Dai Gyakuten Saiban: The Greatest Ace Attorney

This review is going to be entirely spoiler-free because I can count on one hand the number of people I know who have actually finished the duology. I am going to try and communicate what makes these games excel, but as they are mystery games and everything in mystery games is a spoiler, details will be omitted.


First: some context. Dai Gyakuten Saiban (literally "The Great [Gyakuten Saiban]," or "The Great Ace Attorney") takes place in the Meiji era of Japan and Victorian England. It stars Phoenix Wright's ancestor and... Actual Literal Sherlock Holmes. This isn't even particularly outrageous given that before DGS came out Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was released, which is arguably an even more bonkers crossover, but it still comes off as a bit of a shitpost at first glance.


And it is, trust me. It so is. Dai Gyakuten Saiban is completely aware that its premise is ridiculous. But it's also unequivocally the best mystery VN I've ever experienced, and blows every other Ace Attorney installment out of the water.


Ace Attorney main series installments 1-4 (up through Apollo Justice) were written by Shu Takumi, and the next couple were led by a different writer. People on Reddit argue tirelessly over whether Takumi games are better or whatever. I'm not here to argue about that; I'm mentioning it because it's important to know that immediately after writing Apollo Justice, Takumi's next Ace Attorney game was Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, followed by Dai Gyakuten Saiban.


There's a reason I keep mentioning the Professor Layton crossover. Despite the story and scenario being completely unrelated, absolutely everything else about it is directly related to DGS. It might be more accurate to think of it as a trial run.


To illustrate what I mean... here is a key visual for Spirit of Justice, the most recent mainline Ace Attorney game, on the left. On the right is a key visual for Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.




I'm not here to dunk on one or the other, although I vastly prefer PLvsAA aesthetically, I'm just pointing out the distinction in terms of art direction. SoJ uses brighter colors and harsher shading and stronger lines. PLvsAA uses a more muted and cool palette with softer blending. PLvsAA also has more dynamic composition.


Here is a key visual for Dai Gyakuten Saiban:


...I'm hoping my point here is obvious.


The lead art director for Spirit of Justice is Takuro Fuse; the lead art director for PLvsAA as well as DGS is Kazuya Nuri. So obviously the visual direction for the two spinoffs is similar.


But it's not just visuals. A good part of the creative team who worked on PLvsAA went on to work on DGS. Most of the soundtracks were clearly composed with the same instrument pack. The PLvsAA soundtrack was composed by Tomohito Nishiura (the Layton composer himself), along with Yasumasa Kitagawa.... you will be shocked to hear this, but Kitagawa is also the composer for Dai Gyakuten Saiban, along with newcomer Hiromitsu Maeba.


Here is the witch trials cross-examination theme from PLvsAA:

I want to point out the use of pitched percussion along with very rhythmic strings; it emulates the typical Ace Attorney cross-examination feel very well but with a decidedly unique texture.





And here is the cross-examination theme from DGS:

It's a very similar texture; the strings are melodic voices in this one as opposed to PLvsAA, and of course it's an entirely new composition, but the instrumentation is very similar as is the overall tone. There is counterplay between distinct voices, with lots of staccato.



Now, for contrast... again, the cross-examination theme from SoJ:

Obviously ignoring that this has synth in it (not going to put synth in the BGM for Victorian England or witch trials), you will notice the syncopation is far less pronounced, notes are more sustained, there is less space in the composition. The feeling is fundamentally different.


I acknowledge that saying "songs composed by different composers sound different" is not the most groundbreaking take. My intention isn't to say "DGS sounds different from mainline AA" because, well... obviously. But it sounds similar to PLvsAA, in the same way that it looks similar, and also feels similar. My argument is that Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney's aesthetic direction (in fact, direction in general) is a spiritual predecessor to that of Dai Gyakuten Saiban, and that thinking of these as mere AA spinoffs is undermining the fact that the series's original writer headed both and that they have a unique, stunning identity of their own.


(I also have an alternative agenda and that is for anyone reading this to listen and come to the same conclusion I did, that aesthetically, DGS and PLvsAA are straight up better. But I GUESS that's subjective.)


I could talk about DGS's soundtrack for days, but I hope I've made my point in highlighting that its aesthetics are completely unlike anything found in the main series. I also hope that eventually you get the chance to play the game yourself and fall in love with it as I did. However, this is a mystery game, and no matter how incredible its visuals and audio are, it must have good writing for me to actually recommend it in good faith.


...and I am telling you, everyone, please, play this f*cking duology. Especially to people who enjoy Sherlock Holmes adaptations, because this is the best one you are ever going to find.


The reason I keep mentioning that Shu Takumi wrote Ace Attorney 1-4 and then this game is because anyone who has played Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney knows that it ends on a particular sequel-bait cliffhanger that is never acknowledged again, and half of its events are retconned out of existence. Apollo Justice's ending was setting up for a sequel with an entirely different courtroom dynamic that never actually happened.


Dai Gyakuten Saiban, an installment that takes place centuries prior in a different country, features the very mechanic that would have been expected in an Apollo Justice sequel.


