Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Justice for All

Fairly, some may complain Justice For All is too similar to the first Ace Attorney game, but, in the end, the truth is that what it provides is pretty much what fans of the saga expected at the time; that is, an extra batch of cases starring the gaming world’s most famous defense attorney

Given both the success of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and its nature as an experience heavily centered around text, it is safe to say that what fans of the series expected the most out of an eventual sequel was a new set of cases for the starring lawyer to tackle. If that is indeed true, then the game’s successor, Justice For All, just about fits the bill; after all, it goes without saying, in it the hero of the story is set to help yet another group of clients prove their innocence in front of a court that seems quite willing to send them to jail or worse. And in doing that, the title – like its prequel – qualifies as a thrilling crime novel with a slice of gameplay sprinkled into it. However, in spite of that unique story-focused nature, it is impossible not to judge Justice For All, at least partially, against the natural expectations that dictate a new chapter of a series has to work towards refreshing the formula somehow; and on that front, the game leaves a little to be desired.

There were plenty of victories to be found in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The sometimes brutal drama of its cases was underlined by a very pleasant cartoonish humor that manifested itself in multiple ways: in the animation of the characters and in their remarkable personalities; in the ridiculous occurrences that unfolded in the courtroom; in some uncanny details of the murders; and in the exaggerated features of everyone involved in the proceedings. Additionally, the mysteries themselves were not just creative, but also very well-written; as the trials went on, the stories invariably unraveled quickly, revealing multiple layers of twists and – like a very good book does – keeping its audience glued to the plot thanks to the inevitable curiosity to know what would happen next. Naturally, all of these qualities return in Justice For All.

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The biggest achievement of the original, though, was certainly squeezing an interesting interactive experience out of a profession of such bureaucratic nature. That is because, in terms of script, it was not exactly surprising Capcom was able to extract gripping drama from the work of an attorney: the movie universe itself is, after all, filled with classics that gravitate around courtroom events. The real shock came in how the company smoothly turned trials into gameplay that was both engaging and simple enough to embrace all kinds of players, therefore paving the way for millions of people to fall in love with the story and characters of Ace Attorney.

In the prequel, players are given a tutorial of how the courtroom events play out because Phoenix, who is still the understudy of famous defense attorney Mia Fey, gets to act in his first trial when a childhood friend who is being accused of assassinating his girlfriend desperately asks him for help. In Justice For All, given the protagonist is already pretty knowledgeable about what he has to do, writers decide not to abandon newcomers and also refresh the memory of veterans by giving the character a brutal case of amnesia due to an attack he was the victim of while waiting for the judgment to begin. It is an example of how the game’s wacky humor enables unlikely scenarios to play out, and even if one should probably go through Justice For All’s predecessor first, it is a good strategy to make the game be a reasonable entry-point for those who wish to skip the original.

As Phoenix learns again, trials are essentially a series of witnesses brought to the podium by the prosecution. In brief testimonies containing half a dozen sentences, they will report details that incriminate the defendant: sometimes it is a police officer explaining the evidence that links the crime to players’ clients; sometimes it is someone who actually saw the event; and sometimes it may be a person who spotted suspicious scenes. Regardless of the nature of what the witnesses say, Phoenix’s task will be revealing the contradictions that exist in what they are relating.

To do so, the attorney has two weapons. The first is pressing the individual statements that make up the testimonies. With this action, he will usually ask witnesses to further clarify what they are saying: if they claim to have seen the defendant at the scene of the crime, he may question what time it was; if they report it was dark, he will cast doubts over their certainty; if they swear they saw a weapon, he will likely demand they state what type of weapon it was; and so forth. Pressing may trigger no outcomes other than an objection by the prosecution or even Phoenix being the target of some mockery, but it can also be rather productive, as occasionally the dialogues they result in will either lead the lawyer to think to himself and clue players into what the contradiction is, or cause the judge to make witnesses amend their testimonies, which can push to the surface lies that were not there originally.

