The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles provides the best Sherlock Holmes ever

Note: in the English version of this game the localisation team skirted around potential legal issues by going for name “Herlock Sholmes” in reference to the Arséne Lupin stories, however in the original Japanese text the character is unambiguously referred to as “Sherlock Holmes” so this piece uses that name to avoid any confusion as to whether this use of the character is a direct adaptation or a parody.

Perhaps from the moment of conception the shadow of Sherlock Holmes was cast across The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles. Not only because the character’s inclusion is widely assumed to be the cause of the six year long delay in localisation as it may have caused legal trouble with the Conan-Doyle estate in the United States, but that the Great Detective’s influence has been part of the blood pumping into the heart of the Ace Attorney franchise from the very beginning. Series creator Shu Takumi originally envisioned the series as a detective game inspired by the various 19th and early 20th century mystery fiction he devoured as a child, but the setting shifted to inside the courtroom to explore what would cause people to give misinformation on the witness stand. 20 years later Takumi’s original dream to produce monetisable Sherlock Holmes fanfiction has been fully realised with a worldwide release, and it turns out that establishing his own series to insert his childhood fav into first was the best outcome for everyone involved.

Given Ace Attorney’s history of buffoon detective characters and mechanical focus on highlighting contradictions in witness testimony you’d think the series would opt for the classic hack fraud subversion of Sherlock Holmes asking the player to contradict and break down his farcical attempts at deduction. Instead the game takes a subtle yet distinct alternate path where you interact with Holmes’ process by participating in a “Dance of Deduction”, a theatrical performance where the character uses spotlights, gestures and lines of sight to extract the truth from an unwilling participant. Each dance starts with Holmes stating two fundamental “truths”, which are broadly correct but his misinterpretation of finer details lead him to mumbled conclusions, and it’s your job as the protagonist Ryunosuke to “course correct” the deduction by correcting the small details to guide Holmes to the conclusion that he meant all along…right?

Theatrical elements are commonplace in Takumi’s work, from pumping as much drama as possible out of the Game Boy Advance with four simple camera angles in the original Ace Attorney releases to the use of spotlights and stage framing in Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective as if the audience is interacting with a stage play. Takumi is also a practising magician, and it’s hard not to feel a magician’s bluff in play when his games gleefully hyper fixate on how the slightest shift in the tiniest detail can turn an entire story on its head. We can see these inspirations at work during The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles’ Dance of Deductions too, not only in the aesthetic choices but the methodology in how the characters implement them. Ryunosuke does not butt into these dances uninvited, Holmes welcomes his partner to the stage and is happy for the help, and the usual straight-faced quiet protagonist man Ryunosuke gets caught up in the showmanship every single time.

The Dance of Deduction is a performance put on by Holmes, but that begs the question of who the performance is for. Is it a bluff to unnerve the “victim” in a ploy for them to give away information Holmes doesn’t yet know? Is he jerking around for his own amusement because the solution is so obvious to him he wants to test if anyone else notices when he begins speaking gibberish? Is it for Ryunosuke, a ploy to arouse him into action to offer much needed assistance? Or is it for the sake of the audience, both in the room and us on the other side of the screen, a magician’s trick to make us see something we haven’t to retain reputation? There’s no clear answers until the end of the game and even then the character’s motivations are still open to interpretation, but what is true as far as the story and the people involved with the dance are concerned is that when Sherlock Holmes enters a room we everyone listens and shortly after everything changes.

The performative nature of the character also bleeds into a recurring metafiction element of Sherlock Holmes adaptations where “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” exists as a series of short stories within the fictional world itself. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles plays with this detail often, explaining the stories as “punched up” versions of the real stories but with details changed either to protect sensitive information…or make Holmes look cooler for the sake of a better story. There’s plenty of gags in the game where Holmes will end up quoting himself in conversation in a way that first makes him appear arrogant, then you realise he’s quoting the fictional version of himself because it’s more elegant than what he would have said, exposing an anxiety within the character that makes him more human even at his most incomprehensible. This distortion of reality affects how Holmes is perceived by the other characters in the story; some are mesmerised by his celebrity, others see him as a nuisance getting in the way of real detective work and others treat him with contempt and condescension as if Santa Claus had appeared before them claiming to have solved the case. The blurring of what is and isn’t “real” about this version of Holmes follows him throughout the game and prevents you from making any conclusions about this version of Holmes, and it’s in between these blurred lines the character is able to work his true magic.

