Played on… PC (Itch.io)
Developed by… Tanuki-sama Studios
Published by… Tanuki-sama Studios
Is a… RPGMaker love-letter to Ace Attorney
Good to play… over a weekend that needs drama
Thank you Tanuki-sama Studios for the Chapter III key!
I stumbled across the very first episode of Nina Aquila: Legal Eagle (NALE) a few years ago whilst trawling Itch.io for something vaguely Ace Attorney-ish. I had played Danganronpa and 1bitHeart and, though both excellent games, they didn’t quite scratch that courtroom itch. It was my great pleasure then that a sudden turnabout for my woes arrived in the form of Nina Aquila, an episodically released hybrid visual novel/adventure. After playing and thoroughly enjoying the chapters currently available, I’m here to tell you why any fan of mysteries, quirky animesque humour and, of course, a certain unobjectionable adventure series should pay attention to this legal eagle.
This review covers the first three chapters of NALE, which I’ll briefly outline before delving deeper into my thoughts about the general story, gameplay and finish. I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum but I recommend skipping the chapter summaries, if you want an entirely spoiler-free read.
Chapter 1: First Flight
Nina’s first case introduces the key characters of NALE and is essentially a free to play tutorial lasting roughly half an hour. Nina spreads her wings to defend a cosplaying mage accused of committing arson. The mystery in point is fairly clear-cut as the player is guided through the courtroom mechanics. The tone is light-hearted with much of the comedy deriving from oddball characters, although an ominous scene with a mysterious hitman at the end sets up an excellent cliffhanger and incentive to continue onto the second chapter.
Chapter 2: Broken Wings
Broken Wings starts on a much darker note. Nina is plagued with nightmares following the arrest of her mentor, Anya, which is a nice subversion of the ‘death of the mentor’ trope. She’s clearly struggling with Anya’s alleged guilty plea and we see evidence of this emotional turmoil recurring throughout this episode and the next. However, before the wind can be taken out of this eagle’s wings, a rambunctious client bursts in and convinces Nina with a healthy dose of bribery to undertake his biker buddy’s murder charge.
This time the stakes are a lot higher – literally and figuratively. Dylan’s friend is accused of murdering a billionaire card player at a grand casino at the eve of a national tournament – only the cards in play are for an in-game card-battling game, Dragon Fantasy Arena; the tournament takes place at an anime convention; and the players are a bunch of geeks and kemonomimi cosplayers. Consider my bet called and raised! This episode really leans into this geekiness with a ton of references to anime and gaming, such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic: The Gathering. The case initially seems lost for Nina’s defendant but not everything is what it seems and dodgy dealings lie behind this supposed ‘children’s’ card game. The world of NALE really opens up in Chapter 2 and unravelling this mystery takes around four hours across three trial sessions.
Chapter 3 – Legal Stage
The most recent episode begins with Nina reviewing the evidence regarding her mentor’s arrest. While we learn more about this case here and there, the main meat of Chapter 3 takes place up in the snowy mountains of Fledge City amongst the Rostro Racers, an underground street racing gang competing to be the best at Touge Janken Racing. The street racing premise, influenced by anime like Initial D and Wangan Midnight, proves to be a flashy backdrop for Nina’s third case. As the death of the Rostro Racers’ leader threatens to break up the racing scene, Nina and Dylan find themselves with not just one defendant but three. In a neat twist, the leaders of the rival racing teams have been jointly arrested and seek group representation. Are they innocent? Or is the perpetrator hiding in their midst? Nina has to hit the gas and find the truth in the mysterious ‘Heart of the Drift’, if she wants to solve this high-octane mystery. Like Chapter 2, this case is around four hours of tense courtroom tugs-of-war and revelations.
So, what’s it about?
NALE is an indie RPGMaker adventure game that follows Nina Aquila (yes, expect many avian puns) taking flight as a noob defense attorney in Fledge City. I see you already putting the dots together… Indeed, this game is very much a homage to Capcom’s Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series – openly so, as stated on its Itch.io page. On the spectrum of inspired games, NALE sits firmly in the conservative zone in terms of how heavily it borrows from Ace Attorney’s style, mechanics, and narrative leanings. I should note here that this game is primarily created by one person. These are by no means flaws in my eyes. Innovation and high production values are not necessary prerequisites of a good or successful game, providing it is executed well. Likewise, NALE possesses its own charm by recognising what features make Ace Attorney great and deftly weaving them into an intriguing narrative with endearing characters.
