Equestrian Dreamers just released an initial public demo of My Little Investiagtions, one of the hotly anticipated My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fan games. The demo starts out at the very beginning of the first case and will let players see the initial pieces of the story as well as try out the exploration and interrogation systems for themselves. If you haven’t already tried it, give it a whirl as the demo isn’t particularly long and has some very nice artwork and music as you cruise through Ponyville in the early stages of this game’s development. While you can post your opinions at the forum topic on the developer’s site, we’ve written an in-depth write up and analysis of the contents of the demo which includes spoilers for aspects of the demo’s story and gameplay features. Read beyond the cut to find out more!
My Little Investigations is a fan game simulating the style of gameplay found in Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, which is itself an offshoot of the Ace Attorney series. This article won’t go into detail about the unique mechanics and gameplay of the Ace Attorney games, but it should be noted that the core features of the Ace Attorney series is its story and a varied cast of lively characters. Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth in particular brings the Ace Attorney games into a new style of gameplay, making it feel closer to traditional adventure games while retaining the essence of its evidence and testimony formula. Using this system in the world of MLP: FiM, with its known clever dialogue and surprisingly engaging writing seems like a no brainer.
The demo doesn’t offer much in terms of content when compared to how much is likely to come out in the end product when this project is all said and done. It has the initial set-up cutscene that precedes every Ace Attorney game, complete with special art. The intro follows the same obvious-setup style that both the first Ace Attorney and Ace Attorney Investigations, a nice touch in my book. It follows with the story setup of a crime scene to peruse and how the investigator—in this case, the appropriately suited egghead pony Twilight Sparkle—gets entangled into this scene. There are two different witnesses: Rarity, who fills the victim role, and Apple Bloom, as a third party, who need to be prodded for information and have testimonies that need to be busted. With only two non-player characters and limited background objects to examine, it’s clear that this demo isn’t here to impress in terms of its content, but instead to serve as a proof of concept.
If that were the case, then it would seem that the demo shines in offering interactivity you just can’t replicate through development videos or trailers. There’s nothing like the feeling of discovery that’s felt when you come across neat little touches like Easter egg references, or the little hidden flashes of character you get from presenting the right evidence to the right witness.
Even if this demo is light on content, there are still plenty of things to examine in detail from what we have so far. The developers will probably tell you that there may be a lot of features and content missing or still in the works, but unless you are deeply into the Ace Attorney series like I am you probably won’t have much reference to what could still be in the works or what has changed. We’ll look in detail below to see how the demo fares in these details, present or not.
It’s best to start off with where the demo excels in its performance so that we know what hit the mark or what potential has been reached so far. For starters, three points immediately come up from the very beginning of the demo with the initial cutscene; the art, the music, and the script.
To put it simply, My Little Investigations has some wonderfully done visuals across the board, whether it’s the still shots from the initial cutscene, the background pieces, or even to its simple yet somehow stylish menu. This project has come quite a ways since the initial game engine concept videos visually, and every ounce of effort that has been put in by the team of artists at play (HallowGazer, WarpOut, PonyArtist, and Rautakoura) shines through in each of its own aspects. The characters move in animated dialogue sequences with unique poses to distinguish personalities through body actions, true to Ace Attorney form. Background art retains the show’s distinct color and style, truly giving the feel of the world as if it were in the cartoon. I personally love the field animation used for Twilight Sparkle, with a trot that gives enough bounce to retain the certain vivid and light quality I’d normally feel from the animation from the show. A real joy is the menu interface that ties this colorful pastel rich world of ponies to the matter at hand: the crime. The colors are simple and straight to the point, letting the evidence and the text bring in the flavor. A nice touch is that they used Generation B, the official titling font of FiM, for the title work in the game instead of a knockoff—it just adds that much more authenticity. Said best from the Ace Attorney series, “…but in a court of law, evidence is everything.” No bells and whistles are needed here—just the truth.
