Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is not brilliant solely because it unlikely finds a way to transform a profession of mundane character into a unique gaming experience; even though that is undoubtedly one of its most remarkable achievements, it is far from being the only one
Whether fictional or real, many are the professions that have, at some point, served as the base for some truly engaging gaming experiences. For that reason, anyone who has spent a portion of their life with a videogame controller in their hands has certainly stepped into the shoes of characters who were drivers, detectives, secret agents, soldiers, sportsmen, warriors, mayors, monster hunters, archaeologists, designers, tycoons, wizards, witchers, superheroes, killers, thieves, fishermen, and more. While some of them are surely more mundane than others, most would not have much trouble envisioning how these activities could be transformed into gameplay. The same, however, cannot be said for the work of a lawyer.
Yes, it is a role that attracts thousands, that has for decades been the centerpiece of thrilling classic movies, and that can be used to achieve that ever seemingly elusive justice, which is something many videogame heroes chase. But where most of them try to achieve that goal via actions that easily translate into gameplay, lawyers have to navigate complex legal systems, deal with overwhelming volumes of documentation, and go through lengthy procedures in court; all of which are far from qualifying as alluring premises for most players out there, who seek in games a break from the work they have to do and from the bureaucracies of real life.
Yet, despite that apparent conceptual impossibility, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney not only exists, but also happens to be the first chapter of an immensely successful saga made up of various installments. Truth be told, as most lawyers will quickly point out, there is little about the franchise that could be dubbed a simulation of a their work: the starring hero performs certain tasks that no other attorney would do, the established legal process of the game’s partially fictional country allows absurd events to occur, and some of the cases feature extravagant details of cartoonish undertones. But through the bending of these rules, the title puts together an exhilarating experience that should make lawyers nod in enjoyment and acknowledgment while simultaneously pulling in those who could not care less about the legal universe.
When it all begins, Phoenix Wright is an understudy to famous defense attorney Mia Fey, and his initial appearance comes as he is in the waiting room of the courthouse. As it turns out, his best friend – who he has known since childhood – is being accused of murder and has desperately asked for his help. Although Phoenix does know the guy has a knack for getting into trouble, he is absolutely confident he would not kill anybody. And so, under these circumstances, the main character of the story tackles a trial as a defense attorney for the first time.
He, however, does not go in alone, as Mia stands by his side to give him general instructions on what to do. In the game, trials essentially center around the testimonies of witnesses, which will step up to the podium in order to tell the court what they saw. These declarations are brief, usually being composed of half a dozen statements or so, and invariably they will put Phoenix’s clients in a very bad position. Once a testimony is finished, players can start performing a cross examination, a process in which the defense tries to pick apart what has been said with the goal of spotting any potential contradictions that might save the defendants.
When interacting with testimonies, there are two general actions Phoenix can perform. Navigating between the statements via the touch screen, players can select any of them and proceed to either press the witness or present evidence. The first basically causes the attorney to question what has been said: if the statement is vague, he will demand more details and if witnesses are making a strong claim, he will ask why they are so sure. If the witness is pressed at points of the testimony that are of little importance, the prosecution is likely to object to the move made by the defense; however, pressing can be greatly productive in a couple of ways: it can push Phoenix to eureka moments, leading the character to have thoughts or interactions that will clue players on what the contradiction is; and it can make the judge force the witness to restate or change their declarations completely, which might reveal lies that were not there in the first place.
The second core action that can be executed in trial is also the most important one, because it is only by presenting evidence that contradicts what has been said that Phoenix will clear the name of those he is helping. The court record, available straight from the touch screen, will contain all pieces of evidence that have been gathered: photos, the floor plan of the crime’s location, the murder weapon, the autopsy report, key objects, documents, and anything that can remotely be considered proof. Players, then, have to carefully check the testimony and produce – against the problematic statement – the asset that contradicts it: for instance, if the witness says they saw the criminal walk through the door late at night but there is something that shows it was locked and the culprit did not have the key, pointing that evidence out will move the trial forward.
