Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Trials And Tribulations

In Trials And Tribulations, players will find all elements that make the Ace Attorney saga special; given its position as the last chapter of the trilogy, though, the title covers those with a touch of grandeur that allows it to feel like a special event despite its similarity to the titles that preceded it

When development of the first installment of the Ace Attorney saga was concluded sometime in 2001, executive producer Shinji Mikami told the series’ creator and writer, Shu Takumi, that he should aim to create a trilogy that would, in its very last entry, wrap up the character arches that had been setup by that initial effort. Three years later, riding a wave of success that saw thousands of people fall in love with the Ace Attorney universe, the time had come to put an end to a thrilling and human story told through a series of gripping criminal cases. And it fell on the shoulders of Trials And Tribulations to smoothly carry out the task of building a worthy conclusion to a franchise that had always produced awe via its plot twists and meticulously intricate mysteries.

Unquestionably, given the two excellent games that had preceded it, which undoubtedly left deep marks in the minds of many thanks to their great assortment of unforgettable moments, the challenge of making Trials And Tribulations come off as a culmination was daunting. After all, be it in the original Ace Attorney or in its sequel, Justice For All, there was this feeling that, as the games advanced, the cases they presented became more complex and surprising; as such, not only would Trials And Tribulations have to replicate that rising curve of excitement, it would also have to simultaneously create mysteries that felt like an apex for the franchise whilst bringing the story of a lovable cast of characters to a satisfying close. However, as if imitating its protagonist, who has quite a knack for stylishly squeezing out of seemingly impossible legal conundrums, the game miraculously pulls off the trick of hitting like a sufficiently impactful conclusion.

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From the get go, the Ace Attorney franchise was never meant to considerably evolve in gameplay or production values as it went along. In the mind of Shu Takumi, his creation – much due to its focus on story – was meant to have the same look and feel throughout its entirety; relying, instead, on the writing of fresh cases to be the main allure of each new entry, and therefore making all of those pieces feel like books that are part of the same saga. Because of that approach, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, Trials And Tribulation is not different from its two prequels.

Phoenix Wright is a defense attorney and, for that reason, a huge slice of the game’s action happens inside a courtroom. It may not sound like an attractive prospect from a gameplay standpoint, but Capcom manages to turn legal battles into amusing interactive experiences. The game’s trials, during which Phoenix Wright will do everything in his power to dig up the truth and prove his clients are innocent, are made up of series of testimonies given by characters that are somehow connected to the crime. Generally including half a dozen brief statements, they will more often than not make the defendants look rather guilty, and the protagonist will try to turn the situation around via the process of cross-examination.

When that time comes, players will have access to a couple of key actions that can be triggered against the individual statements of the testimonies: pressing and presenting evidence. The first causes Wright to talk to the witnesses in order to clarify a few points: if they claim to have seen the defendant at the scene of the crime, the attorney might question the time when that happened or if they saw the person clearly; if they say there was a fight, he may demand that they be more specific. At best, pressing will lead either the judge to force the witnesses to amend their testimonies or Wright to smell a contradiction and give players a clue about what is wrong. At worst, they will cause the lawyer to be ridiculed by others or reveal details that make his clients look even more guilty.

Wright’s greatest weapon, though, and the main way through which trials advance, is presenting pieces of evidence that bring to light the lies of the testimonies. Available in the court record, which can be accessed at any time on the touch screen, these can be objects (such as the murder weapon, photos, maps, autopsy reports, and others) or even the profiles of characters who are involved in the mystery. Players’ ultimate goal, then, is to check what is being reported in the testimonies against the evidence and what they know about the case in order to identify where the lie is and what item contradicts it. If they succeed, the trial will get a little closer to the truth; if they fail, Wright will be mocked and lose a portion of his health bar. And, as a way to prevent gamers from simply guessing, running out of health will render a guilty verdict and kick players back to an earlier save point.

