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Law school is dry, attorneys are anti-fun and trials are boring. Or so you thought.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is an adventure title without the busywork involved and does not concern itself with trifling matters such as accurately portraying legal proceedings. Instead, it’s a bizarre courtroom drama where you team up with a spirit medium to defend unlucky clients against shady prosecutors with an army of lying witnesses.
Your weapons of choice? Banging your desk, pointing at the prosecution and screaming “Objection!” while scrambling to figure out why you objected in the first place. The game leaves a lasting impression, and beneath the memorable set pieces lies a highly accessible, yet immensely satisfying take on the adventure genre featuring a unique setting, sharp writing and an amazing cast of characters.
The game’s protagonist is Phoenix Wright, a fledgling defense attorney fresh off the bar. He works almost entirely pro bono and defends those who have nobody to defend them. He has a likeable personality, is reasonably dorky and his skills as a rookie defense attorney are impressive. But he’s not infallible – he remains an underdog throughout the story and can be seen at wit’s end multiple times due to his own inexperience, which is mercilessly exploited by rivaling prosecutors.
His biggest character flaw however is his unwavering belief in his clients’s innocence. While it sounds noble, you can argue that Phoenix works to satisfy a selfish conviction rather than serving the best interests of his clients, which is especially noticeable during an instance where he insists on continuing with the trial despite his own client admitting guilt.
The reason I find this characteristic so interesting is because the game wants you to believe it as well. And once you do, the game clicks. You start to reinterpret incriminating evidence, because there must be another meaning behind it. You look for evidence that doesn’t yet exist, because it has to exist. You turn the entire case upside down, because the prime suspect is still the defendant. This lets you anticipate plot twists and leads to immense satisfaction when you finally blow the prosecution’s case out of the water in order to get that sweet not guilty verdict.
Wright & Co. Law Offices
The main game consists of five loosely connected murder cases which mainly serve to establish the characters in the series. Mia Fey, Phoenix’s mentor, makes a surprisingly early exit after guiding you through the tutorial case, and you’re then tasked to defend her sister who has been accused of her murder. The connection is immediate, and a very strong introduction to an amazing character that will serve as your companion throughout the trilogy.
This lawyer-spirit medium duo works surprisingly well, too – not only is there plenty of comic relief, her inclusion enables characters to talk about mundane issues and makes everyone involved much more relatable. Maya’s ability to channel spirits is mostly a gimmick, but it does lead to some cool moments down the line and allows Mia’s character to be fleshed out post mortem.
As for the game’s story – there’s not much there. The world and its rules exist only to allow the characters to be the way they are. It’s an episodic glimpse into a quirky law office and its inhabitants which never connects to a bigger picture, because there is no bigger picture.
Ace Attorney lives and dies by its characters, and proves that you can get away with anything as long as the reader cares about them. The game is perfectly aware of this, and makes sure that either the defendant or the victim is someone you care about, or has the case shed light onto an unsolved mystery regarding yet another character. Turnabout Goodbyes, which is the resolution of a 15 year old murder trial affecting almost the entire cast of the game, could be considered the penultimate Ace Attorney case.
If it wasn’t for Rise from the Ashes, that is. It’s a bonus case which was added for the NDS port and feels markedly superior in every aspect. It’s the longest case in the Ace Attorney Trilogy and introduces a number if investigative gimmicks using the NDS hardware, which are used extensively in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. The case also introduces Ema Skye, who will become a recurring character in the series ahead.
The most interesting change however is the narrative structure, which is much more concise and focused than the other cases in the trilogy – everyone and everything you encounter is connected to the case, the stakes are high and Edgeworth’s involvement gets you invested from the start. Seriously, the sheer amount of relevant backstory and characters filled into this single case is impressive and rivals that of the entire game. Apollo Justice would later expand on this format by tying 5 cases like this together with great success, but more on that here.
ON THE CASE
As alluded to in the opening paragraph, this is an adventure in name only. Most of the time is spent reading dialog between characters with funny sprites superimposed on a 2D background. This doesn’t sound impressive, but the game does a lot with it. The writing is sharp, witty and most importantly easy to follow thanks to the amazing localization effort which manages convey the experience to a western audience while keeping the spirit of the game intact.
A lot of care has gone into the actual dialog boxes as well – the typewriter effect competently utilizes dialog blips and individually timed letters, allowing each sentence to convey a good amount of character, and the text is easy on the eyes even over extended play sessions. That said, customizable text speed should have been an option, and it’s absence in a game that could be considered half visual novel is questionable.
Actual gameplay is divided into two distinct parts: Investigation and Trial. The former consists of visiting the crime scene and various other locations to gather evidence and question witnesses. The physical walking around is omitted in favor of a crosshair pointed at a static background to search for clues, which works well on the 3DS touchscreen.
