Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney GBA, DS, 3DS (reviewed), PC, and Wii Developed by Capcom Released in 2001
Anime is weird. A sideway glance at websites like Tumblr and Deviantart might have led you to that conclusion before, but I was reminded of it a few months ago when A-1 Pictures started releasing their adaptation of Ace Attorney, a visual novel crossed with a puzzle game about a struggling lawyer trying to prove the innocence of his clients. I figured an adaptation of a game mostly about people talking wouldn’t be too hard to get right, but somehow this disaster of an anime managed to mess it up anyway. Long story short: I suddenly had an urge to revisit the actual game.
Bending the law
You play as Phoenix Wright, a lawyer fresh out of law school that has joined the Fey and Co. law office as a defense lawyer. Despite being as green as they come, Phoenix immediately takes on a murder trial when he learns that his best friend Larry Butz is accused of murder. Through the player’s wit he actually manages to win this case, only to have the situation spin out of control as he has to take charge of Fey and Co. himself and take on legendary prosecutors and impossible cases.
Across the game’s four chapters, with the first being a tutorial, you must outwit the prosecutors and prove to the judge that your client is not guilty. Unlike what we use in the West, Phoenix lives in a country where you are guilty until proven innocent and every case must be resolved in a mere three days, putting defense attorneys at a heavy disadvantage.
Phoenix Wright is a great protagonist. He is driven and strongly believes in his clients, but he also has a lighthearted fun side as evidenced by the many thought processes we get to read as we control him. He also receives a cute assistent in the form of Maya Fey, the younger sister of the owner of Fey and Co. who is a spirit medium that lives in the mountains, but came to town to visit her sister. For a shrine maiden she is definitely kind of an oddball, but she is fun to have around, even if her overly-excited nature sometimes causes trouble for the duo. And then there is Phoenix’ rival, Prosecutor Edgeworth, who has quite a few surprises in store as his character arc proceeds, and who used to be a childhood friend of Phoenix.
Characters in general are quirky and enjoyable, though a little bit one-note. You’ll have to deal with absolute weirdos like a narcissistic CEO, a perpetually mad security lady, and a kid who is a little bit too much into the latest action show on TV. It certainly makes each chapter feel lively, but it has to be said that the plot is rarely surprising. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the actual villains long before the story reveals it, but figuring it out is not the actual goal: you also have to prove it.
While some more surprise would have been nice, I breezed through the four chapters this game offers and had a great time meeting the fun characters and making the prosecutors fear my objections and interrogations. It was a good move to introduce an overarching mystery that comes up in multiple chapters, but each one on its own is already perfectly fun.
Story score: 10/10
When the system is rigged against you, you need to pull out all the stops to regain your advantage. While the prosecution has the cops rushing to gather evidence for them, Phoenix needs to head out there to find it himself, which is personally my least favorite part of the game. Before you can get to the fun court sessions, you need to spend time in this point & click adventure-styled section where you investigate crime scenes and talk with witnesses.
This is actually a strict and linear puzzle where you move between areas to find the evidence you need. When you meet characters you can ask them about a number of topics, which invariably leads to them dropping hints like “Boy, I sure wish I had that movie script I left lying around somewhere.” You then get it for them and they help you along to the next piece you need. It’s… functional and it allows you to get to know some of the fun cast, but it’s not particularly fast-paced. You can only move to areas adjacent to the one you are currently in and especially chapter 3 is fond of having you move from one end of the stage to the other repeatedly. Add some trial&error as you basically end up examining everything except the walls and floor, and it’s these parts that make the game really drag on.
Once the game is sufficiently impressed by your ability to navigate its tedious menu, you get to go back to court and defend your client. This involves a series of witnesses that are called to the stand to testify and each line of dialogue you can call into question or counter with a piece of evidence that proves it is a lie. When called out a witness must change his or her story, beginning a cycle of lies that you unravel and point out until the witness is no longer credible. This. Is. Awesome!
It feels so satisfying to get people on the stand and see them panic as you begin to tear their story to ribbons. It also makes for some unique puzzle solving as it has you analyze dialogue that you then compare to your understanding of the evidence at your disposal and the context of the mystery you are trying to solve. It expects you to read passages and spot lies that aren’t always immediately obvious. To prevent you from using trial-and-error for this, there is a strike system in place that lasts an entire court session; waste the judge’s time five times by using the wrong evidence or responding incorrectly to a question and it is game over.
That is unless the game decides to be stupid, as with the rare cases where you have to fail in order to progress. This will usually involve a story bit where all hope is lost, but a last-minute turn of events provides you with the solution. While suitably dramatic, it undermines the whole puzzle and it’s an unfair move towards the player who is led to believe they are failing to see a solution that the game is just withholding from them. It’s a kid hiding the last piece needed to complete the jigsaw puzzle. Also annoying is that there is little room for interpretation when showing evidence; there is only ever one correct solution and many times the same evidence can disprove multiple lines of dialogue, but only one is deemed “correct”.
In short, the gameplay is cumbersome, but offers an interesting and rewarding take on puzzles that makes it worth dealing with its dumber moments.
Gameplay score: 6/10
Whether you go with the older Gameboy Advance game, the Nintendo DS version that popularized this series or the HD remake for mobile phones and the Nintendo 3DS, this is a stunningly beautiful game for the visual novel genre. While animations are minimal and not particularly fluent, they are quite frequent, keeping the game moving, and full of character. Phoenix’ powerful pointing as he shouts OBJECTION! is a staple of the series and one of the most recognizable gestures in all of video gaming history.
Watching your witnesses crack and slowly lose confidence is also a visual delight that neatly mirrors what you do in-game. Each character’s design is also unique and brimming with creativity. The moment they first step into the frame you can already guess exactly what their personality is like and those small animations I mentioned before lend a lot of subtle touches to this.
I have to admit, however, that I have little knowledge of how the game sounds. I am playing these games during the two hours I spend on the train each workday and people are grumpy enough as it is when they need to catch the 6AM train without some annoying guy playing loud, Japanese games with the volume up.
Presentation score: 10/10
Nothing on offer
One of the reasons for why I was interested in that terrible anime adaptation I mentioned at the start is because this isn’t really the kind of game that lends itself well to replaying it. The linear puzzles that are often a bit of a bother and all the messing around in the menu really comes back to bite the game when you try to go at it a second time. And with a plot this fun and characters this colorful, wanting to replay it just for the story isn’t even that crazy!
Besides that there is also little in the form of extras. The 3DS version I got came with an epilogue chapter that wasn’t in the original GBA release and which presented a really good mystery, but tried to work in annoying gimmicks that were just awkward to do. It wanted me to blow on the DS to clear powder, which isn’t even a gameplay mechanic, there is no skill involved in it, so it just exists to be a bother to the player. If you don’t mind that, it actually has a strong mystery to it that feels like a reward to players who carried the game to completion.
Extras score: 6/10
I am really excited to see what Ace Attorney will evolve in to and if it will shed some of its annoying elements, like the bothersome menu navigation for getting around the crime scene and the answers to puzzles being too strict. Even in its current state, this is easily one of the most entertaining visual novel-styled games I have played and especially the court cases are exciting to partake in. If you have any love for puzzles, you should definitely give this a try.