The music too has some great aspects. Equestrian Dreamers already posted the main investigation theme in an update on their site; it seems to be a reworking of one of the background themes from the show. It works well in terms of tying the scene to the show with a much more subtle track than, say, using the opening title theme or Winter Wrap-Up. But that’s not the only track present, and all of them have their own flavor and style to help turn the happy mood of Ponyville into a mysterious investigation at the drop of a hat. Even if I might give a little critique after this paragraph, but that doesn’t change the fact that the production of the music, it’s variety in terms of style, and the neat homages it brings about are real strengths to consider for what we have so far.
The script has its own neat little touches to consider and probably has the least amount of nitpicks I can find, which for a game that will focus on dialogue, is a very good sign. Don’t forget that there are two different elements I refer to when I say “script.” The obvious meaning of script is the actual dialogue from the characters and flavor text we can read, and on that front there are some real gems to find. I don’t just mean the Easter eggs from the show that are worked in, lying in wait for the player. The characters, just like in the Ace Attorney series, each need to have their own distinct phrases, types of speech, and mannerisms to convey their unique traits through the dialogue. It’s these exaggerated mannerisms that help make each character feel distinct, different, and all the more real when you turn their worlds upside down with the revelations that come standard with any mystery. Rarity is a good example of the type of character who benefits from this attention to small details, as I’m sure everyone reading this will be familiar with her distinct expressions that make her so beloved by many fans.
The other aspect of the script which I referred to earlier is the usage of the written text, or plainly said, the text speed. There’s so much character and flavor that gets told just from how the Ace Attorney games combine audio cues with manipulation of text speed via pauses, running over, or even simple slow versus high speed that I can’t possibly give an appropriate demonstration. While some aspects may be missing, as I’ll say later on, this demo for the most part retains that style of mild text manipulation, giving the script a big natural flow to it that it wouldn’t have otherwise, which goes a long way in text heavy games or novels like this.
Overall, it really feels like the core aspects of the gameplay and its presentation are all solidly visible in this demo.
This section isn’t about nitpicking details like flaws, but more so comparing what we have before us directly to the main inspiration, Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth. By drawing these comparisons we can see areas where this new take on the formula improves, where it falters, and how those changes affect the gameplay experience, be it minor presentation points or general functionality. It’s also important to note this is just for comparison purposes of the demo as released now, as we don’t know exactly how much and which content will be planned out for the full game, or at the least case one.
The most eye-catching difference would probably have to lie within the environments. Take a look at the start of Ace Attorney Investigations’s gameplay, where the first case only contains two different environments, both about equal in terms of size and content. That isn’t just indicative of the first case itself; in fact, most of the environments throughout the whole game have about that same amount of space and never increase significantly in terms of content. While the environments in the Ace Attorney game served their purpose, it felt very cramped in most cases and not taking advantage of its newfound movement to its potential. This is an example of where a difference between My Little Investigations, conceptually based on the handful of environments so far, takes the lead over its inspiration. Even if the amount of space is the same, and even if there are story reasons as to the size differences—of course the office of a prosecutor and the hallway of an airplane aren’t going to be super big—what’s important is that the environments feel bigger to avoid that congested feeling of Ace Attorney Investigations.
At the same time it’s also important to give each area an appropriate amount of content to examine, even if most of it is flavor text. Ace Attorney Investigations may have flubbed environments somewhat, but most areas felt adequate in things to talk about and to look at. Not only do they serve to help make the environments feel more alive, but they also serve to occasionally give flashes of character insight or interesting quirks that just might not appear elsewhere. The running gags in Ace Attorney such as the jokes about stepladders, the fondness Edgeworth feels for plants, or Ema Skye’s terrible forensic investigation skills all mostly come through this flavor text and go a long way to making what could be monotonous pixel hunting turn into a treasure hunt for golden apples.
This is a minor technical point about the environments, but it bears mentioning for the sake of polish—there needs to be some sort of transition between the different environments that will probably be implemented into the final version. Just like the original Investigations game, a simple fade to black will suffice to make the cuts a lot less jarring and smoother.
