In a court of law, the burden of proof rests on the shoulders of the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the case at hand. For a murder, as an example, presenting an incontrovertible motive without physical evidence isn't enough to win the case. Similarly, pretty graphics but ones that are near identical to previous instalments and witty one-liners between new characters who are really very similar to the old ones don't make a prima facie case for Apollo Justice, Ace Attorney.
Apollo Justice inaugurates the rookie lawyer of the same name to the world of law through the course of four trials. Although presenting different crimes and characters, each case contains links and concurrent themes that tie them together. Investigation, interrogation, and plenty of cross-examination comprise this adventure-style game tailored to the touchscreen.
As counsellor Apollo Justice, you continue the justice-seeking work started by former defender Phoenix Wright whose previous games have established the formula for which this instalment follows. His first case thrusts him in the middle of high court drama defending Phoenix Wright himself against heinous murder charges – hardly an easy introduction for the rookie attorney. Following a bit of nervous sweating and vocalised self-doubt, Apollo quickly acclimates to the stress of court. By the time you've reached the final case, he's living up to the moniker 'Ace Attorney'.
Phoenix fans won't be surprised to learn this isn't so much a trial simulation as an interactive mystery novel. Logic, no matter how seemingly odd, holds more weight than procedure and technicalities. Nailing murderers and liars is the order of the day in Apollo Justice and, like in the previous games, you'll do it using your stylus to gather clues and evidence, not to mention interrogating key figures in the four controversial cases included here. Simply put, it's classic PC click-and-point adventure gameplay done up touchscreen-style.
In many ways though, Apollo Justice is more an interactive soap opera than true game. There's just not a whole lot of game to play here. The majority of your time is spent clamoring through branching dialogue trees questioning witnesses, while evidence examination takes up the remainder. Much of the game's interactivity comes in the form of tapping through screen after screen of text, making you feel as though you're watching the game more than actually playing it.
Moments in which you're prompted to do more than deal with multiple choice questions or press witness testimony are as surprising as they are short-lived. Investigative sequences have you scouring locations for clues and occasionally you'll need to peruse evidence submitted to the court in order to uncover some hidden truth.
Both involve good use of the stylus to seek out information. Crime scene investigation, for example, has you moving a cursor via the stylus along a static screen to pick up potential clues. Forensics, such as creating plaster molds of muddy footprints, also make a reprise in this fourth instalment. Evidence presented during trial can be examined at any time by accessing the 'Court Records' and using special sliders to view objects in full three-dimensions.
These sections are genuinely enjoyable, although getting to them is such a labour. It's as though the game imprisons you with its excessive dialogue only to give you a short daily reprieve out in the yard. Once that little hour of sunshine is up, you're right back to boredom behind bars.
To be fair, Apollo Justice does feature some clever writing. Each of the four cases plays out like an Agatha Christie yarn, slowly unraveled with every carefully-worded witness accounted. Colourful characters ensure plenty of funny moments and witty statements. A few figures are more grating than great, but on the whole the cast is an original bunch that give the game a lot of personality. Even more, having played any of the three Phoenix Wright games will put you at an advantage in understanding many of the inside jokes and references throughout Apollo Justice.
The problem is you won't find anything new here – there's seemingly nothing to take the series forward.
Still, hand-in-hand with its assembly of unique characters is an undeniably charming presentation. Vivid cel-shaded graphics lend an impressive anime quality to the visuals, which of course furthers the feeling that you're watching fiction more than playing it. Beyond the visuals, Apollo Justice simply possesses a high degree of polish in its interface, menus, and assorted minor details. It's among the most well-crafted titles on Nintendo DS, no doubt.
A crafty defence can't save Apollo Justice from the truth, however. There's simply too much emphasis on reading volumes of dialogue and not enough use of the good stuff – fingerprinting and rotating objects in your inventory to find clues to name two such abilities the game criminally includes then criminally seems to forget about. Entertaining investigative sequences and evidence examinations certainly offer a bright spot, but they don't occur frequently enough to convince anyone who's already enjoyed past Phoenix Wright cases that their time wouldn't perhaps be better spent elsewhere.
Our verdict, then, is that Apollo Justice can't prove beyond reasonable doubt it's worth a glowing recommendation.