Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Review

Game: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Genre: Adventure, Visual Novel
System: Nintendo DS (also available on Switch, 3DS, Xbox One, and PS4)
Developer | Publisher: Capcom
Age Rating: US T | EU 7+
Price for Switch: US $29.99 | UK £29.99 | EU €29,99 (As part of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy)
Release Date: October 12th, 2001

Guest Writer Matt from Nintendobound was kind enough to rework his review into a real LadiesGamers review. You can find his original review here. 

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is the first part of a trilogy that puts players in the shoes of a defense lawyer who must not just defend his clients in the courtroom but also investigate the murder-mysteries that have led them to be accused of crimes they did not commit.

The Setup

Whether fictional or real, many are the professions that have served as the base for some truly engaging gaming experiences. For that reason, anyone who has spent a portion of their life with a controller in their hands has 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 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.

Step into the shoes of a lawyer

Yes, it is a role that has for decades been the centerpiece of thrilling classic movies and that can be used to achieve 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, which is far from qualifying as an alluring premise for most players out there, who seek in games a break from the work they have to do. 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.

The Beginning

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 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, that 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.

Mia Fey

Turning Trials into Gameplay

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, 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 witness is pressed at points of the testimony that are of little importance, the prosecution is likely to object; however, pressing can be greatly productive because it can make the judge force the witness to restate or change their declarations, which might reveal lies that were not there in the first place.

Question what has been said

The second core action that can be executed is also the most important, 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 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 they did not have the key, pointing that evidence out will move the trial forward.

Phoenix the Detective

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is not, however, a game made up exclusively of courtroom battles. Out of its five cases, four include investigations, and it is only once those are concluded that the game moves on to the trial. In these segments, the game turns into a point and click adventure, with players being able 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 a little closer to the bottom of the cases, allowing him to build stronger arguments in front of the judge.

What Makes the Series Special?

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 is the writing. 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 a expertly crafted detective book of excellent pacing.

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.

Not Everything Is Perfect

During trials, the logical puzzle that is pointing out 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. 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. 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, which will likely lead a lot of dull walking around.

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.

A Thrilling Achievement

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 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, will keep players hooked thanks to the revelations that they bring forth.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is not brilliant solely because it unlikely finds a way to transform mundane profession into a fantastic gaming experience. That is undoubtedly one of its most remarkable achievements, but 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, with the thrill of its action, the surprise of its twists, the weight of its dramas, and the excellence of its humor being 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.

Final Verdict: Two Thumbs UpTwo thumbs up


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