Expanding a little to the field gameplay in general, there is one functionality difference which should be addressed, namely the evidence systems and a main component missing from the original Investigations game: Logic. No, I don’t mean to say the evidence system is faulty—one of the big novel features Ace Attorney Investigations offered was the concept of gathering ideas from a crime scene and combining them. These combinations would either form evidence, advance certain plot points in dialogue, or could update evidence with key information. This mechanic felt like another attempt to broaden the scope of the Ace Attorney gameplay to be more like a traditional adventure game by playing off the “combine different items to make new things” mechanic. However, in My Little Investigations, this logic system is more or less incorporated into the evidence system directly, which sounds like a simple idea, but it has some consequences for new players. For traditional adventure game players who may not have played the Ace Attorney series, they will approach the Combine Evidence mechanic as it is used traditionally, where combining the two different pieces of evidence results in the loss of one with the gain of an update item to use. That’s not how it works in Ace Attorney. This isn’t to say that the loss of the Logic system is a bad decision on the developer’s part, but it will need a clear clarification to point out how this system works to avoid instances of this confusion. It will also need feedback for when a failed combination doesn’t work out, but that too is a minor problem that can be addressed before release.
The only other point to bring up for the field aspect of the gameplay is the question: Why do you start with Apple Bloom’s profile at the beginning of the game? Perhaps this is tied to the implementation of the profile functionality within the evidence menu in that when you speak to a new important character; their profile will automatically be added to your evidence/profile list. This is present within the Ace Attorney games since Trials and Tribulations. It stands out as an odd point right at the beginning nonetheless.
The next part of the game to bring up is the dialogue system and its details. The first obvious difference that many people might have noticed is the lack of the famed interjections normally present in the testimonies of the series. No one can deny that the loud “OBJECTION!” and “HOLD IT!” cues bring their own unique charm to give every line of testimony its own weight, as well as Objection being used cleverly as a distinct audio gag, with its own set of jokes within the series. Their absence in a game of this style makes the experience feel a little dry in comparison. However, there is word from the developers that this will not go unchecked and that there are discussions of this feature going on, so stay hopeful!
Another minor difference in terms of testimonies lies at the very beginning of these said sequences. Pay attention to this portion of a testimony from the first case of Ace Attorney: Investigations. Before the gameplay element of digging through each line of the witness’s testimony, the witnesses have their own short segment detailing their thoughts without interruption. However, in the demo of My Little Investigations, there is no telling of the testimony like this and the player is thrown straight into picking apart the arguements before hearing it in full. Taking out these sequences may seem like streamlining the gameplay, but it actually throws the player right in the middle of unfamiliar testimony, and it only makes this process feel more awkward than ever. It also should be pointed out that the graphical horizontal bars showing the Investigator and Witness’s eyes in a dramatic style, as is per usual for the Ace Attorney series, are missing. These are very stylish and give every testimony its own flair that, when missing, make the testimony segments feel no different from normal dialogue and lose their edge. That’s a very minor graphical point that should probably only get attention when all the other pieces are lined up for this game.
On the subject of the pressing and presenting mechanic, some of Rarity’s lines in her interrogation have no option to be pressed or presented. Normally, every single line of testimony in the Ace Attorney series has the ability to be pressed and presented, no matter how inane (and there are a lot of inane scenarios, believe me). This is most likely due to either a rewrite or some such reason, but just goes to show how the public should see this as a demo and realize that there is a lot of room for more content, so everyone will need to wait for the full version.
On to more stylistic points with regards to the dialogue, there are a couple of script choices that might need to be revised if they aren’t already in the works for being changed. For example, in the Twilight lecture posted earlier in this article, it might be smart to use the dialogue idea that was used for Ms. Oldbag, where the dialogue automatically rushes forward for times such as this with three or more dialogue boxes in succession. One minor script problem is how when examining the bush on the bridge area, there are two boxes of quotation that share one set of quotation marks. In the Ace Attorney series, instances of multiple boxes of quotes show that each box gets their own set of quotation marks, plus that choice in general makes sense to indicate what is or isn’t a quote. This is particularly important for the second box as the dialogue is something that unfolds at the pace of the text speed, so the second dialogue box would be confusing to read until the very end.
