At its heart, The Great Ace Attorney is an Anglophile’s game.
That statement may come as a surprise for people who spent years wondering if the game would ever get an English localization at all. Since its initial release in 2015, this spinoff game for the Ace Attorney franchise about Phoenix Wright’s Meiji-era ancestor has been the subject of rumor. Was the absence of an official localization because of copyright issues around Sherlock Holmes, financial considerations, or because the game was that much more difficult to translate than previous entries? Even after the two Great Ace Attorney games finally got their long-awaited English release earlier this year in the form of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, CAPCOM never gave a clear answer to that question.
Perhaps because of that vagueness, the games garnered an aura of elusiveness over time. Because they were clearly set in an older Japan, there was a feeling that they possessed a heavier “Japanese-ness” that would stand out prominently against the mainline Ace Attorney games. They wouldn’t translate well, some argued, because the English localization of the earlier games had shifted the setting to Los Angeles. Attempting a similar tactic with The Great Ace Attorney would require the plot itself to be rewritten, whereas leaving the setting as it was originally would introduce confusion for long-time players.
In practice, however, the commonly cited issues weren’t actually a huge deal. As series localization director Janet Hsu explained, the earlier localizations didn’t write out Japanese cultural references when they were relevant to the plot. The result is that those games presented a very “Japan-ized” America, filled with references to yokai, karuta, rakugo, and other Japanese cultural mainstays. Even in the alternate universe of the localized version, it still makes sense that Phoenix Wright’s ancestor was Japanese. The fact that The Great Ace Attorney takes place several generations before the main series means that it’s possible for players to fill in the gaps themselves.
As Hsu revealed, the team’s fundamental approach to localization didn’t actually change for this title. As always, the text needed to be easy to read and enjoyable, without requiring players to take a break to look things up. The overall plot and characterization would remain the same, but some jokes and wordplay would be rewritten to better suit an English-speaking audience. If a certain piece of cultural knowledge was important to solving a case, then its significance was conveyed briefly through the dialogue, without breaking immersion. The specific solutions would change depending on the context, but it was all in the service of a very clear goal: to make the core appeal of the game as accessible as possible.
Thanks to all that hard work, it’s now possible for English speakers to easily grasp what writer Shu Takumi was trying to do with The Great Ace Attorney‘s historical setting. The game might start you off in a Japanese courtroom, but the action quickly moves to London. Many cases hinge on historical details about the city: For instance, there’s a crime that takes place on an omnibus and another that occurs within a typical Victorian-era house. Ryunosuke Naruhodo represents an outsider view to the culture, which means that the story can seamlessly explain all the relevant minutiae. This game is one big excuse for Takumi to nerd out about Victorian England and create new kinds of mysteries that couldn’t appear in a mainline game.
The early marketing for the Japanese audience makes it obvious that the London part is the big selling point—or rather, the Ace Attorney take on Sherlock Holmes (or Herlock Sholmes, as he’s called in the English version). In The Great Ace Attorney, he’s a recurring side character, along with other familiar figures from the Sherlock Holmes stories. The “East Meets West” setup here allows for a refreshing interpretation of Holmes as a lovable ditz who needs to have his faulty deductions “corrected” by Ryunosuke. This manifests on a gameplay level with the “Dance of Deduction” segments and in the larger narrative, where he plays a strictly secondary role to Ryunosuke.
As a beloved and familiar literary figure worldwide, Holmes acts as a sort of anchor to engage people who aren’t necessarily interested in world history. The Great Ace Attorney is able to portray London as a fascinating other world through Ryunosuke’s perspective because it makes use of fiction to exaggerate its setting. To a modern Japanese person, who would be far more familiar with western culture than Ryunosuke or even his learned assistant Susato, simply seeing London would not inspire the same feelings of culture shock. Therefore, the game uses Sherlock Holmes as an opportunity to slip in steampunk elements and other colorful, ahistorical details. It doesn’t go so far with it that the period feeling is lost, but it’s what allows the player to witness London with a fresh pair of eyes.
