Game Description: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney puts you in the shoes of a rookie defense lawyer trying to make his name. Take on intriguing, unusual cases and use your courtroom skills to unravel some of the most outrageous and funniest trials you've ever seen.
When I first saw pictures of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney making the rounds as an example of "OMG, look at this freakish Japanese weirdness", I was captivated and depressed at the same time. Captivated because the thought of taking on the role of a defense lawyer in a videogame struck me as extremely interesting and unique. Depressed, because I thought Hell would freeze over before this game would ever be released in North America.
Evidently some souls are skiing down the slopes of the sixth circle, because not only did this game defy the odds (and the common wisdom) by getting localized and hitting the DS, it ended up being every bit as good as I could have hoped for. Someone somewhere deserves a raise, because in my opinion, bringing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney across the sea is the best thing Capcom's done since Resident Evil 4.
A graphic adventure similar to Hideo Kojima's amazing Snatcher on Sega CD, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a knockout entry in a genre that's practically extinct. Broken up into five separate episodes, the game places players in the shoes of a rookie defense attorney learning the ropes of the legal system and trying to clear the names of innocent people in the process.
After a short introduction showing an act of murder being committed, Phoenix (Nick, to his friends) gets advice from his mentor Mia Fey and begins the process of defending his client—but in this game, anyone expecting the traditional American style of justice will be in for a shock. Not only is the cartridge packed with humor, the game structure is based on what I assume is the Japanese court of law where defendants are guilty until proven innocent. To this end, attorneys have the responsibility not only of arguing (and cracking jokes) in front of a judge, but also of interviewing witnesses and investigating crime scenes for evidence. Half Perry Mason, half CSI, this game sports an excellent balance between sniffing out clues and presenting arguments to the bench.
Although the actual gameplay is very similar to the kind of point-and-click adventures that are most commonly found on PC, there is an extremely heavy emphasis on speaking with characters and trying to mentally unravel the convoluted, complex cases that Phoenix is charged with winning.
Running the gamut from a simple homicide made to look like a crime of passion to a real head-scratcher where one victim is murdered in two separate places at the exact same time, the writers succeeded in making the drama both in and out of the courtroom extremely addicting. I spent every free moment with my DS in my hands during the day and lost a lot of sleep at night trying to get to the bottom of things.
But, although I do enjoy a good mystery, the thing that really drove Phoenix Wright home for me was the cast. Phoenix and his prosecutorial nemesis Edgeworth are well-written, fully-fleshed characters that were not only deeper than the average leads, they actually grew and changed over the course of the game. A lot of effort was put into the peripheral personalities as well. Even characters that are obviously meant as comic relief were crafted with a roundness and complexity that I rarely see in videogames, ever. It would've been simplicity itself to paint everyone as either black or white, but it is to the game's credit that after a few scenes, almost everyone is revealed to have little slices of multi-natured humanity.
For a person like me who sees value in well-constructed writing and strong characterization, my time with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was pure pleasure. So much so, that I only have two criticisms to mention.
The first is that it can be a little difficult to find the groove of the game's logic. The creators went to great lengths to provide enough information to solve the cases and to make sure that it was impossible to leave vital clues behind. However, the problem can lie in comprehending which piece of evidence is meant to be used in which way.
It's easy to have the right idea about who did what in general, but when trying to present "right" clues to make a case, taking an approach differently than the way the developers wanted me to counted as an error. It was a real drag to re-do a few long sequences that got biffed at the end by mis-presenting evidence that could potentially be argued as correct. My thought processes were often different than what was required, but constant and thorough reviewing of the evidence assured progress.
My other, more significant criticism is that the game's fifth episode (the longest and most intricate) doesn't feel as smooth or as polished as the first four.
Interestingly, after the end of episode four all the major plotlines are sewn up and the credits literally roll— this was obviously the end of the story arc. Episode five sticks out as odd because it is the only one to include DS-specific features such as using the stylus to rotate evidence, or the microphone to "blow" away excess fingerprint dust. I can understand wanting to add new content to take advantage of the DS's hardware, but this final chapter must have been rushed during production because the flow is completely off.
Rather than interviewing suspects and investigating crime scenes at the comfortable, natural pace previously set, I was stuck quite often. Examining things in the order the developers didn't plan on led to dead ends, and repetitive conversation loops occurred frequently. It's a shame the last chapter wasn't as well-vetted as the rest-I could have lived without ending such an enjoyable and refreshing romp with this undercooked, rough encore.
