(Posted to my Facebook page on November 24, 2014)
I picked up the first game in the Phoenix Wright series on a whim earlier this year. I really didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a deep, interesting story, incredibly good characters, and a style of game like I’ve never seen before. Just to clarify in advance, this is a review of the original “Trilogy” of Phoenix Wright games, including Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Phoenix Wright: Justice for All, and Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations, so settle in, because this is going to be a long review.
The story follows a brand new lawyer, Phoenix Wright. With his friend and mentor Mia Fey at his side, he’s about to take his first case as a Defense Attorney, defending his childhood friend Larry Butz, who stands accused of murdering his girlfriend. The trial goes well as Phoenix is able to get his friend found Not Guilty, and it seems like Phoenix has a bright future at Fey & Co. Law Offices. However, later that week, Mia is found dead in her office, and her younger sister Maya Fey stands accused of the crime. This begins a long journey as Wright defends a huge variety of colorful characters including TV Stars, Police Officers, Magicians, and all while fighting off a variety of just as interesting Prosecutors.
It’s hard for me to really put down a genre for Phoenix Wright, but I’d like to call it a story-driven puzzle game, as the meat of the game comes from the stories behind each trial, and putting the pieces together to figure out what happened, and ultimately find the true culprit. It may have sounded like I spoiled a lot in that second paragraph, but the first two cases actually don’t have much mystery compared to the others; they are the only cases I’ve seen thus far that show you right at the beginning who actually committed the crime, so they serve as a way to set the scene for the rest of the series. The real gameplay is broken up into two sections: Investigation and Trials. In the investigations, you talk to witnesses, search environments for clues, and even shake down some of the witnesses for extra information. The trials are where the famous “OBJECTION!” comes from. You listen as the witnesses give testimony, and it’s your job to cross-examine their testimony, press them for more information, find contradictions, and present evidence to find the truth. I will say that this is a very, VERY dialogue heavy game. There is a lot of talking, as you might expect, so if you want something with action, this won’t be something you’ll enjoy. This is a game that’s all about the characters and the story, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. It sounds a little dull based on that description, I can promise you that the trials can get very intense. It’s incredibly satisfying to see through a witness’ lie and go on the counterattack with one booming “OBJECTION!” The musical cues are also incredibly well done, and you’ll find your heart pounding with the Phoenix Wright theme as the Prosecution and Witness scramble to explain the contradictions, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as getting into the zone and battering aside any doubt to your theories as you throw down pieces of evidence one after another. It’s a pretty incredible feeling; it’s one of the biggest strengths of the series and what makes it so fun.
There are a few shortcomings, however, specifically with the difficulty. Ace Attorney seems like the best in the series in terms of difficulty, as everything seems to fall into place if you think it through long enough, and though you’ll struggle at some points, it will never feel unfair, and you’ll manage to push through on your own. However, things changed in the two sequels. In the first game, you had five “Strikes” throughout the case, and presenting the wrong piece of evidence or giving the wrong theory would lose you a strike, but they were all refreshed at each checkpoint, which gave you enough ammo to make it through. Starting in Justice for All, however, several things changed. First, the strikes were gone, and were then replaced with a “Bar”, which would lose different amounts depending on what you got wrong and when. This bar won’t refresh at checkpoints, but you are given opportunities during investigations to recuperate some or all of the bar. Sometimes a mistake will cost you as little as 10%… or as much as all of it. I think now you can see where the problem is, but I’ll get to that in a second. The next new thing introduced was presenting character profiles, in addition to the evidence, which is just what it sounds like. In addition to the ability to produce evidence to back up your claims or point out a contradiction, you can use a character’s profile, which more or less doubled the amount of choices you had, which can be overwhelming at times. Lastly, the “Psy-Lock” system was introduced in Justice for All. The Psy-Lock is a way to interrogate a witness during the Investigation portion of the game. You’ll be shown when the witness is withholding information from you, and you need to use evidence to get them to spill the truth. A cool concept in theory, but since the Investigation portion of the game is much less linear than the Trial portion it’s easy to accidentally miss a crucial clue that you need to have to present to this person. It can be very frustrating to have a good idea of what happened but be unable to break the psy-locks just because you are missing a piece of the puzzle that you don’t know you didn’t have. Egoraptor commented on this in his most recent episode of Sequelitis: When you complete a good puzzle, you get satisfaction from the “Ah-HAH!” moment, when all the pieces fall into place and you have nothing to blame except yourself, which is what mostly happens in the Trial section, but the Psy-Locks add a more frustrating response to completing a puzzle, the “Oh, come ON!” where you fail the puzzle a bunch, wander around on a whim, and stumble upon the final piece by chance and NOW it suddenly makes sense. So yeah, in that sense, the Psy-Locks make the game a lot more frustrating, but it can still be satisfying at times when you do have all the pieces from the start and use them the break apart the reluctance of your witness.