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At heart, the Ace Attorney series can be accurately qualified as a visual novel. However, the way its trials are presented ends up painting the text-based adventures of Phoenix Wright with the colors of a puzzle game; one that is both accessible, challenging, and engaging. Picking testimonies apart in order to figure out what witnesses are lying about is a thrill for two reasons: first, because the task ought to be enjoyable to anyone who loves brain-teasing conundrums that require critical thinking; and second, because every contradiction that is brought to the surface invariably reveals a surprising facet of the cases the protagonist will work on. As such, the Ace Attorney games are powered by a unique encounter between constant plot development and puzzles boasting an original format that cannot be found anywhere else.

In addition to the exciting courtroom battles, Trials And Tribulations also carries the franchise’s signature investigation sequences, which often precede the legal proceedings. While investigating, players will use buttons on the bottom screen to move between relevant locations, talk to characters, show them items available in the court record to see if they have anything to say about them, and examine specific portions of the scenario to hear Phoenix’s comments or even unearth important pieces of evidence. During these segments, the property loses a bit of originality, since it degenerates into a commonplace point-and-click quest. Nevertheless, besides wearing that hat with some competence, the moments when Phoenix Wright decides to act like a detective gain an extra luster thanks to the sheer power of the series’ writing, which makes investigations – much like the trials themselves – be the videogame equivalent of reading a riveting mystery book that heats up with every passing page.

Smartly, Trials And Tribulations attempts to add some unique spice to that otherwise mundane format by borrowing a page from its predecessor, Justice For All. In that game, when talking to characters about topics that they would rather keep secret, Wright would be faced with what the game calls Psyche-Locks. To break them and make characters speak, players had to present pieces of evidence to answer a series of questions that usually served the purpose of proving to these reluctant people that Wright knew part of the truth they were trying to hide. Trials And Tribulations brings that mechanic back, and – like they did in Justice For All – Psyche-Locks do wonders to sprinkle some originality into the title’s point-and-click portions, since they transplant a bit of the refreshing courtroom puzzles to the investigation sequences.

Given Trials and Tribulations is so close to its predecessors, it nearly goes without saying that its signature gameplay combo is underlined by the same qualities and problems that were present in the games that preceded it. On the bright side, there is how the game seamlessly joins powerful personal dramas with characters that are absurdly wacky, how it merges brutal cases with unlikely twists that sometimes feel like they belong to a cartoon, how it has animations as well as sound effects that are both ridiculously exaggerated and overwhelmingly tense, and how it smoothly encompasses, under the same umbrella, touching tear-jerking moments with occasions that trigger genuine laughter. Although there is certainly a lot to be said about the creativity of the cases found in Trials and Tribulations, its greatest achievement is surely its capacity to be seriously dramatic and wildly unpredictable at the same time.

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On the negative side, there is how the nature of Trials and Tribulations as a visual novel causes its gameplay to be a bit too stiff for its own sake. In the courtroom, that materializes in situations when players will know what the contradiction is, but will have trouble discovering what needs to be done to reveal it, whether it is pressing so a new false statement is added to the testimony or figuring out which evidence needs to be shown against which claim made by the witness. Meanwhile, in investigations, that occurs because the sequence of events that needs to be triggered in them is completely linear and too specific. Therefore, players will sometimes be stuck, randomly running around multiple locations while desperately trying to perform the action that will allow them to move the investigation forward. And since these events are, sometimes, as precise as showing a certain evidence to a certain character, boring occasions like that are not exactly rare.

The fact that a trilogy of games is pretty much made of the same cloth is far from shocking. However, since the first three entries of the Ace Attorney franchise actually made a conscious effort to feel like they were part of a unified package makes them stand far closer to one another than the titles of pretty much any other series out there. As a consequence, the task given to Trials And Tribulations long before it was even conceived (the one of working like a culminating and closing chapter to the saga) emerges as an even harder destiny to fulfill; after all, it is tough to come off as a pinnacle when there is not much it can do to evolve past the threshold reached by its prequels. Yet, the title manages to build a case in its favor by smartly working with the very limited pieces it had at its disposal.

