As far as writing reviews or first impressions go, Ace Attorney marks something rather new for me: watching and assessing an anime for which I’m heavily familiar with the source material. As a long-time fan of the game series, I was incredibly excited to learn there would be an anime adaptation which coincides with the year the first game takes place. Does the anime remain true to the franchise’s spirit? In a number of ways, yes, but sometimes the execution leaves something to be desired.
Note: The names used after this point reflect the English localized names used in the video game series (i.e. Phoenix Wright instead of Ryuichi Naruhodo).
The general story of Ace Attorney is episodic, much like the games. Episodes consist of different cases that Phoenix Wright must solve to successfully defend his clients. Episodes 1-4 consist of the first two cases from the original Ace Attorney game, and they move forward pretty much identically. This is a little problematic. As expected, what you can do in a game to tell a story isn’t something that will necessarily translate well to a show. For example, in the Ace Attorney games, you’re playing as Phoenix Wright, so you’re the one noticing things and making connections, leading you to find contradictions in testimonies and present appropriate evidence. In the show, that interaction can’t really happen. This definitely weakens the first episode: the first trial seems to just blow by in an instant. This is resolved a bit for the next case, which is handled in two episodes (with Episode 2 acting as a lead-up to the actual trial). There are some nice scenes added into the show that weren’t in the original games, making a more cohesive narrative. Ace Attorney is more of a character-driven show, so the story is really only as interesting and entertaining as its colorful cast.
The characters are very much like their video game counterparts, though once again the translation from game to anime isn’t perfect. This affects Phoenix more than the other characters, since he’s the character you play as and have the most perspective of. A lot of the scenes in the games are from a first person perspective, which switches to third person once court is in session. However, he is physically shown in the anime’s adaptation of those same scenes. This means the production team has to determine what his expressions would be during numerous interactions between him and the various characters he comes across. A guide that could be used is how he expresses himself during the court scenes: the Ace Attorney games are known for their comedy, and he can be seen doing various anime-esque expressions throughout the series. However, there are moments of comedy in the show during which his expressions seem somewhat muted. This is the case for other characters, as well: during the first conversation between Phoenix and Maya, her expressions aren’t as lively as they are in game. On the one hand, this makes sense, given the circumstance she finds herself in, but on the other hand, the scene does end up containing a few comedic moments. The problem with muting their expressions is that the comedy ends up being lost. When you keep most of the script and story the same, changing parts of the characters as is done here comes off as being a little jarring. Larry Butz is shown in the first episode being quite expressive, just as he is in the game. When you see it happen in one instance and then not another situation, the overall tone of the show becomes inconsistent. The game was able to balance the emotions of the characters extremely well, knowing when to play mistakes and misunderstandings off as comedy, and when to have the characters pause and take matters seriously. While Episode 3 begins to rectify this, the execution of these over-the-top moments is a little all over the place, an issue that will be explored in the animation section. Finally, Mia’s presence is somewhat muted, since she acts as a guide through the first case in the game, but more as a backup for Phoenix in his first case here in the anime. This only affects the first episode, though. As for the judge, so far he’s more straightforward and less like his sometimes goofy self, even during moments where it seems a little naive for him to take something at face value. The end of Episode 4 leaves me thinking we might see more of this side of him later on, however. They may be nitpicks, but they once again highlight the issues of this adaptation.
If you’ve read enough of my reviews, you may have noticed that I have a bit of a dislike for CG in anime. Most of the time, it looks very out of place and strikingly obvious, though there are instances of it being used effectively. CG is practically everywhere in this show: objects, characters, some backgrounds, etc. When they first show the courtroom in Episode 1, it looks like a scene from a video game.
The CG and background renderings for Ace Attorney clash heavily with the character models, and the use of CG to animate the spectators for each case looks obvious and rather ugly. I’m not sure why they feel the need to do that with the spectators while having other background characters remain stock-still: there’s a scene in which Edgeworth drives up to the courthouse and quickly turns his car, and not a single person standing there reacts. It’s a very strange choice, and it doesn’t work in the show’s favor.
Another issue is how the over-the-top moments of the show are animated. Much like character expressions, the animation is rather subdued: there are a number of times when witnesses break down and show their true attitudes, and the background feels extremely empty and without any extra elements. Then, there are times when things are over-the-top, like when Phoenix is asking a witness questions, and the witness’s pointing causes him to be blown back. There’s a lack of consistency in when to go even further with the animated comedy, and it can once again be attributed to the difficulty in adapting the game’s charm into an animated show. All of these strange inconsistencies are likely due to the direction: it tries to recreate moments in the game, sometimes nearly exactly as they happen, but sometimes the angles are changed to make use of the different medium. For scenes in which simple conversations are taking place, this isn’t a problem, but when little flashy animations are put near or on characters to showcase their strong expressions, these angles just don’t work. The team behind the games knew the format and found a way to work those things into it. This attempt at fitting expression into a format is more clumsy and doesn’t come off as natural. Hopefully things improve: Episode 4 had a few moments that seemed less clunky and more akin to the games’ use of facial expressions alongside its comedy, and the preview for Episode 5 also looks promising.
Another nitpick I have is during a scene that has Mia’s image on the screen: one labels her age as 28, and the next labels it as 27. There is also another scene from a flashback with Phoenix and Larry as children that may contain a continuity error, but since I know about that childhood incident, it may only appear like an error at this point in the show. Other than that, the character designs are pretty true to the original designs from the games, though perhaps drawn a bit more round and on the soft side akin to the more recent releases.
The sound is definitely the shows strongest and most consistent element. Fans of the game will definitely enjoy hearing various songs from the franchise’s catalogue, and the voice acting is in line with the spirit of the characters. This is an impressive feat, since the original game doesn’t have much voice acting at all. It also at times highlights the disparity between intended expression and animation, which has already been addressed. I’m curious as to whether there will be a good number of original compositions, or if the soundtrack will consist mostly of callbacks to the original game music. As for the theme songs, I’m not too keen on the opening, both its song and its animation. The boy-band sound of Johnny’s West doesn’t really mesh well with the rest of the Ace Attorney soundtrack (though the bells in the background are a nice touch), and there’s nothing terribly original about the opening animation. While I do enjoy the ending song more, its sound also isn’t quite along the lines of the rest of the soundtrack. The ending animation is a little more imaginative than the opening (though the purist in me always ends up thinking “Maya doesn’t wear lipstick, so why is she putting it on?”). Overall, there’s definitely an Ace Attorney feel to the soundtrack and character voices.
Despite my disappointment with what I’ve seen thus far, I will continue watching the Ace Attorney series. If you’re a die-hard fan of the games, you’re also likely to feel at least a little disappointed with how the show has handled the source material. For those unfamiliar with the Ace Attorney franchise, the show acts as a decent enough introduction. Ignoring the animation, the story and characters are mostly on par with the games, so viewers will definitely be in for a treat regarding development and character interactions. If you’re looking for a courtroom drama that’s not afraid of throwing in some laughs along the way, this show is your best bet. As a huge fan, I’ll still continue to watch the show with the hope that some of the issues end up being resolved after this somewhat rough start. Even if they aren’t, it’ll act as a nice trip down memory lane, since enough of the games’ charm shines through.