This brings me to the crux of this article, which is that The Great Ace Attorney is a perfect game in translation. It’s not so much a game about Japan as it is a game that foreignizes England. What this means for the player experience is that it confronts you about different cultures, no matter which language you play it in. One could say that the original game was, in its own way, a work of translation.
By telling a story about England through the perspective of the “Other,” The Great Ace Attorney invites the player to think about their own country’s relationship with colonial England. After all, an English speaker is not necessarily a “westerner,” nor do all western countries share the same cultural roots. The history of the British Empire, however, means that most countries have been influenced by it in some way—consider how the English language is regarded as a lingua franca. The Great Ace Attorney is a story about England and Japan, but it could just as easily have been about any culture that had an unequal relationship with England at the turn of the 20th century.
In other words, for any player with a basic awareness of England’s dominance at the time, Ryunosuke’s position is easy to empathize with. That’s the only historical context the game assumes of you. The rest is explained through the game’s accessible and interactive storytelling. Takumi notes that he was careful to write the Japanese lines succinctly, so that a complete message is conveyed within the span of a single dialogue box. This snappy writing is maintained in the translation as well, making it an ideal introduction to historical England-Japan relations for both its Japanese and English-speaking players.
All of that is enough for me to consider it a great localization, but the charms of the writing may even be enhanced for English speakers. The translation doesn’t just preserve Takumi’s writing style—it also adds extra flavor by representing a colorful array of English dialects and accents. This is where the localization takes its greatest liberties. For example, Magnus McGilded’s polite and cloying way of speaking in Japanese is delivered with a thick Irish dialect in English, while the pickpocket Gina Lestrade’s brusque yet feminine form of Japanese is transformed into Cockney slang. Every character speaks in a way that remains true to their original characterizations while adding an extra layer to distinguish them from the rest of the cast.
Exclusive to the English localization, Ryunosuke and Susato use honorific suffixes when they are alone to indicate that they speak Japanese in private.
This attention to cultural details extends to the voice acting. On the dev blog, Hsu wrote about how she was insistent on using a UK studio and in casting actors of Japanese descent for the Japanese characters. The performances of Mark Ota (Ryunosuke) and Rina Takasaki (Susato) once again add a layer of characterization that couldn’t be represented in a Japanese-only game: Ryunosuke has had the benefit of studying English in university, so his accent is closer to a well-to-do British native, while as a self-taught learner who studied mainly with books at home, Susato has a sophisticated vocabulary but a thicker Japanese accent.
Much like the original Japanese text, ease of communication was a big priority when it came to representing different forms of English. According to Hsu, the localization team took great pains to use authentic yet simplified word choices, conscious of the fact that even other English speakers might struggle to understand older forms and regional variations of the language. This makes The Great Ace Attorney a fascinating case of both interlingual (Japanese-English) and intralingual (English-English) localization.
In the modern world where the default assumption for English localization is to use American English and for video game dubs to be recorded in Los Angeles, there’s extra significance in seeing non-US dialects represented so thoroughly in a localization. One could argue that it wasn’t necessary to represent diverse forms of English to get the original characterizations across, but these creative decisions are perfectly in line with the ethos behind Takumi’s writing—to portray the British Empire with fresh and accessible eyes.
It’s worth noting that a localization with this level of internal cohesion was made possible because it was produced in-house at CAPCOM, with strong communication between the English and Japanese teams. The Japanese side is evidently very proud of what the localization team has accomplished. The dev blog for The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, which features multiple articles about the localization, is available in both English and Japanese, and the addition of an English translation is actually one of the marketing talking points for the Japanese version of the collection. Japanese fans appreciate the work, too. I’ve been enjoying the posts of this Japanese blogger, who has been combing through the English text and remarking on all the new English they’ve been learning along the way.
I highly recommend playing the English version of The Great Ace Attorney—as a thoughtful engagement with the Japanese text, filled with rich and vibrant English, it’s a new artistic high for video game localization. It’s a great opportunity for English speakers of all stripes to look back on Victorian England and recognize it, not as a benchmark for human civilization, but as another country with all sorts of people living in it.
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