Most suspicious looking objects are relevant to the case or at least prompt a funny conversation, but pixel hunting does occasionally become an issue. A hotspot function would have been welcome to eliminate the aimless tapping, and consistently notifying the player when all relevant clues have been found could have gone a long way to improve the pace of investigations.
Characters can also be encountered and talked to until all dialog options have been exhausted, which usually unlocks a talking point for another character or new location to investigate. With the exception of occasional story-related deductions, it’s a mostly straight-forward affair.
The game’s strict sequential nature however occasionally leads to the rare but frustrating event of having missed a clue without having the slightest clue as to who, what or where it could be. It’s nowhere near the arbitrariness of your average point and click adventure, but getting stuck is never fun and could have been prevented with the inclusion of a quest log to at least give you a general idea of what to do.
The Proof Is In The Pudding
The trials are the game’s highlight, and consist of cross-examining various witnesses and pointing out contradictions – either by presenting a conflicting statement or hard evidence found during the investigation. Sometimes a testimony seems fine at first glance, but by pressing individual statements key details come to the surface, which more often than not create a new contradiction to point out. This is never overly difficult, but still requires enough thought to be satisfying each time you get it right.
But just pointing out contradictions won’t win you the case – eventually you have to connect the discrepancies to the bigger picture and present a new theory, which is most often the indictment of a new suspect. Your assistant occasionally drops cryptic hints, and the lack of a timer allows you to think things through before raising an objection, which is a must as presenting the wrong piece of evidence one too many times will net you a game over.
You can save at any time though, allowing you to make some blind guesses before reloading if you really get stuck, so I have to wonder why a fail state even exists. In a linear story-driven game like this, replaying a section is simply a chore because you can’t get better at what you already know, and being penalized for not immediately following the occasionally unintuitive thought process required to get to a conclusion adds needless frustration.
Similarly to the actual Japanese judicial system, if there isn’t enough evidence to render a verdict both the prosecution and defense need to investigate the case further and reconvene on the following day. This allows the plot to progress at a steady pace while preventing a section from going on for too long, which is vital to maintain the superb narrative tension.
Ace Attorney’s presentation has aged quite well, which is largely due to the game’s 2D nature. The character designs are on point, the poses fit and the short animations allow for a lot of personality to shine through the charming sprites. The most impressive part however is just how memorable they are.
The images of Phoenix Wright pointing his finger, Karma banging his head against the wall or even just Edgeworth being slightly distressed are instantly burned into your mind, and perhaps the biggest reason as to why the game went on to become one of the most iconic entries on the DS. Major kudos to both Suekane and Iwamoto!
The same can’t be said for the background visuals though. As mentioned previously, they’re rather sparingly decorated to keep clutter out of investigations, and a decent balance between form and function was met. Still, they are qualitatively a step below the character sprites, and I feel that the 3DS release missed a great opportunity to bring the visuals up to date.
Speaking of extras: The 3D function in itself is neat and surprisingly easy on the eyes, but ultimately not something the visuals were designed for. The refreshed UI on the other hand is definitely appreciated, if only for the ability to instantly skip the typewriter effect.
The soundtrack remained mostly unchanged, and it’s still amazing. The melodies are catchy and get straight to the point, allowing them to effortlessly match the constantly changing mood, and their ability to add incredible tension to what would otherwise be mildly suspenseful scenarios is nothing short of impressive – the game features some of best music found on the GBA and it still holds up after all these years.
With the exception of Meekins’ megaphone sound, which is the most irritating noise I’ve heard in years, the sound effects are on point as well and amplify the action on screen. A slight upgrade in quality would have been welcomed though, as the low sampling rates are definitely noticeable.
The game and series of a whole can be interpreted as a criticism of the Japanese justice system, which boasts a dystopian 99.8% conviction rate. This can be attributed to quite a few factors:
- Prosecutors have a broad discretion in the decision to prosecute or not, therefore most cases brought to trial are those where a guilty verdict is almost certain.
- In the public mind, an arrest itself already creates the presumption of guilt which needs only to be verified via a confession.
- The accused can be held in isolation for up to 23 days, during which some are coerced into giving an admission of guilt.
The parallels are there, especially when taking the release dates of the games into consideration. The original trilogy preceded the passing of a judicial reform bill in May, 2004, which introduced a lay-judge system in 2009. The latter date coincides with the release of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, which strongly advocated that very issue.
While the game avoids getting on a soapbox, it makes injustices abundantly clear in other ways. Trial dates are often hurried, which doesn’t allow the defense to adequately prepare. When investigating, you feel the might of an entire police department clashing against your dimly lit law office. In the courtroom itself, the defendant is considered guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around.
Ultimately, it isn’t fair, and the system is stacked against you. All you have is your badge and an unwavering belief in your client. Is it enough? It has to be. They are innocent, after all.