For starters, while Justice For All seemed to at times retread to themes and twists that had already been used by original Ace Attorney, Trials And Tribulations – perhaps as a result of a slightly longer gestation period – does not fall victim to recycling. Furthermore, the game picks up storyline threads that had been left hanging, dives deeper into the past of a few of its key characters, has multiple references – with flashbacks included – to previous cases of the saga, and ties it all in a package that although definitely not final, at least drops all of the main cast in pretty satisfying spots.

Concurrently, a few tiny but positive twists that Trials And Tribulations executes equally contribute to the construction of a higher stature. Firstly, two of the five episodes are courtroom-only affairs, which in the prequels was something that was reserved exclusively to the opening crime. Secondly, and also differently from its predecessors, the game has no chapters that extend past the two-day mark; and even if the series had already produced a few notable cases that happened over the course of three days, that general shorter length means none of the mysteries overstay their welcome. Thirdly, in addition to controlling Phoenix himself, players will get to act as both Miles Edgeworth and Mia Fey during a few moments of the quest; it may be true there is nothing different about their mechanics in comparison to the titular attorney, but the experience ought to be a delight to fans of the saga nonetheless. Finally, in order to build that ultimate closing chapter that was from the start planned to put an exclamation mark at the end of the trilogy, three of the game’s cases are intimately entwined, and although they concern totally different affairs, their connection gives birth to the largest and most complex plot the saga had produced up to that point.

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The judgment of whether Trials And Tribulations is superior to its prequels will strongly rely on personal taste; after all, due to their focus on plot, the evaluation of the quality of the trilogy’s entries will boil down to how strongly one feels about the set of cases each of them carries. However, what cannot be denied is that the game feels like the culmination it was meant to be. None of its chapters are weak, the cases never go on for too long, the return of the Psyche-Locks means its investigations contain a few original puzzles, and many of its parts emerge like a celebration of the saga’s past: the trio of playable characters, the multiple flashbacks to chapters from the previous games, the picking up of threads that were hanging in the air, and the construction of the series’ most ambitious case.

Clocking in at about twenty hours and, like its prequels, suffering a bit in terms of replay value due to its dependence on script, Trials And Tribulations is a worthy conclusion to what is not just one of the Nintendo DS’ most beloved properties, but also one of the best franchises to ever hit a portable system. In Trials And Tribulations, players ought to find all elements that make the Ace Attorney saga so special: the cartoonish goofiness, the gripping mysteries, the tense courtroom events, the revealing investigation moments, the wacky characters, the brutal personal dramas, the moving human stories, the hilarious dialogues, the expressive animations, the picking apart of testimonies filled with contradictions, and the constant unfolding of cases that are impossible webs of crazy twists. Given its position as the last chapter of the trilogy, though, Trials And Tribulations covers all of those elements with an extra touch of grandeur; one that allows it to feel like a rather special event in spite of looking and playing a whole lot like the two titles that preceded it.

FINAL SCORE: 8 – EXCELLENT

2 thoughts on “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Trials And Tribulations

  1. If the Ace Attorney franchise had definitively ended with its third installment, the original game didn’t have the bonus case “Rise from the Ashes” attached to its DS remake, and, under those circumstances, you asked me which game was the best in series, I would have picked Trails and Tribulations easily. As it stands, I feel many games since then – most notably the Great Ace Attorney 2, the second Investigations game, and Spirit of Justice – have since surpassed what it tried to do in terms of playing around with the formula. I also don’t think the writers really succeeded in making Godot that boorish, yet ultimately sympathetic antagonist they were hoping he would be (although to their credit, they do not gloss over his actions). The character is a fan favorite, but I honestly think he’s a little overrated. Funnily enough, the writers ran into the exact opposite problem with Edgeworth in that they accidentally made him sympathetic, although unlike most cases, they themselves picked up on that and turned the disconnect into actual character development.

    1. I haven’t played as many Ace Attorney games as you have, but if I had to pick a favorite, this one would also be it. I mean, as I mentioned in my review of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, if the two games are seen as one, which is the format in which it was released in the West, then that would be my choice. But as a standalone game, this one is better than those of games on their own, I think.

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