Beyond that: Dai Gyakuten Saiban is the only true duology in the entirety of Ace Attorney, wherein the first game (much like Apollo Justice) is a very remarkable stand-alone, but also ends with a lot of unanswered questions to be explored, addressed, turned on their head... and finally answered in a sequel. There are many very similar plot threads to those introduced in Apollo Justice found in DGS; I can only imagine that Takumi as a writer took the opportunity to fully realize the ideas he had in mind for Apollo Justice originally.


Apollo Justice tried to introduce a brand new protagonist and cast and continue the series with a starkly different identity. It didn't go so hot, so it never got a direct sequel, half of it was immediately retconned, and now the series is more or less back to status quo (...we'll see, depending on what AA7 does). Dai Gyakuten Saiban introduces again a brand new protagonist, cast, and now setting, and is able to hit the ground running with a brand new identity and familiar mechanics. It is free from every convention established in the ongoing main series and as a result there are some twists, turns, reveals, and events that would never happen in a main series with 6 installments and an established core cast.


Dai Gyakuten Saiban is the strongest argument for why a mystery series going on as long as Ace Attorney has with a defined cast and concept is a narrative hindrance. Apollo Justice tried to break free of that, and it was incredibly interesting... but not commercially successful. So while the main series is more or less shackled to taking only certain risks within a given formula, spinoffs such as Dai Gyakuten Saiban have the freedom to explore completely new territory and break new ground. I do not believe it is possible for any main series installment to come close to what DGS was able to do narratively. It's ironic, but the main series is not permitted to be as innovative as the shitpost Sherlock Holmes crossover.


I wish I could talk about this innovation in greater detail without giving away spoilers, but unfortunately that's not possible. I will talk about what I can, though. I already touched on new dynamics in the courtroom, which was first introduced with the mob cross-examinations in PLvsAA, and is expanded upon in DGS. Most importantly, because Sherlock Holmes is an important character, it features the iconic "deduction show" staple you see in detective series.... as gameplay.


This is what I mean when I say it's the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation of all time. This, and other reasons, but for those I implore you to play the games and find out.


Sherlock poses dramatically at the camera, making wildly off-base accusations, and Ryuunosuke Naruhodou swings into the frame to interject and correct him. It's pure fun and spectacle, and it is the best mechanic ever to anyone who is a fan of these kind of "Deduction Shows" in detective media.


I can't include a video without giving away some reveals, so instead I'll include some out-of-context screenshots so you get a feel for the extremely fun vibe, and the BGM to go along:

Now just imagine they're also spinning on and off screen with dramatic camera pans and snapping their fingers to cue spotlights on the person they're deducing things about. I'm not exaggerating. It is actual perfection.


To let this new mechanic shine, Dai Gyakuten Saiban actually features a chapter that is purely investigation with no trial. I really can't stress enough how this game is able to play with established norms and deviate from them, and how damn good it is on account of that.


But a mystery game can only ever be as good as its ending permits it to be. I have lamented endlessly how AI: The Somnium Files was set up in the first 2/3 to be one of my favorite games, and the ending dropped the ball so hard it's not even top 30 anymore. The climax in mystery games re-contextualizes the full journey, and it is so vitally important to strike a balance between that new context being interesting and worth the investment, versus it becoming so big that it undermines the journey. It must respect what the player has experienced so far while also allowing for small hints and questions scattered everywhere to click into place.


Dai Gyakuten Saiban is masterful with this.


There were many reveals I saw coming relatively early on and there's always a bit of a fear that guessing too much will end up ruining the journey. Well... I needn't have worried. I guessed the murderer for the final trial before the investigation started, but I had absolutely no idea what that trial had in store for me. I was also afraid that morally grey figures would be absolved and turn out to be Totally Righteous in the end (one of my biggest pet peeves), but that was not the case. I placed my faith in this game to have an ending worthy of its premise, and it did. not. disappoint.


DGS doesn't treat the player like they're stupid and it doesn't have cheap un-guess-able reveals. Rather, it leads you to certain conclusions, but the context in which it reveals them changes absolutely everything. Rather than opting to subvert expectations at every turn, it will more often than not play them straight but in a context that is unlike anything I'd seen before. It doesn't have One Big Moment TM at the end, but every step of the way brings new revelations so the framework you're using to investigate is constantly changing. Its delivery of the most impactful moments is subdued in a way that makes them hit all the harder.


It takes place over the course of two games to give ample time to introduce the setting, characters, dynamics, and history with which it will play. If the game tried to have the same climax stuffed into one installment it would feel cheap and too big for its pants, but because it is a duology, it grew into something truly magnificent.


Dai Gyakuten Saiban changed my view of what Ace Attorney can be. I was afraid to check out the sequel for years because I didn't trust it to live up to the first half.


Like [SPOILERS REDACTED], I ultimately decided to give it my trust and set myself up for possible disappointment. I trusted it to not be AI: The Somnium Files. I trusted it to stick the landing on something that had become one of my favorite gaming experiences, to not ruin that for me.


And I am so glad I did, because the full experience is the best damn mystery I've ever played in my life.

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