One key aspect that distinguishes NALE is how generously it satirises anime and gaming culture and it understands its niche audience well in this way. This is evident enough from the character designs (ridiculous hair colours and all!) but there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek writing and references for the eagle-eyed reader. I was impressed to see what lengths NALE goes to playfully tap into otaku culture. The concepts behind Chapter 2 and 3 both hinge upon well-known properties but there are plenty of niche curios to spot. It was a pleasant surprise stumbling upon an allusion to a certain voluptuous hip-whipping sports anime but I’m sure there’s more I missed! I truly got the sense that this was a game made as a love-letter to a whole bunch of things. Lending well to its graphic adventure roots, NALE ends each chapter with a short direct-to-viewer comic segment, called AQUILA CHANNEL, which acts as a preview for the next episode and window into the developer’s creative process. These segments are a lovely feature that really helped make me feel invested in NALE’s development as an evolving game.
A mystery is only as good as its twists and I’m happy to say that NALE is on good footing in that respect. The plot often keeps the player guessing during court proceedings as unusual facts and suspicious figures come to light. As always, much of the fun is piecing together the evidence yourself and there’s usually enough of a breadcrumb trail to attempt to do so. Although Chapter 1 is mostly self-contained, Chapter 2 and 3 deal with bigger stakes and indicate that a larger game is afoot in Fledge City. Snippets of an overarching conspiracy regularly tantalise the reader and I soon wanted to learn more about Nina’s past and the scheming mastermind pulling the strings behind several confounding events thus far. Like Ace Attorney, this kind of animesque game does require you to suspend your disbelief when faced with unlikely coincidences and melodramatic characters but that’s part of the fun in my opinion.
Talking about charming characters, I wouldn’t be half as keen on NALE without them. There’s a rich and diverse cast here and, even if some only briefly appear in their respective cases, they all contribute to make a memorable impact on the game as a whole. Weird witnesses are a given. I was always curious to see what eccentrics would take the stand and I wasn’t disappointed. From the pro gamer with a bad case of chuunibyou syndrome to a ticket happy traffic cop, who unironically calls herself Fledge City’s best, there’s something for everyone. If you’ve played Ace Attorney, you will definitely recognise many character archetypes, although a few overturned my expectations, such as the refreshingly sharp-tongued Judge Tawny, whose barbed comments towards foolish witnesses always raised a chuckle.
Nina and her assistant, Dylan, particularly stand out for their spirited dynamic and banter with each other. Nina herself is an excellent protagonist who comes across as much more nuanced than her initial appearance. She’s got the makings of a gutsy, smart-talking heroine but she’s also vulnerable, prickly, and anxious. The viewer regularly observes her inner turmoil as she relives certain traumas and this drip-feed of information about her issues really made me invested in her development as a lawyer and person. Where Nina falters, Dylan picks up the slack well, which makes him a good foil for her. Though he usually provides levity to situations, he’s always prepared to tackle Nina’s stubbornness in more serious moments. Since they’re both opinionated characters, they occasionally clash and this creates an engaging semi-supportive/combative partnership where you see Nina balance out Dylan’s cluelessness while he encourages Nina when she is withdrawing into her own anxieties.
My only misgivings here lie in the somewhat underwhelming portrayal of the prosecutor. Chad Hawke is set up as Nina’s adversary in court and is introduced as a brusque prodigy, who is a stickler for rules (much like someone we know). While I don’t believe it’s a problem that Chad fits a familiar mold, this does naturally lead to comparisons – potentially unflattering ones. Featuring prominently in the original Ace Attorney trilogy and having received his own spin-off game, prosecutor Edgeworth is one of the most prominent fan favourites amongst the extensive cast and he casts a long shadow. Edgeworth was compelling because he was such an imposing figure in the courtroom. He seemed to always have the case in his hand, anticipating Wright’s every move, and so it felt like a true triumph to overcome him. In contrast, Chad appears much more reactive to Nina’s arguments and never as much of a threat as he is professed to be. Of course, this is partly due to the inevitable conundrum of having to build up a challenging opponent, though the plot demands that he ‘lose’. Regardless, I still enjoyed his parts, especially the bickering that ensues when he’s across the bar, and it was gratifying seeing a mutual respect gradually grow between the two attorneys. If anything, I would like to see Chad come more into his own in future chapters, since he feels somewhat of an afterthought in an otherwise decent cast.
