Welcome to our Gameluster Top 10 of 2021! After our deliberations on the Game Busters Podcast, we’ve settled on an unranked list of the top 10 best games of the year. Each of these will be a short write-up on why our team is so passionate about these games, so stay tuned!
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
Ace Attorney is, in so many ways, the little visual novel series that could. Starting its life as a trilogy of games covering the life and times of lawyer Phoenix Wright, the series has averaged low to middling performance and has, several times in its 20-year history seemed to teeter on the verge of cancellation. After all, a game where you play a defense attorney and have to use evidence and witness testimony to defend your client in court is pretty much destined to remain one of those niche series that never quite hits mainstream. But, despite the odds, the series kept going and going, releasing main series games, spinoffs, a crossover with Professor Layton, movies, stage plays, musicals, and – after years of fans being convinced it would never happen – the long-awaited animated adaptation. Whenever things seem to be over for Phoenix and his friends, the scrappy lawyer points his finger, shouts his signature “Objection!”, and somehow manages to turn the situation about.
When the prequel duology Dai Gyakuten Saiban released in 2015 and 2017 in Japan, Western fans pretty much immediately resigned themselves to never getting an English localization. The game, which follows Phoenix’s ancestor Ryunosuke Naruhodo as he travels from Japan to Great Britain to study law, had many counts against it: it starred a completely new character and lacked Phoenix entirely, it featured a plot examining such weighty topics as international relations and the harsh reality of anti-Japanese sentiment during the time period, and, perhaps most damning of all, it featured none other than the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes himself working alongside Ryunosuke as an investigation partner. With the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle being notoriously willing to take legal action against any English-language adaptation that didn’t portray the Great Detective exactly as Doyle intended, Dai Gyakuten Saiban’s blonde, slightly dim-witted Holmes and his ten-year-old sidekick and Watson replacement Iris seemed to doom the series to an eternity of remaining Japanese-only.
And yet, in 2021, the miraculous turnabout occurred, and the fully localized Great Ace Attorney Chronicles materialized for the Nintendo Switch. This pack features both games in the duology for a total of ten cases, and includes several small bonus episodes, art, music, alternate outfits for the characters, and more. Much like the in-game Dance of Deduction segments, the developers gracefully pirouetted around the tangled legal issues by re-christening the detective “Herlock Sholmes” – a name that fits well with his much more clueless and happy-go-lucky personality – and his associate and said associate’s daughter Dr. John and Iris Wilson.
The result is an absolute triumph, combining new mechanics – Jury trials! Dancing with Sholmes! – with series favorites – examining evidence, interrogating witnesses, and, of course, shouting “Objection!” when you finally find that contradiction in the testimony. The series’ trademark pun-filled names return alongside sneaky references to both Holmesian canon and real-life figures of the time, so you’ve got Olive Green, Balthazar Lune, and Iyesa Nosa rubbing shoulders with Tobias Gregson, Grimesby Roylott, and Soseki Natsume. (For Holmes fans, the sneaky little references are everywhere – I felt like I was playing an ongoing minigame of “how many can you spot” alongside the main story.)
Humor, of course, is there in spades (or would that be “there in shovels” – one running joke involves Ryunosuke’s debate with his assistant Susato about whether a certain implement is a spade or a shovel). The re-imagined Sholmes provides some of the series’ best moments – when he attempted seriously argue that a witness had eaten soap or constructed a functioning anti-gravity device, I had to pause the game for multiple minutes until I stopped laughing. Ryunosuke’s culture shock upon experiencing London for the first time is given its funny moments – his and Susato’s shock at the cost of a single night in a hotel being a particularly memorable one – without reducing either Britain or Japan to a mere source of jokes. And who could forget Barok van Zieks, Chronicles’ primary prosecutor, whose courtroom antics include crushing goblets of wine, flinging his cape into the gallery, and raising an objection by slamming his leg on the desk, all while apologizing for doing so.
While it’s hard to discuss the games’ story in any meaningful way without spoiling major elements of it – this is a mystery game, after all – I can say that the decision to release the two games in a single bundle was an inspired one. The two feature an extremely well-written over-arching story, and feel less like two distinct titles and more like a single ten-case game. There is a tense, dramatic, and, of course, mysterious through-line, revolving around themes like keeping potentially dangerous secrets, asking yourself how well you really know your friends and family, and how far one should truly go in one’s pursuit of justice. The writing is tight and well-paced, with few of the dreaded “filler cases” earlier series installments were known for – even tutorial cases meant to teach you game mechanics end up contributing to the narrative. These games made me laugh, cry, think, jump in surprise, shout “Objection” at the screen in triumph, occasionally throw up my hands in frustration when trying to solve a particularly tricky case, and ultimately come to feel like I, too, had become a part of the tight-knit found family living in the world’s most famous flat at 221B Baker Street.
When we debated this list on the podcast, I was pretty much the only voice arguing for The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles’ inclusion. I hope that will not be the case for much longer – with its classic formula and brand-new character and time period, the duology is both a treat for long-time fans and a great starting point for those new to the Ace Attorney series. So head to the eShop to grab a gripping, mysterious, humorous, exceptionally well-written pair of games and get ready to dance, quip, investigate, cross-examine, and Object your way to a Not Guilty verdict alongside the world’s greatest detective.