Another difference in terms of style for the dialogue is the animation of the characters. For the most part, Ace Attorney Games have each character use only one stance or animation per dialogue box, and those animations usually only play out after the text box has finished. The style of animations used here in the My Little Investigations demo plays with specific stances in the middle of text instead, which was a rare event in the Ace Attorney series. Not exactly a bad choice per se, as this usage feels closer to a dynamic conversation which might be more appropriate, but it opens up a new window for critique which I made a post about when the trailer for the demo came out.
I would still say that Twilight and Apple Bloom are too static. The only methods these games have at communicating and showing off action to the player lie only in their character interaction which is told mostly from the character dialogue in tandem with their exaggerated, over-the-top movements, which turn the game into something a little more than just watching character boxes going around.
My impressions are slightly changed after playing the demo and seeing Rarity in action, but I still think the comparison is still somewhat valid for Twilight and Apple Bloom in general.
Not So Fast!
And of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Ace Attorney examination if you couldn’t find problems with specific logic found in the story. I love and play the Ace Attorney series a lot, but I can say for certain that they are not without their own logic gaps. The content was little and straightforward in this demo, so there are no big holes to find and only slight nitpicks that are likely to be fleshed out in the rest of the case. The only problem I had with the demo was that I could never reason out the Tire Marks and the hair and their conclusion; apparently the reasoning of the demo says that the tire marks and hair indicate a crash from Scootaloo avoiding Opal. I know I’m going to sound like the usual Ace Attorney detractor with this, but there isn’t any evidence or indication that events played out in that fashion since the hair is on top of the tire marks. If the hair were under the tire marks, they would have been crushed in the tire marks or would have attached to the wheel of the scooter. Ruling those possibilities out given they aren’t brought up in the demo, the only other options are either Opal was run over (poor kitty) or that Opal left hair on top of the tire marks after they were made. The latter of those options seems very likely and still leaves room for Scootaloo to be the thief.
The last, but not least, difference to bring up is probably the most controversial aspect of My Little Investigations to appear yet—the voice acting. It’s no secret by now that Ace Attorney games had no voice acting and that its presence here in My Little Investigation presents a new avenue to expand the gameplay formula from the original. There’s already been mixed reactions to this concept in My Little Investigations ever since the video announcing this feature was released, and I’m not going drag out these points anymore than I did in a previous post I made on this subject. On the technical level, the voice acting has some audio issues in terms of balancing and some weird pitches with Twilight at the end of the demo. This has been noted to be an audio bug that wasn’t resolved before the demo came out, so it’s likely that this will not be a persistent problem.
Aside from technical issues, there’s the problem of delivery. The specific lines of dialogue in the text don’t jibe well with the inflections of the spoken lines. Plus, the timing of the text boxes doesn’t line up with the speed and timing of the spoken lines at all, which is very problematic when both are running at specific speeds with their own pauses and nuances. This results in a clumsy performance in terms of integration, which does not bode well when it has been made clear by many that voice acting has some big leaps to make if it wants to prove itself worthy to fans of the Ace Attorney games. That’s not exactly an unfounded claim, considering all the design aspects within the games that already make up for loss of voice acting, as I indicated in the forum post linked above. Simply put, voice acting shouldn’t be necessary for a game like this. Considering the amount of effort and coordination it takes to pull off voice acting in a project, it is this writer’s belief that the voice acting is better left out of the game. It is a colossal amount of time and energy to squeeze into a project that could be better spent elsewhere. Thankfully, the voices are optional. Simply select the no voices option at the beginning of the demo.
There are many many points to bring up, but that’s all I’m going to cover here. There are many more points worth discussing at the forum topic on the developer’s site. At the end of the day, this is a demo to give us an idea of what’s to come. There will probably be much more to see as this project continues going along, so be sure to follow other updates as they come out at the Equestrian Dreamers site. Plus, don’t forget to stop by our forums if you want to discuss the game further. ■