Still, despite the half-done feeling of chapter five, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorneyremains the sort of game that I live for. It's intelligent, creative, and never ever loses its sense of humor. My hat is off to Capcom for creating such a quirky and likable cast of characters along with a totally engrossing game to match. Players who thrive on adrenaline may not know what to make of it, but people looking for a little mental exercise and a lot of laughs will find the kind of unique, offbeat experience that comes along once in a blue moon. More, please.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney isn't a game. It's a book.
When you think about it for a second, it makes sense. A fictional mystery book has, by definition, a protagonist investigating a crime committed by one of several prime suspects. The book usually provides information only the protagonist is privy to, with perhaps a little nugget that is only given to the reader--usually a misleading one. The protagonist gathers relevant evidence to piece together exactly what happened, following a trail of clues and getting leads by speaking with various other characters. These other characters, as Brad also described, are not black-and-white, but many shades of grey to ensure the reader is never quite sure of their motivation. Because of the physical nature of books, there is only one conclusion which is reached by reading the novel all the way to the end. There is only one path the reader can follow, the path laid out by the novelist.
This is exactly how Phoenix Wright functions, to the letter.
Brad gave the secret away in his review. He never spoke about gameplay, or graphics, or inventory systems. The main praise he gave to the game was directed at aspects more associated with literary works, such as the writing and the cast of characters. While these are important for many games, particularly role-playing games, it's rarely at the forefront of any game to the extent it is here. Brad's only mistake was likening it to a point-and-click game.
While many comparisons can be made to the genre, in Phoenix Wright's case it is a misnomer. In a point-and-click game, the protagonist is usually visible, and is either under direct control or guided within a confined space. Here, in everything except for a couple of courtroom cutscenes, Phoenix Wright himself is never seen. Each scenario and location is presented from a first-person perspective and like a descriptive novel, but pictorially rather than textually. In fact, hit the "examine" command and the game gives the description to non-important objects through Phoenix's observation through descriptive writing, just like a novel would.
But, you say, what about a title like Shadowgate? The game is entirely based upon descriptions, and first-person still scenes with simple commands to control the character. Again, Brad has me covered. As he pointed out, it's impossible to leave a vital clue behind. Phoenix never goes into the courtroom without the right piece of evidence, and there are no red herrings. There is no backtracking once Phoenix has completed one phase of the story (Phoenix Wright even calls them "chapters"!), be it investigation or courtroom. As such, it's utterly linear; the player follows a trail of breadcrumbs during the whole experience.
Thankfully, the trail is very interesting. I, again like Brad, found the characters very engaging, and like the evidence, all of them have a function in the plot. From the obsequious hotel bellhop to the Yakuza-connected television producer, each one is a real person. Characters never feel two-dimensional, displaying emotional awareness I'm not used to seeing in games. Everybody is a suspect (even myself for a time!), and nothing is as it seems. Just like a good book.
I will agree with Brad that sometimes the game's logic is obtuse at times, but nothing that requires a walkthrough. In fact, if something's really stumping you in court, trial-and-error (no pun intended) will get you out of a spot eventually.
With what defines a "game" becoming more ambiguous, it is refreshing to see more titles thinking outside the box. While Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney can be faulted for not having conventional features such as multiple endings or non-linear paths, it is for these same reasons that it succeeds. The replay value of the game is as good as its stories. Fortunately, it's a game that's worth re-reading.
According to the ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence
Parents should be aware that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is definitely geared towards the older gamer. It can be difficult and frustrating, requiring a high level of reading, logic and comprehension skill to be successful. As far as language goes, I don't think the level of profanity ever got more explicit than "damn", although there are a few double entendres and a lot of sarcastic and irreverent comments. From this aspect, I would say that this game is completely harmless. As far as the violence goes, there are a few scenes involving blood or dead bodies, once scene showing a stabbing, and one of a gunshot, if memory serves. None of it is very graphic, but it might not be entirely suitable for younger gamers. However, I will say that if your children are smart enough to play this game in the first place, they are probably old enough to handle the very mild content.
Players looking for something different will absolutely want to check out this game. Well-done graphic adventures are scarcer then hen's teeth, and the premise of being an attorney, as far as I know, is absolutely unique in the realm of videogames. The characters are excellent, the crimes are intriguing, and the challenge of proving your case in court is something that admirers of the odd are sure to dig.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will have no problems. The game is presented fully in text, with just a few voice samples scattered here and there when raising an objection, and so forth. Nothing is lost by playing with the sound completely off, and the entire experience is fully accessible from a silent standpoint. No barriers here.