This version of Sherlock Holmes is unashamedly fanfiction in every sense which is not something that should be treated with suspicion. Fanfiction is an inherent force for good both in a creative and a cultural sense, and this only becomes more true by the day as a decreasing amount of corporations continue to monopolise and control modern pop culture. That being said, a lot of fanfiction falls into a pitfall the The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles pirouettes over where a lot of enthusiastic writers will confuse “who” the character “is” with “what they do”. Many people who have read the original Conan-Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories would have loved scenes where Holmes gives a lengthy deduction breakdown and solves the case in five minutes while a room of English gentlemen stand there agazed clutching their top hats. Obsession with the power fantasy scenes like this provide have caused the rise of the “ableist superjerk” version of Holmes where he has a 3 million IQ and spends a lot of his time throwing his weight around and being a jerk to people at crime scenes. You can see a contentious example of this in the popular BBC Sherlock where that socially-inept, borderline asexual take on Holmes and his major villains are battle it out with obscene superhuman intelligence while the supporting “normie” characters are left either making jokes, calling them out for being jerks or at their mercy…which sounds closer to a description of Dragon Ball Super than any early 20th century mystery fiction.

In contrast Ace Attorney as a series has celebrated the flaws of ordinary people and treats characters who strife for perfection as suspicious or villainous, so it’s little surprise that The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles would have no interest in presenting the untouchable genius version of Sherlock Holmes. This doesn’t stop this Holmes’ personality, skills and abilities acting as a major point of intrigue within the game however, including several of the game’s puzzles centring around inventions and chemistry from Holmes himself. The combination of embracing fanfiction and playful metafiction allows the game to pay tribute to every popular trope and subversion of Holmes adaptations from charismatic fraudster to genius detective with a heart of gold to socially unfunctional manic-depressive without making a full committal to any single one. The character pays homage to its storied past while remaining unique enough to find his own natural place within the now established setting of Ace Attorney; twists such as the recasting of this world’s “Watson” character as a 10 year old girl in Holmes’ care invite fresh explorations of the character as a father figure, while the performative aspect of the character allows him to assist investigations along without solving them himself keeps him entertaining even when he’s not being helpful, and by the end of the adventure he’s much more interesting as a single entity than any of the cultural baggage he brought with his first appearance.

During the first of the two games you’ll wonder how effective of a detective he is and during the second you’ll wonder what his true motivations both professionally and personally truly are, but the one constant across both is every time he pops up wearing the deerstalker it’s a call for adventure, an injection of adrenaline for the story to go somewhere new. This culminates with a scene deep into the final chapter that is too wonderful to give away here, but from that scene we can deduce two fundamental truths about Sherlock Holmes that apply whether he’s a true genius or a fraud or Hugh Laurie in a hospital or a dog:

  1. When Sherlock Holmes is around everything becomes more fun

There’s one more aspect to Holmes that The Great Ace Attorney understands completely; he’s more than a character but a fantasy that has transcended culture and language worldwide. Rather than fixate on the man himself and exaggerate the abilities of a person who couldn’t possibly exist anyway, the game instead chooses to present a much more wholesome fantasy; that this impossible man might want to be your friend.

Stepping back to look at The Great Ace Attorney as a whole, it’s important to note that as entertaining and fascinating as this version of Sherlock Holmes is the game avoids another pitfall of other adaptations where Holmes does not dominate the piece in a negative way. This is Ryunosuke’s story first and foremost, only during the Dance of Deduction sequence is Holmes invited to take the lead on the stage. Sherlock Holmes’ presence not only serves a love letter to the fiction that inspired this game, but the skilful handling of the character adds prestige to a unique 50 hour long interwoven narrative that handles themes of industrialisation, authoritarianism, racism, heritage and Japan’s national identity that belongs on the same shelf as that very fiction.

Matt Leslie (twitter)