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Phoenix’s second tool to expose the truth is presenting one of the pieces of evidence available in the Court Record, which can be opened by touching an icon on the bottom screen of the Nintendo DS. In most cases, testimonies will have a contradiction that can be pointed out if proof is produced. As such, to make the trial move forward, players will have to match a statement with the evidence that contradicts it, such as showing a phone’s record to debunk a claim by a witness that says they did not know the victim.

Together, pressing and presenting evidence turn trials into a large series of puzzles – with most of them being testimonies – that need to be solved little by little via some critical thinking. And since all lies that are revealed push – be it slightly or dramatically – the narrative closer to the truth of what transpired, the courtroom action of Justice For All is an excellent marriage of brain-teasing gameplay with thrilling storytelling. Moreover, given players could easily lean on guessing by randomly matching all evidence with every statement, the game blocks such action by giving Phoenix Wright a health bar that goes down whenever the contradiction he tries to expose is not there or when he is asked a question and fails to answer properly. Sure, the penalty for exceeding the number of mistakes is not too heavy, since the trial will merely go back to an earlier save point, but this measure – once more – works as solid incentive for gamers to constantly think.

Because trials are pretty much unchanged, it is not too surprising to realize that even with so many incredible qualities, they contain flaws that are the same ones found in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. For starters, there are moments when although players will know what contradiction is present in a testimony, they will have trouble matching the evidence to a particular sentence in order to reveal the lie. There are never multiple possible answers; the correct option will always be one pair of proof and statement. Consequently, the logic of a few puzzles can be slightly flawed. In other instances, the reasoning behind the piece of evidence that needs to be presented will be too foggy, requiring wild leaps of faith from players. Finally, Justice For All – in spite of all thrills and surprises it provides – also has occasions in the trials when gamers will discover the truth long before the characters do, which can make some dialogues concerning major turning points be a bit awkward.

Justice For All, like the original, does not consist solely of courtroom battles. Despite how the first case only features that sort of action, all others chapters of the story are made up of multiple parts, each containing one investigation segment and the trial on the next day, which is automatically triggered just after all necessary information has been gathered. When dealing with investigation, the Ace Attorney franchise becomes a point-and-click adventure. By using commands on the touch screen, players get to move between relevant locations, talk to people they find in those places, examine the scenes for potential evidence, and even present items to characters to see if they have anything to say about a certain topic. Therefore, in these sequences, Phoenix steps into the shoes of a private detective.

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It is in those moments when the sole major gameplay novelty of Justice For All is found. In all of the cases, there will be key characters who will simply refuse to talk to Phoenix about certain sensitive topics that are critical to understanding the crime. When that happens, locks will appear around those being interrogated, and if he wants to extract information out of these folks, the attorney will have to show some evidence, usually in order to indicate he knows quite a few details about what characters are trying to hide. As he is asked questions and presents proof to answer them, the locks will slowly be destroyed until they are all gone and the secret is revealed.

What these Psyche-Locks effectively do is bring to the investigations a little of the puzzle gameplay of the trials; after all, solving these riddles involves nothing but producing pieces of evidence that answer questions. As it turns out, it is a great decision, because as interesting as they were thanks to how they moved the plot forward, investigations were always somewhat lacking in the gameplay department since they were pretty standard takes on the point-and-click genre. With Psyche-Locks, on the other hand, they gain a twist worthy of the Ace Attorney franchise; and, as an added mechanic, presenting the wrong evidence in these situations also damages Phoenix’s health, meaning making mistakes while investigating can lead the character to walk into trial with lower health.

In spite of that improvement and as it happens with the trials themselves, the investigations of Justice For All still suffer from issues that harmed those of the prequel too. Like the courtroom battles, they have instances when players will easily figure out secrets way before characters do, which can ruin big reveals. Furthermore, given they unfold in a completely linear fashion, investigations can cause players to get stuck quite frequently. Sometimes, the next destination to visit or action to execute will be pretty obvious, but there are multiple times when that is simply not the case, and since nothing will happen until they trigger an occasionally absurdly specific event, gamers might end up moving around aimlessly through the accessible scenes for minutes, which is not exactly fun, especially when all one is doing is tapping menus on the touch screen.

