Review by Suprak the Stud
"Passing the Bar with Flying Colors"
While courtroom dramas are a fixture on television, they never have made the transition to videogames because, well, playing through a game as a lawyer sounds lame. Compared to most games that have you assuming the role of a ninja, cyborg, pirate, or some sort of ninja-pirate-cyborg hybrid, playing through a game as a lawyer somehow sounds less appealing. Who really wants to spend their time dealing out justice in a court of law when justice can just as easily be dispensed with a rifle or a katana? And yet, in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, you are armed with only your wits and evidence and are forced to find the truth in the courtroom. This is certainly a unique concept, as the role of courtroom defense attorney is not one that is prominently featured in many games. While a defense attorney might not seem as exciting as a some of the other roles featured prominently in video games (and isn't as flashy as a ninja-pirate-cyborg hybrid), this does not mean PW:AA is any less exciting. Featuring a great script, interesting cases, and a memorable cast, PW:AA is a must own for anyone who is looking for a entertaining game on the DS and doesn't mind a lot of reading.
In PW:AA, you play as the titular character Phoenix Wright, a rookie defense attorney with a knack for attracting interesting cases. While this is supposedly occurring in America, the justice system that you encounter is far different with what you probably familiar with. Trials can last a maximum of three days, a judge (not a jury) decides the fate of the accused, and the burden of proof falls primarily on the defense. There are five different cases in PW:AA, each with their own unique storyline. Cases range from murder at an action studio to one out in the middle of the lake, and the odds against you start off so bad that they would send lesser, more cowardly defense attorneys running. In order to prove your client's innocence, you must search the crime scene, grill eyewitnesses, and find holes in their testimony. Failing to do so will result in your client receiving a guilty verdict, as well as bringing shame upon you and your entire family (it's pretty serious).
Proving your client's innocence isn't going to be easy, as you have to deal with shifty witnesses who don't want to tell you everything, an incompetent police department whose shoddy detective work already put you into a hole, and a variety of viscous prosecutors that will stop at nothing to get a guilty verdict. Gameplay is divided into two segments, and a portion spent in the courtroom defending your client while the rest is spent searching various important scenes for clues as to what actually happened. In both portions, evidence is accrued in the Court Record, and this ends up serving as your ammo as you play through the game. The courtroom portion is implemented very well and is actually a lot of fun to play through. Various individuals will provide you with testimony that you must pick apart. The testimonies tend to be somewhat sketchy, and witnesses tend to forget some parts or lie to your face, and it is up to you to dig out the truth. After the witness give out the entire testimony, you can skip to specific parts of it and either press them for more information, hoping they'll mess up or reveal some detail they omitted before, or if something contradictory arises in their testimony, present evidence that reveals them to be a fraud. Be warned; the judge apparently has some issue with you just throwing around random pieces of evidence and accusing innocent men, women, and children of murder (so lame), and if you present evidence at the wrong time or answer some of his questions incorrectly, you can be penalized. Your life bar consists of five exclamation marks, and each mistake will remove one piece of punctuation. After your life bar has been depleted, the judge decides he has heard enough and declares your client guilty. This ends up being a lot of fun to go through and the highpoint of the gameplay. Sometimes, the contradictions are so blatant you wonder why the judge doesn't bring it up, but others are more subtle and require a more thorough inspection of the evidence and a decent amount of logic. Still, nothing is so difficult that you can't figure it out after thinking through it for a little while, and tearing apart faulty testimonies is certainly satisfying.
The remainder of the game has you walking around various areas, in search of clues or witnesses that can help you prepare your counterargument in court. This part plays out somewhat like a point and click adventure, with the lower half of the touch screen allowing you to poke around the seen and examine certain aspects of it in more depth. Sometimes Phoenix just has some witty comment about what he's looking at, but other times it turns out to be important to the case and is added to the court record. By inspecting all of the scenes, you will find more evidence and come closer to getting your client acquitted. Also, you can spend this time talking to various individuals about what they have seen or what the might know about the people involved, and these conversations are well written and keep this part of the case interesting. You can also present evidence to individuals during this portion, and their responses might reveal some more information about the evidence (or they might just have something funny to say). However, it should be noted that these investigation periods tend to be much slower and a lot less entertaining than the intense courtroom battles. These parts really tend to drag, and without the interesting or funny dialogue, the investigations would be really boring. It would have been nice if something was done to make the investigations a bit more interesting, because most of the time while I was playing through these I was just anxious to get back to court. Case five does remedy this problem, as it introduces new elements to the gameplay. Each piece of evidence can be rotated and viewed from every angle, which allows for further inspection and the uncovering of more clues. Also, you can spray for hidden blood stains with luminol and search for fingerprints with the fingerprinting kit. These are just little touches, but they end up making the fifth case more enjoyable as even the investigations are more interesting. It would have been nice if these elements had been integrated into all of the cases, but as the fifth case is a special addition solely for the DS, it isn't a surprise it is the only one featuring flashy new gameplay.
