幼い心に 不思議な力 宿りて
抱かれて眠れば 遥かな面影 何処
There were the light gathers, beneath the gentle treetops
A mysterious power dwells within an infant spirit
Embraced by the rich stream of the river of fireflies
You sleep there , a faraway memory of a face, somewhere
"Shenhua ~The Song of the Flower Embraced by the Sun in the Pure Bay" (Iori)
Pretty sure I lament about this at least once every year, but I wish there were more people writing/blogging about mystery fiction in more mediums than just books and the occassional TV drama/film. Videogames have so many interesting experiences to offer for fans of mystery fiction, but for some reason there's some sort of gigantic uncrossable gap for many writers.
As you can safely guess from the title, Gyakuten Saiban 6 is the sixth entry in the main series of the Gyakuten / Ace Attorney series, which is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this year. Longtime readers of the blog will know the drill by now: I am a huge fan of the colorful, humurous, but very well-made mystery series. In the past I've discussed not only 2013's Gyakuten Saiban 5 and spin-off titles like Gyakuten Kenji 2, Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban (crossover title in a fantasy setting) and Dai Gyakuten Saiban (set in Victorian London and co-starring Sherlock Holmes), but also entries in other media, like the film, the musical and the manga. To say Gyakuten Saiban 6 was an anticipated title, is an understatement.
I think I say it every time I do a game review, but I think the core mechanics of this series are still the most memorable way of properly doing a mystery game. I discuss mystery fiction in a lot of forms on this blog, and every medium has its owns pros and cons, but to me, the Gyakuten Saiban series has been one of the few games that actually managed to present mystery fiction in an interactive form that allows the player to think and deduce on their own. While the series has changed in the last fifteen years, the core has always been the same, as thought of by series creator Takumi Shuu (see also this essay). Gyakuten Saiban has always been about finding out contradictions, usually contradictions between testimonies made by witnesses and suspects in the court, and the evidence in your hands. Takumi was obviously inspired by Columbo when he came up with this innovative game-idea, because like Peter Falk, you'll be pointing out lies, which prompts witnesses/suspects to make up new lies, which you relentlessly follow until you figure out the complete truth. As a game-mechanic, this feels as satisfying in 2016 with Gyakuten Saiban 6 as with the first Gyakuten Saiban released in 2001. Whereas a lot of mystery fiction end with one big denouement in the end, the games are designed to give you a new mystery to solve one after another, and this process leads you to the final truth. It's interactive, it's exciting and it results in dynamic storytelling a lot of mystery fiction in 'traditional' paper form simply don't have, because they are not designed as interactive, but passive experiences. What a lot of people often seem to misunderstand is that Gyakuten Saiban was never designed as a whodunit. Like I outlined above, the series has always been much closer Columbo in spirit and game design and it is the road to finally proving the murderer's guilt that is the focus of the games (rather than figuring out who it was).
Spirit channeling, as a concept, might seem like an element not fit for mystery fiction, but as I have often posed on this blog: mystery fiction does not need to be realistic. It only needs to have alluring mysteries that can be solved with logic in a fair way. And yes, logic exists in fantasy settings. In fact, there are a lot of great mystery novels out there that build on fantasy-settings (for example: Snow White, Cat Food, Death of the Living Dead). As long as the rules within that fantasy world are clear to the player, a world with spirit channeling is as fair as a mystery story as anything written by Ellery Queen. The new Spirit Channeling Vision system in Gyakuten Saiban 6 is clearly a variant on the familiar contradiction system, but it's really, really fun. You'll pointing out contradictions between the known facts, and the last moments of the victim as seen and experienced through the victim's own eyes. These visions are not only based on the victim's sense of sight, but all of the five senses. You might for example perhaps be pointing out that the victim heard something they shouldn't have been able to hear. This new system really feels original, with its fantastical setting and focus on the human senses, and is something that 'regular' mystery fiction often lack in terms of set-up: a desire to do something truly original and exciting.
As a piece of mystery fiction, I think Gyakuten Saiban 6 has been a great entry in the series. Like always, the game is divided in several 'episodes', each featuring its own murder case and its own colorful cast of (usually) sorta wacky characters. The original series creator Takumi Shuu is not working on the main series anymore, and the current team has definitely its own take on mystery stories. Takumi's stories tend to start simple, with the discovery of each new contradiction leading into more complex situations. The current team usually starts with very big, baffling situations, which are broken down by clearing up each contradiction. The cases are varied, and show a lot of originality (helped by the supernatural setting of the Kurain Kingdom). But even a 'conventional' case like a disappearing act at a magic show turning into the appearing act of a dead body is great fun. The last case of the game in particular is a great example of how to do a fair mystery story with a supernatural setting. Personally, I loved that a couple of cases required spatial awareness of the player: it's something you seldom see in mystery fiction, but the videogame, as an interactive visual medium, is definitely one of best places to do such stories, and I had been lamenting the fact they did so little with spatial awareness in the previous game (with Gyakuten Saiban 4 the first to really utilize that). Also, like in the previous game, there's some clever foreshadowing done throughout the game, like mirroring and juxtaposing situations from previous (unrelated) cases to later cases in surprising ways that work as hints to the attentive player. The writing can feel a bit tiring though, as cases move much slower than they should be doing: too many characters have too much to say, with little real content or importance. The game definitely felt much longer than it actually was, in a bad sense of the saying (though it's definitely not a short game).
Gyakuten Saiban 6 is however a difficult game to recommend to people who have played none of the other games. It is heavily connected to plotlines from earlier games and that's definitely what also hurts the game in a way. Practically all cases involve the main cast in some way or another, while in previous games, the cast was just hired to act as the defense in criminal cases. While the game definitely has good mystery plots, it's all too connected to characters the developers just expect you to have an emotional bond with. Oh, and for those who indeed have all those emtional investments in the characters and overall storyline: I think this will be a dividing game. Also, I like the main story and the new Spirit Channeling Vision system quite a lot overall, but I do think the atmosphere of this game feels a bit different from the previous entries in the main series. In spirit and scale, I feel Gyakuten Saiban 6 is at times a lot closer to spin-off titles like Dai Gyakuten Saiban and Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban. It's a great mystery game, but I do feel the overall concept, and the things the developers wanted to archieve with this game, could perhaps have worked even better outside the main series.
And just a short bit on Gyakuten Saiban 6 as a game: it looks great, with attractive visual designs and graphics, but I thought the music a bit lacking. Perhaps it's because composer Iwadare has done five games in this series now, but while there were a few good atmospheric themes, most of the music I really can't even remember. Perhaps it's time for a composer change. Actually, until Gyakuten Saiban 5, all games in the main series had different composers, which really gave each game its own feel, but Iwadare (who did Gyakuten Saiban 3, 5 and the two Gyakuten Kenji spin-offs) has sorta become the series' main composer of late, which I personally find a bit tiring. I'm definitely open for another change in tone now.
I accused Gyakuten Saiban 5 of being 'too safe a sequel' back in 2013. That's definitely not something I can say of Gyakuten Saiban 6. It feels fresh as a mystery game, with original and daring plots. But it is also a game that is deeply connected to previous games, that can only be enjoyed best with the emotional investment in the characters. And it's without a doubt a dividing game for precisely those with that emotional investment. So yeah, even I am not sure what to think about it. I am really curious as to how this series will evolve now. As for now, I say: if you like mystery games, definitely get this, but do play the previous games for maximum enjoyment.
Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転裁判６』