Presenting a nice new mechanic in its investigations and, elsewhere, sharing the very same qualities and problems with its predecessor, one would naturally expect Justice For All to – at least – be as good as the original Ace Attorney game. However, this second installment in the series is brought back down a notch due to a few issues of its own. Firstly, on what might be the least serious item of the list, there is the fact there are no enhancements whatsoever implemented into the game’s presentation. Certainly, in its blend of cartoonish wackiness and gripping drama, the prequel set the bar pretty high in that regard: it was delightful to watch as witnesses and prosecutors flinched as if hit by major attacks when players uncovered major contradictions; and the entire cast was animated with exaggerated reactions that, accompanied by text and sound effects, could be truly hilarious. Obviously the same applies to Justice For All, but it is disappointing to realize the game uses the same exact menus, character models, animations, and visual assets as the original.

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Secondly, perhaps as a consequence of how the series’ writer, Shu Takumi, was pushed into pumping out the game quickly, the cases – which range from good to excellent – at times reuse twists that are way too similar to those of the prequel. Thirdly, even though a full chapter had to be cut on account of how developers ran out of space in the cartridge, Justice For All is oddly shorter than its predecessor, having four cases versus the original’s five; still, it is hard to complain too much about a quest that can last twenty hours, even if its replay value is small due to its reliance on story. Finally, the last chapter of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney had introduced a bunch of nice mechanics to that game, including extracting fingerprints out of objects, using luminol on crime scenes to make blood traces appear, assembling a few puzzles, and rotating evidence to look at it from different – and often surprisingly revealing – angles; as such, it is a letdown Justice For All fails to pick up that torch and explore these twists more thoroughly, opting instead to not use them at all.

Justice For All has a few problems. In fact, even though it is nearly identical to its predecessor, it manages to find at least a couple of issues to call its own. However, the power of its content cannot be denied. It turns courtroom proceedings into engaging puzzles that require critical thinking, and packs these inside generally well-written cases that unfold wildly to reveal multiple layers of intrigue and mystery. Couple that enticing nature with cartoonish production values, excellent humor, and emotional moments, and the result is one of the entries of the Nintendo DS library that cannot be missed by anyone.

Fairly, some may complain Justice For All is too similar to the first Ace Attorney game, since it features the same exact visual presentation and even goes as far as using twists that recall those of its prequel. But, in the end, the truth is that what it provides is pretty much what fans of the saga expected at the time; that is, an extra batch of cases starring the gaming world’s most famous defense attorney and the greatly beloved cast of secondary characters that surround him. Yes, this sequel could have used some extra time for new ideas to flourish more naturally and for fresh gameplay mechanics to be evaluated. But as far as fulfilling fans’ desire for more courtroom action goes, Justice For All is a success, since it packs more thrill in its trials than most action games out there contain in all of their missions.

FINAL SCORE: 7 – VERY GOOD

4 thoughts on “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Justice for All

  1. Justice for All is almost universally considered to be the weakest game in the original trilogy. I don’t think offering similar gameplay is really an issue because this series has such a unique identity that it can more easily justify offering more of the same, so it mostly boils down to the quality of the writing. I think what really hurts Justice for All specifically is that it’s the only game in the series to not have a running storyline with all of its episodes having entirely self-contained plots (notwithstanding the arcs of the main characters), although we also have the highly annoying “Turnabout Big Top” to blame for cementing the series’ supposed third episode curse (it’s exactly what it implies; the third episode of a given entry tends to be the worst and least plot-relevant, although that really hasn’t been true after Apollo Justice, the fourth mainline game).

    I will say the game does have a solid finale, though. It really demonstrates how much Mr. Takumi was willing to play around with his series’ conventions even back then. Bet you never thought losing a case would feel so satisfying, huh?

    1. You are right about the lack of an overarching storyline. I guess Takumi was saving the big global developments for the last game so he didn’t do anything significant in that regard here.

      And yeah, the conclusion that final case was quite a twist and oddly satisfying!

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