Every Friday, several A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I’ll be honest: Despite being a fairly voracious devourer of detective fiction (including interactive detective fiction), I usually run pretty cool on Sherlock Holmes. Sleuthing’s resident coked-out pretty boy has had many incarnations over the last century, all operating at different levels of the “he’s a loose cannon, but he gets results!” school of brilliant-but-troubled deduction mastery. But while the attendant smugness that hangs around Arthur Conan Doyle’s franchise monster can often reach toxic-or-worse levels—looking at you, Cumberbatch—Holmes’ real flaw, for me, has always been the ease with which he typically solves crimes. There’s no real sense of fair play in a classic Holmes story; the master detective spots five pertinent details within the first four pages, figures out the whole thing, and then he’s off to the races while the rest of us follow along like a collective group of bumbling Drs. Watson.
Which is just one of the, well, great things about Capcom’s new The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, a re-release of two prequels of the long-running Ace Attorney franchise that arrived this week in English, after years of Japanese exclusivity. Besides simply being great examples of the humor, character, and sometimes brain-bending logic that make the base series such a delight, Chronicles also features that rarest of things: A version of Sherlock Holmes—or, rather, Herlock Sholmes—who’s actually tolerable to solve a mystery with.
The most important element of this deductive redemption story is probably also the simplest: Sholmes isn’t the hero here. That role instead falls on would-be lawyer Ryunosuke Naruhodo, a Japanese student who somehow keeps getting accused of murders, and has to deploy logic, reasoning, and his powers of observation to clear his name. Sholmes is, instead, operating somewhere in the space between a sidekick, a mentor, and a mild antagonist: Already a world-famous detective, with numerous investigations and gadgets to his name, this lawyer-friendly version of the Great Detective nevertheless has a bad habit of jumping to incorrect conclusions drawn from his meticulously collected evidence. It then falls on the player, as Ryunosuke, to correct the flaws in the logic, with these “Dance Of Deduction” sequences making up a major part of the games’ play.
What makes these sequences work—and what makes Sholmes a far more tolerable character than the factory-issue model—is the glee with which he accepts, and then builds on, the corrections from this impromptu Watson-ing. Every time Ryunosuke (and, thus, the player) brings a new problem to the character’s attention, he leaps on it with the same glee with which he made the initial pronouncement. It’s buffooinsh, yes, but also surprisingly winning, at least in part because it’s hard to imagine almost any other incarnation of the character taking so many corrections in such obvious, encouraging stride.
This subversive take on Doyle canon isn’t the only thing making these games great, of course. There’s also a surprising amount of real-world subtext running through its cases—including, shock of shocks, some actual discussions of racism in its treatment of the relationship between the U.K. and Japan at the dawn of the 20th century. And it’s also just nice to get out from under the huge weight of inside jokes and references that Ace Attorney has built up over two decades of Phoenix Wright and Apollo Justice games (as comforting as those repeated gags can be). Twenty years in, this series is still some of the best playable detective fiction out there—and it’s nice to see it get a great version of a Great Detective to match.