Now is when I talk about that thing I was alluding to earlier… the difficulty in the actual trials. As I’ve said, Ace Attorney doesn’t really have a problem with this, and it’s pretty minimal in Trials and Tribulations, but Justice for All has a big problem: many of the solutions to the puzzles in the trials are very… ugh… convoluted. What’s worse is when they’re convoluted AND unforgiving. I’ll give an example: In one of the cases in J4A, very early in the case, the Judge is already convinced that my client is guilty (Despite the fact that only the Detective in charge of the case had been called as a witness thus far!), but Phoenix convinces the judge to give him a chance, and the judge orders you to present a piece of evidence that the court has yet to see that will keep the case alive, or else you will fail the case. I’m scratching my head, because, being so early in the case, there are plenty of pieces of evidence that haven’t been seen yet. I pick one piece on a whim and am immediately slapped with a Guilty verdict for being wrong. Once. At the start of the case. I start again, and, unwilling to sit through all the dialogue more than twice, decided to cheat with a walkthrough and found that I was supposed to present an object that had already been seen in a photo that was presented right at the beginning of the trial! Not really a “New” piece, is it? What’s worse, the Prosecution immediately shoots the evidence down anyways, which should lead to a Guilty verdict… until they call the next witness anyways! So what was the point of putting so much pressure on that one single piece of evidence? All that frustration was for nothing? There are more instances of this, especially in J4A, but it’s pretty limited in the other games. Instant game overs are always very lazy ways to increase tension and difficulty artificially, which is why it bugs me so much from a team I know is better than this! Some advice I’ll give is to save frequently; the game doesn’t really encourage this, but if you hit Start at any time, you can save your spot and get booted to the menu. By loading from your savepoint, you’ll keep that savepoint, so if you fail, you can restart the game and load your last save instead of going back to the last checkpoint (The checkpoint system is a bit weak as well) and having to skip through all the dialogue again.
I know it sounds like I’m being really harsh on the series, but I should point out that there are very few things to actually talk about in the game, so it’s worth going into detail with all of them. Despite my frustration at some key points (Just to warn you in advance, some of the tougher cases include Big Top Turnabout and Farewell, My Turnabout, both from J4A), the story really is what brings it home. Every single character has their own quirks, story, and it’s impossible not to love this cast. What’s really impressive is that the Prosecutors, your opponents in the games, could easily have been throwaways just there to push you around, but every single one of them is just full of character, emotion, and you end up loving each of them, even as they pick apart your defense. Miles Edgeworth in particular is just impossible to not like. He’s charismatic, but he’s harboring secrets and a surprisingly deep past which is dug up later in the game. He’s the perfect foil to Phoenix Wright, and when the two of them are in the same scene, you see the best of both characters brought to life. Phoenix himself is a flawed character, but his belief in his clients and his drive is what makes him the hero that he is. Phoenix ends up partnering with Mia Fey’s sister, Maya for the length of the trilogy. She’s a bit ditsy, but innocent, funny, and a great partner for this journey. Every witness that takes the stand is unique and interesting in their own way, and learning their quirks and how to pry the truth out of them is its own joy from the series. The stories are so compelling, and watching all the pieces of the case slowly fall into place is a real treat. Don’t let the difficulty deter you, the story telling in these games is utterly fantastic. There’s some great humor present in the series as well, especially in the form of puns. Characters like the Miney sisters (Named Ini and Mimi), a pair of acrobat brothers (Named Acro and Bat), and an attention hogging private detective named Luke Atmey… I can’t help but appreciate the quality of these awful/fantastic puns. References are all over the place if you take the time to pick them out of the mix, and they will really give you a laugh on top of the otherwise great humor that the series has.
A quick note I should mention involves the final case of Ace Attorney, “Rise from the Ashes”. It introduces several new mechanics, including several full motion video segments to analyze for clues, the ability to dust for fingerprints, spray for blood, and analyze items in much closer detail, rotating them in three dimensions. This is the only case in which any of these mechanics appear in all three games. It seems frustrating, since they add a lot to that case to make it stronger, but there’s a reason for this: Ace Attorney was initially release on the Game Boy Advanced, which wasn’t capable of any of the 3D required for many of those mechanics (Which would later appear in the 4th game in the series, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney). When the game was later re-released for the Nintendo DS, a 5th case was added, and these new mechanics were used in it, despite the mechanics not being available when it was initially released. Despite this disappointment Rise from the Ashes is such a great case anyways that you won’t hold a grudge on this for long.
Phoenix Wright isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a fan of story driven games, strong characters and compelling stories, give this series a shot. It can be a bit difficult and frustrating, but you’ll find a deeply satisfying experience if you can look past all of that. You may think a courtroom simulator sounds like a stupid concept for a game, but I just have one thing to say to that…
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – 5/5
Phoenix Wright: Justice For All – 3/5
Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations – 4/5