomfortable.

The Verdict

I can’t recommend this game to anyone. For a Phoenix Wright fan, it’s just too long, takes too long to get to the point, and isn’t entertaining enough along the way. For a Professor Layton fan, these puzzles won’t challenge you. I’d say give it a miss, but you might enjoy it for the story if you can tolerate very bland characters.

Retrospective Reviews: Beyond Good and Evil (2003)

Why has “Beyond Good and Evil” remained in the memories of many a gamer? Almost certainly not for its gameplay, which tended to be serviceable and forgettable. There was a reasonable diversity of things to do: racing, combat, picture-taking, stealth; but none of these would really get one’s blood pumping. They gave us stuff to do, but they were not the reason why we played.

Was it the story? I want to say: certainly not. The story, too, was fairly paint-by-numbers and predictable. This story lacked a memorable villain — I don’t even remember whether or not there was a visible villain for most of the game, and the Big Bad revealed in the end was also entirely forgettable. Worst of all was our main character, Jade, who was totally lacking in personality and in flaws. The side characters, Uncle Pej and Double H (or whatever his name was) provide a glimmer of hope, but even they were pretty flat, though amusing. We did develop a connection with them. We did feel for them. So that’s a start, but it does not tell the tale.

I think where this game really won was the universe and the atmosphere. A cartoony world under a totalitarian government being menaced by a Cthulu-like entity was weird and amusing enough to sustain interest over its short length. The denizens of the world seemed to have personality and history; the world felt “lived in”. Moreover, there was unspoken history between our main character and the other characters about the world. They would greet her as a friend, and maybe swap stories or refer to something unknown to us. This must’ve felt real, as I remember it.

The music added to the feeling of a real culture, especially the catchy faux-“European” songs that played during racing and gambling minigames.

Giving the gamer a world to live in was the big key to this game’s success.

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (2012) is a sequel to 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors (2009) — a beautifully titled game. Its title is haunting, mysterious, memorable, and intriguing.  Its sequel’s title is unfortunately a much poorer effort. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward sound clunky, and neither tantalizes nor teases. It does not ignite the imagination.

Forgive me for putting so much stock in a title, but I believe that titles tell the tale. The title is the lens through which the whole work is viewed.  Is it fair to judge a translated work so heavily on a single sentence? I say it is, for these games are visual novels and must be judged as literature. They stand or fall on the strength of their writing, and in translation they must stand on the strength of their translation. In this department I was also disappointed by Virtue’s Last Reward (henceforth referred to as VLR). The English was perfect of course, but the translation was awkward at times and sometimes even inaccurate.

Lest my complaints seem too nitpicky in nature*, I shall dive into the meat of the game. Like its predecessor it is an interactive mystery horror story, and it plays largely the same as 999, but it feels different due to one crucial missing element, that is: gore. I am far from a carnage fiend. I believe that few games appreciate how to use it effectively and most would be better with far less. In 999, the rare moments of brutal violence haunted every moment of the rest of the game and provided a real sense of tension and stakes and discomfort. Though VLR is ostensibly a darker story, it feels much lighter. Everything about the game in relation to its predecessor feels expanded, but thinner. The cast has grown from eight to nine, but the characters are shallower and their stories less interesting. The story is much bigger, but its twists and turns are less satisfying, and its ultimate ending was frankly disappointing even on first viewing — a stark contrast with 999‘s ending, which managed to be both satisfying and utterly unforeseeable.

VLR is also less subtle than its predecessor.  999 dealt with themes of identity, memory, and the “collective unconscious”. This game brought up the same themes, but much more superficially and obviously.

I liked playing VLR, I was swept away by it and enjoyed the ride. The puzzles are probably as good as in the original, so it will feel mostly the same. It fails to live up to its predecessor in mood and in effect. I was less connected to these characters, and less moved by their stories. When the game was over, it did not linger in my thoughts like its predecessor, but was quickly forgotten.


*I do not apologize for this tendency in my writing. The big is in the small. The whole is in the details. This is true of a life as well as of a work of literature.

Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth 2

The “Investigations” series is an audacious failure. Built up of the same parts that constituted its parent “Ace Attorney” series, it boldly dispenses with their proper order and thus neuters its emotional impact. There’s a real sense of catharsis in the Ace Attorney games, carefully nurtured by the structure of gathering evidence and then using every piece in a final dramatic courtroom battle. The trials even manage to evoke feelings of tension and accomplishment, high achievements in a visual novel with no choices and no genuine possibility of failure (saving being possible at any moment). The “Investigations” series sets fire to these accomplishments by brazenly jumbling up the order of collecting evidence and cross-examining testimony, hopping back and forth between each many times per case.


One might ask, “Why don’t the ‘Investigations’ games work? The ingredients are all the same.” The question itself is wrong. The right question is: Why do the Ace Attorney games work? There’s nothing new or exciting or even fun about its gameplay: clicking all the clickable objects per screen and asking every question of every character was an uninspired way to play a game even back when Snatcher did it in 1988. But there’s an undeniable emotional release that comes from using all these clickable objects later in a grand battle to prevent a miscarriage of justice. It’s this emotional experience that ties people so strongly to this series. It’s what causes them to throw money at embarrassments like this: (Please don’t pledge money to that. Instead pledge money to my Ace Attorney clone where you defend people before the pearly gates and help them win their way into Heaven.)

The writing is the same in the Investigations spin-offs as it is in the main series, and for the most part you’ll have as much fun playing it. Presenting evidence and exposing contradictions is as enjoyable as ever. It’s the overall experience that will be noticeably different – especially when it’s over. Completing an Ace Attorney game is an intensely satisfying experience that looms large in one’s memory. Ace Attorney Investigations will end and you won’t feel anything and you’ll forget about it in a couple of days.

There’s an argument that this is actually meta-game commentary. The Phoenix Wright games leave you feeling good about yourself and with treasured memories to look back on, like a defense attorney. The Investigations games leave you feeling like one of the prosecutors of the series: cold, unsatisfied, and ready to move on.