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NINTENDO Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright (at center) and their sidekicks team up to solve the mystery behind the city of Labyrinthia in "Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney."

Most video game heroes use muscle or a really big gun to solve problems. Faced with gorgons, Kratos from "God of War" rips the monsters apart with his bare hands, while Master Chief from "Halo" blows up Covenant forces with a rocket launcher. It's rare for a protagonist to rely on brains instead of brawn to advance a story.

But for Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright, using their minds to escape trouble is old hat. The two are the most likely video game characters to be accepted in Mensa, and they're also the two biggest names when it comes to solving puzzles and mysteries on the Nintendo 3DS system. For years, they have entertained players in their separate adventures. But their paths have never crossed until now.

In a rare case where a crossover works, "Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney" artfully melds the characters and gameplay styles from the two series to create a satisfying adventure for fans of both franchises. Much of the credit should go to the project's director, Shu Takumi, who is a master at crafting compelling tales.

The game starts slowly, after an odd incident involving witches leads a girl named Espella Cantabella to Layton's doorstep. She's carrying a magical book that sucks up and transports the title characters to another world. The two heroes and their sidekicks land in the city of Labyrinthia, where magic is woven through the area's history. It's also a place stuck in the past with a medieval mentality that dictates that any witch should be burned. (For two franchises known for a light-hearted touch, the subject matter here can get dark.)


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On the gameplay side, Takumi and his team focus half the campaign on exploration, where players tackle "Professor Layton"-type brain-teasers. These can be anything from mazes to problems you'd find on an IQ test. The other part is the "Phoenix Wright"-style courtroom drama defending Espella against charges she is a witch. The defense attorney will listen to witnesses' testimony and find contradictions that will clear his client.

Although the Layton side is familiar with players looking for hint coins, most of the twists occur on the legal end. Players will question more than four witnesses at a time, while keeping an eye on their reactions for clues and contradictions. Meanwhile, players have to adjust to a world where magic is the norm and forensic science is in the dark ages. Despite this, logic and testing hypotheses are still key to solving cases.

But where "Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright" excels is in its narrative. It has been a long time since either game in the series was this unpredictable. Anything can and will happen. The friction between the two series ignites a spark of life in both franchises, and the story grows bolder and more intense as the stakes get higher. Once again, Takumi shows that outsmarting an adversary can be more satisfying than outmuscling them.

Reach Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.

'Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney'

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Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Rating: Teen