Of course, it would all be pretty easy if Phoenix were able to present proof endlessly, since players could just randomly bring forth everything that is available in the court record against all statements until something clicks, but the game implements a system that smartly counters that. When trials start, Phoenix has a total of five points, and these work pretty much like a health bar, because running out of them means getting a game over and having to go back to an earlier point in the session. Besides taking a hit when the evidence and statement combo selected does not contain a contradiction, there are also other moments when that is a risk, such as when the judge asks the protagonist a usually easy question and he gets the answer wrong; when Phoenix makes a claim, is forced to produce proof, and players select the wrong piece of evidence; and when he has to point out where in a photo, object, or video the contradiction is exactly and fails to do that. Therefore, with so many opportunities to screw up, the game does a good job forcing players to use reason to crack its legal conundrums.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is not, however, a game made up exclusively of courtroom battles. With the exception of the first of the package’s five cases, which sends players into trial right away, all other four episodes consist of two or three parts, each including one investigation and, only once that is concluded, a visit to the courthouse in order to face the legal proceedings of the following day.
In its investigative segments, the game effectively turns into a point and click adventure, with players using the touch screen to: move between places that are relevant to the crime, talk to key characters who show up at these locations, and examine the scenarios for clues by tapping specific spots. It is nothing new, but it usually works just fine. Here, the goal is naturally to get ready for the trial, as Phoenix will look for anything that he can use in court to – hopefully – show his clients are innocent. Sometimes, those valuable weapons come in the form of pieces of evidence uncovered at the investigation sites or given to the attorney by the characters he encounters; but there are also plenty of instances when they are information that gets Phoenix (and players themselves) a little closer to the bottom of the cases, allowing him to build stronger arguments in front of the judge.
Whether it is in the courtroom or walking around the city, the title’s two gameplay facets are made stellar by the same characteristics. The first trait, and likely the most important one, is the writing. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a very wordy effort, to the point it is not absurd to state it has more text than most books out there, and the extent to which that pile of content is well-written is simply dazzling. When it comes to the testimonies and the evidence in the court record, the game is smart to keep it all brief; autopsy reports have, for example, just a couple of sentences, which means players do not have to dive into overwhelming stacks of documents and statements to find contradictions. But everywhere else, text abounds, and for very good reasons.
The cases of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney are incredibly intricate riddles filled with turns and twists. Save for the first one, these are not commonplace murder cases, but crime stories with multiple layers that are uncovered little by little with every investigation sequence Phoenix goes through and with every visit to the courtroom for another session of the trial. Playing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney feels much like reading an expertly crafted detective book of excellent pacing: all chapters reveal surprises that feed into the next one, making it nearly impossible for a normal human to drop it all midway through before the truth is at last made clear. And excepting a few comically outlandish happenings, none of the stories told here would feel out of place in a TV show or movie, because Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has mystery, tension, action, danger, personal drama, humor, and many other emotional elements that are essential to create the kind of gripping narrative that leaves audiences at the edge of their seats.
Another byproduct of the game’s wonderful writing is an amazing cast of characters. Be them recurring (like the unstoppable prosecutor Miles Edgeworth or the absent-minded detective Dick Gumshoe) or only part of specific cases, they are generally very noteworthy. Yes, most of them, especially those who testify, are caricatures, but they are pretty interesting nonetheless and some can surprisingly turn out to be far more than absurd personas; meanwhile, those of the main cast, even though superficially wacky as well, invariably go on to gain major depth via considerable developments that unfold alongside the crimes.
The exaggerated turns found in characters, in eventual details of the crimes, and in a bunch of occurrences within the courtroom speak to the second trait that propels the game as a whole to a higher level: its delightfully cartoonish production values. In the trial or outside it, characters do not really have that many animations, but they are more than enough to – paired with the writing – express a myriad of feelings accurately, including anything from imposing menace to pure comedy gold. Phoenix and his finger-pointing stance have become iconic, and the hunched-over sweaty posture he showcases whenever he is surprised in a bad or awkward way is hilariously unforgettable; likewise, all characters have a bunch of wild, expansive, and expressive movements that become as big of a part of their personality as what they say.
