Though I am a screaming Ace Attorney fan -- you may have noticed -- I was not really keen on Apollo Justice. Story-wise, I think it was trying entirely too hard to be weird. AA games are notorious for containing not a single completely sane and ordinary person, anywhere, ever. Phoenix likes to think of himself as normal, Edgeworth likes to think of himself as rational, and Franziska likes to think of herself as prepared for anything, which is why all of them spend a good 50% of their time in court going, "wait, what?" Everything starts out fairly ordinary, and then at some point abruptly rockets off at right angles to reality. It takes a bit before you figure out that, say, Edgeworth is a closet Steel Samurai fanboy, and then Phoenix is as mystified as the player. With Apollo Justice, all the weird is right there, smashed into your face, before anyone can even say anything. Phoenix is a card-playing hobo! His assistant is a teenage magician with magic panties! The prosecutor is also a rock star! It's... fanfic-y, and I'm glad they're dropping it for game #5.

The other reason is that the structure of the cases in Apollo Justice is subtly different on the outside, and radically different when you get down to the nuts and bolts. The main reason Phoenix ever figures anything out is that he's insanely adaptable. When he first meets Maya, it takes him maybe half a dozen sentences to get through "Why are you dressed so funny?" → "What do you mean, spirit medium?" → "Wait, so ghosts are actually a thing?" → "Hey, can you summon your sister up so I can ask her who her killer was?" He breaks cases open not by using strict deductive logic, but by having some sort of epiphany about what kind of crazy is involved, and skating along from there. Phoenix's internal monologue makes it pretty clear that he's pulling most of his answers in court directly out of his own ass; he's just got such a phenomenal intrinsic talent for ass-pulling that if you let him go long enough, he'll start dragging things wrong-end first out of the bottom of his own brain. Edgeworth can do it too, but it takes him longer, as he has to sort out all of the strict ratiocination before he can dig his way down through the insanity.

Apollo, not so much. Phoenix collects a lot of disparate facts and then figures out what kind of structure their connections must form in a flashbulb moment of brilliance; Edgeworth collects a lot of disparate facts and hooks them together one by one until he can step back and see the larger network of relationships. Both of these are very useful methods of sherlocking stuff, I follow them both very well, and I find that they're both an enjoyably solid way to construct weird puzzles like the AA and AAI cases. Apollo's cases rest a lot less on evidence and testimony than they do on using his magic bracelet widget, and that drove me fucking crazy. I knew where in the testimony the witness was lying and I knew what they were lying about, but the game just would not let me call them a goddamn dirty liar right in the middle of open court until I'd sat there for ages, dragging the zoom window around and making random jabs at the touch screen, and eventually accidentally hit the piece of animation that was supposed to be the 'tell'. I finally gave up and FAQ'd my way through the rest of the trial days, just so I could see the story.

There are several problems with the mechanic, from my point of view. One of them is that it's not very forgiving about where you poke the touchscreen. Even with a FAQ, I had to do a lot of aggravated pixel-hunting to figure out exactly what part of the animation the game thought counted as a hit. Another one is that it takes an inordinate amount of time. I think the idea was to emulate the art of spotting microexpressions, but in order to do it, the game zooms a window in on the witness sprite, which naturally means you can't display the whole thing at once anymore. It takes a while to examine the thing, on top of whatever time you're already putting into building the case in your brain in order to work out which statements to check for tells on.

But mostly, the bracelet mechanic irritated me because I'm good at picking out liars and dangerously crazy people in real life, and it just doesn't work that way. People do have tells -- they didn't get that part wrong -- but if you have to sit there and scrutinize someone with a telephoto lens to catch them, you're never going to get anywhere. Tells are tells to begin with because they stand out as something unexpected or out of the ordinary. It's not a Where's Waldo? thing. A significant tell jumps up and grabs your eyeballs and yells HEY SOMETHING IS GOING ON HERE right in your ear. If the animated tells were acting like proper tells, you wouldn't need the zoom window, and you definitely wouldn't need the pixel-hunt.

Which brings me to another problem: Most tells are not significant, at least when you're talking strictly about lie-detection. Tells are a sign that someone is nervous or having to think their actions/answers over. This does not mean they're lying. It doesn't even mostly mean they're lying. It just means they're under heavy cognitive load. Lots of things do this. Sheer nervousness is a big one. Other things on the list are trying to remember a sequence of events in as much detail as possible, trying to recall what you were going to say next when everyone's staring daggers at you, reminding yourself not to accidentally mention the thing that the scary prosecutor "recommended" you not share in court, and telling someone something completely true that you already know they aren't going to like.

Proper signs of cognitive load are animated perfectly well in the other AA games, where the witnesses have progressively worse twitches and snarls as Phoenix chips away at their stories. Witnesses who are guilty of something and lying about basically everything, sometimes up to and including their names, will often have a spectacular meltdown by the end of the trial. It's done with sufficient attention to detail, in fact, that Detective Gumshoe doesn't have a complete meltdown animation -- he's unobservant, somewhat thick, and quick to jump to conclusions, but he's never actually lying, so he never has to be cross-examined into a state of complete and utter mental disrepair. Confusion and annoyance, yes; breakdown, no. Phoenix, Edgeworth, Franziska, Godot, and even Winston Payne also have proper argh bargle goddamn you animations, some of which they use with alarming regularity. Edgeworth also properly uses his 'utter blind fury' animations less, in favor of his 'WHAT?' animations, after he's decided that Phoenix makes a better foil than he does an enemy.

This brings up yet a third problem I have with Apollo Justice, which is that a lot of the tells are in the wrong place. As I said above, a 'tell' is some kind of gesture that sort of leaks out from around the edges of someone's public face because they're having to think too hard about something else to remember to keep it in. They don't come up unless the person speaking is having to process something behind all the talking they're doing. There are several points where Apollo has to use the bracelet to spot tells while the witness is giving testimony that they have had time to prepare.. Retrieving remembered things and retrieving memorized things take pretty much the same amount of brain -- you shouldn't expect to see a lot of useful tells when someone is reciting something they've rehearsed. (They might be acting oddly, if they're not good with scripts, but in that case they would also act funny when delivering a script based on things they knew to be true.) It makes some sense to track tells after he's pressed the witness and they're having to address a question they haven't had time to work out an answer to, but some of the most aggravating bits involve having to figure out which pieces to press on by looking at tells in the original testimony, which is the wrong way around.

The best way by far to figure out when people are lying is by doing the same thing Phoenix, Edgeworth, Mia, and Franziska do in court, picking up on when they contradict themselves, each other, or basic physical reality. You can certainly use tells to pick up on exactly which spots in their story are the weak ones, and which might therefore get the best results if you poke at them really hard. Phoenix (and Mia, and Edgeworth) does actually do this -- even if you don't pick up hesitation in the script or a change in the witness animation, you get the hint in his parenthetical train of thought at the end of the dialogue when you press the problem statement.