In Depth Review: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney [NDS]
You can learn these facts, and many more, by taking Capcom's Japanese Lawyerese 101! ...er, known more appropriately to us wacky Americans as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Know this--Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is not a legal simulation. In fact, in this game, it'd be less of a surprise to see Johnny Cochran visit us from beyond the grave than it would be to see the judge actually do something about testimony rife with perjury. Instead, Capcom chucks legal realism out the window to provide you with a wholly entertaining, charming and humorous videogame experience that happens to be grounded in the legal space.
While Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is hilariously fun, this is not due to its mechanics, which resemble those of an adventure game like Myst. There are no on-screen avatars around a map. Instead, almost everything is done by tapping an option on the screen. The game is split into two main parts - investigation and trial. During investigation, you're tapping on one of several location menu choices to investigate, tapping on topics to ask people you run into, and pixel-hunting on static backgrounds for clues and then tapping Examine to examine said clues. During trial, you're tapping on items in the Court Record, or tapping commands such as "Present!" or "Press!", or tapping on yet more dialog-tree choices. Sure, you can hit Y and yell into the mic instead of tapping, but it still doesn't fully mask the game's mundane mechanics. Even the gameplay structure at large becomes repetitive: You pixel hunt, find clues, then present them to people to get them to talk. Then in court, you press witnesses, uncover lies, and find the piece of evidence that contradicts the lies.
While it sounds monotonous, it's really not. Like any great traditional adventure game, the reasons behind your actions and the thinking and deduction that give your actions meaning are what drive Phoenix Wright. Why do you bother examining the victim's watch? Because the battery in the watch died as a result of the victim raising his arm in self defense, when the murder weapon broke it. Which tells us the time in which the attack took place. Which tells us that the witness was lying when he said the murder took place at 4:20PM. So then we present the watch, Phoenix screams, "Objection!", grins with his arms akimbo, and the witness is shaken up. We're then able press his revised testimony to reveal more lies, deceit, and tomfoolery. Every clue, every piece of evidence, every bit of testimony holds a clue to the truth behind the cases you take on. You may end up staring at one of these three things for minutes on end before realizing how to connect the dots. Or, you may find out right away what a horrible liar the witness is because you looked over the contradictory evidence a few minutes prior. The lies get more complicated, the testimony gets more specific, and it takes you more and more effort to find holes. Whatever we'd equate good level and enemy design to in this genre, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney's got it.
It could be all for naught; you might have already dismissed Phoenix Wright's simple mechanics, and no amount of ingenious thinking on your part would save it from the fact that all you do is tap and object. Capcom's presentation, then, swoops in to save the day It's not often that I consider that presentation is supremely important, but this game is one of those whose presentation is nailed so perfectly that you wonder how the game could succeed without it. What we have here is the odd mix of great American localization with decidedly Japanese graphical charm.
Let's go with the dialog localization. I admit - I ran into one or two "your-instead-of-you're" errors here and there. Not a big deal. Pay more attention to the random, oddball banter between the attorneys or the other characters. When the prosecutor objects to Phoenix's objection solely because he "finds it objectionable"; when your protagonist is called all manners of nicknames from Phoenix Wrong to Phoenix Left; or when even something as childish someone mistaking Phoenix's friend Larry Butz's name for "Harry Butz"; you can't help but giggle.
Then you mix that in with the game's audiovisual presentation. Where the dialog is much appreciated by Western audiences, the sound effects and the visuals simply shout, "SHONEN JUMP!" The visuals consist mainly of static backdrops which range from colorful and sharp to somewhat fuzzy and dithered, and big, screen-filling, beautiful character graphics that follow the "paper doll" motif. Each character has a few frames of animations for choice actions and different frames for emotional expression. What really gets the whole anime thing going is how characters react to one another visually and how they're presented in certain situations. Take, for example, the bellboy carrying a tea-set when you find him in the hotel. And in court? "That tea set looks rather heavy, so let's get started with the testimony," says the judge. WHY would you carry a tea set on the stand? Because that's what anime bellboys in anime courtrooms do, of course.
If you just listened to a courtroom exchange, you might ask yourself: "What is this, a fighting game?" Sure seems like it, with combat sound effects and the ultraquick-paced focus shifting from person to person. Even the cross-examination begins with a Street Fighter-esque "Versus" screen that shows a picture of you versus the prosecutor. Trial sequences in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney truly resemble battles rather than dry speech; the Finger Point, Table Slam and Arms Akimbo are your special moves, and Objectioning with relevant evidence is your level 3 super.
The music is no slouch here, either, providing fast paced and tense sounding tunes when things get heated in the court. During testimony, before you actually take serious action, the music is less fast paced and less tense - but still has that little anticipatory edge that makes you kind of lean in and read the testimony closely. The tunes themselves aren't remarkable, and half of it sounds like it comes out of a Gameboy Color, but they're used to great effect in the courtroom. It's less satisfying out of the courtroom, where the tunes might as well be little ditties - in fact that's all they are. They neither add nor detract to the experience outside of court, save for making things a little less boring.
With the great presentation otherwise, however, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney hardly needs ditties to make the game entertaining. The entire concept is wrapped up nicely in cases that start out as really mind-boggling mysteries with satisfying conclusions, characters who are either endearing, laughable caricatures, or both. All of this is presented in five chapters, each one longer than the last, and the game surprisingly ends up weighing in with a lengthy first-run playtime. Depending on your reading speed, my rough estimate might be anywhere between ten and fifteen hours of game, which is nice for a DS game of the traditional adventure mold. Those familiar with the four chapters of the Gameboy Advance original - it's a remake, after all - will be tickled to find a very long, final fifth chapter added solely for the DS version. Better yet, new gameplay mechanics such as finger printing, uncovering bloodstains and examining evidence more closely by rotating certain pieces make their way into the chapter. It's just a shame that these only come into play for the last few hours of the game.
We've made it through this text without a single, annoyingly bad legal pun. I owe Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney that much. It's got laughs. It's got satisfying closure. It's got great thinking-man's gameplay bolstered by a decidedly anime presentation. It's even got a jubbulent witness clad in pink. Whatever you think of traditional adventure games; whatever you thought of "that lawyer game" when you first heard about it; play this game. What's supposed to be slow and plodding ends up being quite a thrill ride.