Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright review: Hold it, this reminds me of a puzzle

Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright is less a crossover of gameplay styles than it is two of them sat side by side, occasionally exchanging a polite smile. Imagine an Ace Attorney game, but instead of wandering around interrogating and finding clues, you were doing the Professor Layton thing of solving puzzles to move along the narrative. Congratulations, you have just imagined Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright.

Oddly, the game exposes the weaknesses of both series. By routinely switching between the two styles, the 3DS crossover avoids the monotonous repetition that hurt later Layton games while simultaneously focusing on the most fun part of Ace Attorney: the courtroom battles. That makes it a breeze to play through, even if it all feels a little dumbed down. In contrast, the story sours the fun by being a bloated mess that twists and turns so much that it needs a killer conclusion. In the end, the finale is more an assault on your patience, though not a fatal one thanks to the Ace Attorney's inimitable brand of courtroom chaos.

The worlds of Layton and Wright could come together naturally, given both series' ties to crime-solving. This crossover shirks that easy option by sending the Prof, Wright, and their apprentices Luke and Maya Fey to the fantasy world of Labyrinthia, an isolated medieval village ripped from the pages of a fairy tale. The outsiders hardly believe it at first, but Labyrinthia is a place of magic, witch-burning and foretold destinies. The common link that leads both Layton and Wright here is a young woman called Espella, who's on trial for being a witch and faces a sentence of death by fire. The two men are convinced of her innocence, and sense something odd about her past and the past of Labyrinthia itself.

So, the ballet between puzzle-solving and court-battling begins. Yet after six Layton entries and hundreds of brain-teasers, there's no room for invention on the puzzling side. Shorn of even the cheekily worded descriptions, the puzzles are the most unadventurous in a Layton game yet. It's a typical heap of A said, B said stuff, tile-sliding and line-drawing on maps. In a game full exclusively of puzzles, the lack of creativity would be more problematic. However, the simple break from Layton routine offered by switching to courtroom battles makes the difference. Just as you're tiring of yet another tile-slider, the game removes its top hat and dons its pinstripe suit, ready for Wright's legal warfare.

While the Layton puzzles fail to explore the unusual fantasy setting, the Ace Attorney side takes the ball and runs with it. In Labyrinthia there are no cameras, fingerprinting or DNA profiling; this is a world where magic is accepted, and technology is unknown. Instead of photographs, Wright has to make do with artist's renderings, and the witch-hunting mob demands innocence be proven rather than guilt. While returning players will be well-versed with the formula of listening to testimonies and then pressing for more info and exposing the contradictions, the actual way these trials unfold is even kookier than the series is renowned for. At one point Wright even has to expose that, guess what, an artist's rendering might not be accurate, much to the shock of the baying crowd. The madness of Labyrinthia is the perfect foil to Wright's emotional, easily overwhelmed disposition, and the series' tendency for rather ridiculous leaps of logic.

The world's "topsy-turvy rules" are highlighted by trials featuring multiple witnesses all taking the stand at the same time. Witness testimonies do play out similarly here, with each witness saying one press-able thing as the testimony literally moves down the line. Nonetheless, Capcom takes every advantage to go nuts with the formula "madcap characters + more madcap characters = more chaos." In an early scene a drunken old man, wonderfully denoted as "Some Guy," shouts from the stand that he's going to "save the trial." The camera switches to the perplexed judge, and then back to the stands where Some Guy is no longer to be seen because he's now on the stand, conspiring with the witnesses. "I-I can't believe this..." Wright thinks to himself, "What the heck is going on?!"

The one true twist on the mechanics doesn't work, though. When you press one of the multiple witnesses, others might take issue with his or her statement, but they keep to themselves unless you press. It's an interesting idea in principle, but the signs are too explicitly signposted. Every time it happens, there's an unmissable sound effect and the affected witnesses have dot-dot-dot thought bubbles next to them. There's little fun in discovering that, just the knowledge that there's another maze of testimony to navigate. Subtler indicators would make for more satisfying deductions.

Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright may be the coming together of two detectives of sorts, but the game is oddly reluctant to make you do any real deducing. The only real mix of Layton and Ace Attorney gameplay are the Layton hint coins, and they can eliminate certain options in the courtroom battles when you're stuck. That should be concession enough, and yet the game double underlines the courtroom clues on too many occasions.

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While the two gameplay styles don't really cross over, the characters themselves do intermingle plenty. Layton and Wright join forces in the courtoom, Luke and Maya go off investigating, and the game finds the charm in bouncing these likable characters off one another. While everyone gets along, it's particularly fun to see the gentlemanly, reserved Layton clash with the rambunctious, modern and very impulsive Maya.

"All right!" screams Maya in one sequence. "Hold on to your hat, Professor! Because 'The Order of the English Gentleman and Feisty Spirit Medium is coming through!"

"Ha ha," Layton nervously replies. "A most ... ambitious title if ever there was one..."

It's that mixture and clash of characters that saves the story from being lost to the pits of tedium. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright is around 30 hours long, and its tale of magic and witches suffers for that extended length. The story dances around the dark truth of Labyrinthia for the first 29 hours, drip-feeding little bits of plot as Layton and Wright try to prove Espella's innocence. It's all too slow, however, ahead of the climactic last hour or so. In that final hour, the game wraps together the truth with all the neatness and forethought of a puppy tearing away at a roll of toilet paper. It is not a clever ending, at all, even though it thinks it is.

Worse still, the game spends the hours before that climax underlining just how terrible this truth is, but when it's uncovered – and there is true tragedy there – it's then quickly shuffled under the rug with all emotional weight lost. Sure, no-one's expecting a Layton or Ace Attorney game to deliver hard-hitting fiction, but neither series' has been afraid to shun a completely happy ending for something darker and more haunting – just look at the last Layton – and that kind of ending would've felt much more appropriate here. Instead, the last feeling Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright leaves you with is one of hollowness.

A bad ending doesn't have to ruin a game, though, even (or perhaps especially) if the story wasn't all that strong to begin with. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright drags on too long, but even towards the end it's enjoyable at its basest of levels. It's an entirely safe crossover that doesn't merge two gameplay styles as deeply as it could, and it's a shame to miss on that potential. However, the ultimate result is two series' with enjoyable characters and a penchant for madness coming together, and a crossover that doesn't take risks with tried-and-tested play. It also has Layton and Wright performing synchronized pointing, and it's almost worth the objections just for that.

This review is based on a retail 3DS copy of Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright, purchased by the reviewer.

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