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.