This cartoonish demeanor is everywhere, serving as a pleasantly light counterpart to the dark murders that happen and to the serious moments the adventure contains. When Phoenix presents evidence or presses someone, a dramatic text bubble takes over the screen as he yells. When somebody is shocked, surprised, or scared, the whole scene trembles or flashes as intense sound effects are played. When the protagonist delivers a blow to the arguments of the prosecution or of the witnesses, they behave like the bosses of an action game would, reacting as if they have just received a critical hit and even going so far as having their appearance drastically changed to express anger or tiredness. The list of charming cartoonish displays goes on.
Ultimately, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is an experience that cannot be missed by anyone with an appreciation for story-based games and even those who have some type of resistance to cartoon humor are likely to be hooked by the intricacy of its cases. Still, despite being greatly enjoyable, its gameplay – in court and out of it – has a few clear rough spots.
During trial, the logical puzzle that is the pointing out of contradictions can get a bit foggy. Most players are likely to stumble on a few occasions when they know what the lie is, but are not sure how to prove it. Since contradictions are revealed by matching a piece of evidence to a specific statement of the testimony, there are moments when the pairing is not so clear, forcing one to just go ahead and take a guess, which is not ideal because the risk of losing all points and having to replay parts of the trial is always there. Naturally, this is a somewhat understandable fault that stems from the challenge of trying to make the solution to the problem not so blatant, but the issue is there and cannot be denied.
Simultaneously, while traveling around the city, an annoying situation of somewhat similar nature can occur. In order to move the investigation forward, players will have to trigger a series of events that have a specific order; for example, going to the police station and finding out detective Gumshoe is not there will prompt Phoenix to think he should come back later, meaning there is probably some evidence to find somewhere or a piece of information that has to be uncovered before a conversation with the officer is possible. Sometimes, these chain of events are straightforward or clear enough that they happen almost naturally; there are instances, however, when they are so obscure, intricate, and random that it is almost impossible for one to figure them out alone.
As a way to stop players from going into trial without having enough puzzle pieces to get to the end of the session, the game only moves to the courtroom (in automatic fashion) when the investigation is over, which is an excellent design decision because it would have been painful to go through the whole legal session only to discover – in the end – there is key evidence missing. But paired with the obscure nature of some of the actions that need to be performed during investigation, the result is that most players will likely do a lot of random walking around when they find themselves stuck, something that produces rather dull gameplay since navigating the menu to click on locations over and over again is not exactly fun. It is true that, at any time, it is possible to go back to the office and have a chat with characters that will give Wright some clues as to where he needs to go, but even those tips are sometimes not sufficiently helpful.
The final shortcoming of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is related to its replay value. On its own, the five episodes the game contains are plenty of content, as completing all of the cases will take most players over twenty hours. But given this is a very story-focused experience with predetermined events, there is not much reason for one to go back to it once the quest is done. Sure, like the episodes of a good show, there is entertainment in watching the chapters unfold again for those who are into repeated viewings or have forgotten plot points, but the bottom line is that – for a game – Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney falls below the average in that regard.
Complaints that can be fairly thrown at Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney certainly exist. However, they are pretty negligible when compared to what it achieves. Through it, the legal process that goes on in a courthouse is, with the appropriate creative liberties, transformed into a thrilling game of finding contradictions in testimonies. And to accompany that mechanic, Capcom endows the protagonist with the deductive skills of a talented detective, sending him in investigations that although not exactly marvelous from a gameplay standpoint will keep players hooked thanks to the significant revelations that they bring forth.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is not brilliant solely because it unlikely finds a way to transform a profession of mundane character into a unique gaming experience; even though that is undoubtedly one of its most remarkable achievements, it is far from being the only one. This is a package whose cases and characters have a similar worth to those found in great books, films, and television shows dedicated to portraying criminal investigations. The thrill of its action, the surprise of its twists, the weight of its dramas, and the excellence of its humor are pleasantly matched by brain-teasing puzzles that push players into slowly undoing the apparently very solid cases that have been built against the protagonist’s clients. The result goes beyond a title with unique gameplay, giving the adventure a vibrant soul that makes it no surprise it would be the first of many installments from a long-running and greatly beloved franchise.