But, how does it play?
The meat of the gameplay follows Ace Attorney’s footsteps closely. Cross-examination is where you flex your lawyerly chops and shred witness testimonies apart by pressing statements for further information or presenting evidence to indicate contradictions. Unravelling testimonies isn’t particularly challenging and hints on how to progress are liberally given. Nevertheless, it’s always satisfying getting a good objection in and the pace never stalls due to ambiguous solutions, which was sometimes the case with older Ace Attorney games. I appreciated the inclusion of a back button, which enables a speedy return to previous statements. Chapter 1 consists of one simple trial; however, the second and third chapters concern complex mysteries progressing across three trials, each with a good number of twists and red herrings. Fans will appreciate nods to memorable tropes. Be ready for unexpected objections, deceptive witnesses and bonkers resolutions (including an excellent duel ex machina)!
NALE is made with RPGMaker and the third person perspective is a refreshing change from the first person visual novel/adventure style, especially when traversing the overworld that puts you on a map of Fledge City or examining crime scenes. While Chapter 1 is a mere taster, NALE shows its hand in Chapter 2 in terms of scope and interactivity. Outside of the courtroom, you’ll investigate crime scenes, interview witnesses and play mini-games. These mini-games are a unique addition to the adventure formula and I enjoyed how deeply they intertwined with the narrative of their respective cases. For example, Nina has to rise in the ranks of Dragon Fantasy Arena, a card-battling mini-game, to advance her investigation in Chapter 2. Meanwhile, the racing mini-game, Touge Janken Racing, in Chapter 3 had a big part in fleshing out certain characters’ personalities and relationships with each other. If you aren’t a big fan of such digressions, however, there are options to streamline gameplay and ensure Nina is always victorious.
Well, what’s the finish like?
The use of RPGMaker gives NALE a fair amount of detail in the environment. It’s the little things, like being able to examine a bin or bookcase, that gives flavour to the few explorable areas. The artistic highlight here is the expressive sprite work, which sports several unique NPCs with memorable designs. While it’s clear that Tanuki-sama Studios is working with a smaller budget, NALE has thrifty alternatives to Ace Attorney’s animated sprites and cutscenes. Even on a smaller scale, there’s still nothing more cathartic than undermining a witness with their own testimony and seeing that iconic ‘OBJECTION!’ CG sweep across the screen. It’s a nice touch that these bits are partially voiced, as they really do enhance these emotional bits. I found it especially reassuring whenever the courthouse audience audibly went ‘Ahhh’ following Nina’s argument. The music in general is well varied and suits the individual mood of scenes and, more broadly, the cases themselves. So Chapter 2 embraces campy anime tunes while Chapter 3’s electronic tracks vaguely reminded me of racing games like Snowboard Kids.
Tanuki-sama Studios have effectively managed to capture the wacky spirit of Ace Attorney’s tumultuous cases and I left feeling very impressed by the amount of care and research that has gone into this homage. Your mileage will of course depend on how tolerant you are towards traditional experiences. For me, more Ace Attorney goodness was exactly what I wanted. NALE definitely delivered on that front and as a tasty bonus, introduced many entertaining characters and an intriguing set-up for a juicy mystery. As mentioned in the first AQUILA CHANNEL, the sets are not big budget and the props are hand-me-downs, however, I believe NALE succeeds at what it sets out to achieve. Just as Nina struggles but ultimately finds her own style outside of her mentor’s shadow, NALE is an enjoyable experience in its own right. At any rate, I thoroughly recommend trying Chapter 1, which is free and short, if you are interested in Nina’s adventures. It’s clear to see the strides in development made with each episode and I personally can’t wait to see what happens in Chapter 4!
Need more? Try…
- The original Ace Attorney trilogy, obv.
- Murder by Numbers for a similarly lighthearted and nonsensical take on investigating crime – this time with Picross!
- Contradiction: Spot the Liar! for a campy FMV adventure that also requires disassembling statements with a dash of logic.