Both of the segments are very easy to control, and everything can be do by tapping certain icons on the screen with the stylus. Searching around during the investigation is never cumbersome, and you aren't going to have to click on some esoteric location to advance the story. The search area is also fairly large, so you won't need pinpoint accuracy to select certain objects. The whole thing is very fluid to control, and playing through with the stylus feels natural and never gets cumbersome. You can also control using a more conventional control scheme if you can't stand the stylus controls, and this is also straightforward to use. The only problem that I ever encountered with the controls was shouting objection into the mic. If you're feeling bold enough, the certain commands in the court segment can be controlled by yelling into the mic, but the sensitivity was a little low and I'd always need to get very loud for it to work. Luckily, this is never necessary to move the game forward, so it shouldn't be a huge issue.
While the gameplay is enjoyable, what elevates PW:AA from good to great is the enjoyable script and endearing characters. Each case plays out somewhat like a mystery novel, and a lot of the twists are really good. In the last three cases, piecing together both the identity of the real murderer and the method by which their crime was committed proves to be more complex than early expectations. By uncovering certain pieces of evidence, you can turn around the entire case, and some of the testimonies and evidence in the game revealed something that was completely unexpected. Trying to figure out what happened before Phoenix does is a lot of fun, and even without the good plot twists, the cases are so well written that the entire experience is enjoyable. The first couple of cases serve to primarily introduce the concepts and characters featured throughout the game, and aren't nearly as interesting as the later cases. However, once you reach case 3, everything becomes a lot better constructed and each one of the cases is interesting and presents its fair share of mysteries. Even without the intriguing murder mystery plots, the script is still very nicely written and humorous. PW:AA is one of the funniest game I've played, and each of the cases have its fair share of laugh out loud moments. Inspecting everything and presenting each item you have to people as you investigate often leads to some very funny encounters, including characters pondering over the essence of a stepladder, a detective's mistake when he was trying to buy luminol, and Phoenix's propensity to whip out his badge at every opportunity. There are other parts in the script that are well written and fairly touching, and the script is so well done that you will actually want to go around talking to people and investigating everything, just to observe the reactions.
The cast of characters in PW:AA is also top notch, and there are a lot of different (and somewhat eccentric) people for you to interact with, each with his or her own unique personality. From the funny (and somewhat incompetent) Detective Gumshoe, the ruthless prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, to the somewhat flighty (but extremely dedicated) spirit channeler Maya Fey, the entire cast of PW:AA is memorable and really contributes to the game nicely. Even some of the minor characters, such as chief of police Damon Gant or children's action show actor Will Powers are developed nicely and are extremely memorable. Again, the script is nicely done and interacting with almost all of the characters in the game is a joy. There are a few (*coughcoughMikeMeekingscoughcough*) that are utterly annoying and make you want to strangle them, but these tend to be the exception and not the norm.
The music and visuals are also very nicely implemented in to the game. The music changes depending on the situation, and reflects the mood very nicely. Additionally, while the graphics aren't the best that can be found on the DS, they compliment the feel of the game and in retrospect I would have a hard time imagining the graphics done any other way. The backdrops are nicely detailed, but some tend to be a little bland. The characters are all well designed, and when talking to them an image of their character (up to the waist) appears on the screen that can go through a variety of motions, depending on their mood. For example, Gumshoe will rub the back of his head if confused or embarrassed, puff out his chest and smile if confident, or goes through several other animations depending on what he is communicating. All of the characters have animations like these, and each one reflects the characters mood nicely and can at times emphasize the humor of what is being said.
Developing a game based on a lawyer attempting to find his clients innocent sounds like something of a risk commercially, especially considering what the big sellers tend to be. However, the risk really paid off for Capcom because Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is one of the most enjoyable games that has been released for the DS. It is by no means perfect, as the game tends to drag too much during the investigation portions and the first couple of cases are somewhat boring. Additionally, there really isn't any replay value, because after you complete the game once you've seen pretty much everything PW:AA has to offer. However, overall the gameplay is enjoyable, and it is coupled with a great story, script, and characters. Even though there isn't really any extra content, what is there is great (and I still played through a couple of times because I liked the script so much). Little improvements could have made this game a classic, and even with a couple of shortcomings PW:AA is thoroughly enjoyable. Pick up PW:AA if you can find it; going to the courtroom has never been so much fun.
TAKE THAT! (THE GOOD):
+Very nicely designed court segments
+Logic driven gameplay is enjoyable; spotting contradictions in testimony is more fun than it sounds
+Really good, humorous script that should keep you playing
+Well designed cast of characters
+Most of the cases are intriguing and offer a good mystery
+Interface is straightforward and really easy and intuitive to use on the DS
HOLD IT! (THE BAD):
-The investigation portions of the game tend to drag
-First couple of cases are somewhat dull and the game takes a little while to get going
-Game tends to be a little too easy, and sometimes the solutions are made too obvious
-No real reason to play through the game again after you've completed it
GUILTY (THE UGLY): Shouting objection at your DS in a crowded place. No, no, I'm not crazy, see, the game is telling me to scream at it. The man in the game is lying and yeah, never mind. I'm just going to turn the volume down and use the touch screen interface for now on.
THE VERDICT: 8.25/10.00
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/26/09, Updated 07/01/09
Game Release: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (US, 10/12/05)
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