Review by Suprak the Stud

Reviewed: 07/08/11

All of the Fun of Being a Lawyer, Without That Nagging Feeling That Everyone Hates You

Assemble a group of gamers together and ask them their ideal character to play as in a videogame, and you will have a variety of answers. And a stinky living room. You might hear soldier or warrior if you're talking to an action fan that has a fixation and bludgeoning thinks and around whom all the neighborhood squirrels have gone missing. You might hear hero, or spy, or Teddy Roosevelt if you're talking to someone awesome. Or you might hear caterpillar or fifteen if you're talking to a moron or someone that recently suffered a head injury (you should probably get them to a hospital). Something you are unlikely to hear, however, is lawyer, because no one wants to play as a character that spends his time pouring of legal briefs and studying case law because that is an incredibly boring way to spend your free time and if someone did respond this way you wouldn't be talking to them because they clearly have no friends. However, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney crushed my long help assumption that playing as a lawyer would be boring (I have a lot of oddly specific assumptions), as the game featured a fantastic script and unique gameplay and was one of the most enjoyable experiences on the DS to date. The second game in the series Phoenix Wright: Justice For All is largely the same game with some minor tweaks to the gameplay to improve upon the initial experience. The game does suffer from a somewhat worse story as some of the cases are a bit too convoluted, but as a whole JFA is very entertaining and helps swing Phoenix Wright from a great game to a great series.

You once again assume the role of the titular Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney who appears to be single handedly keeping the styling gel industry in business. There are Jersey Shore cast members that use less hair product than Phoenix, and the only thing worse than his choice in grooming habits is his choice in clients. Phoenix has a penchant for taking strange or quirky clients that have so much evidence mounted against them that even Johnny Cochran would be asking for a plea bargain. Unfortunately, the police department is either incompetent or run by five year olds, and important pieces of evidence are either not found or completely overlooked and left for Phoenix to find. And to top it all off a new prosecutor has come to the states to challenge Phoenix and she is the daughter of Manfred von Karma, the evilly taserific villain from the previous game. Thus, Phoenix will have to save his clients from lazy police work, a mountain of evidence, and a prosecutor with a grudge against him and a willingness to do anything to acquire a guilty verdict. And unlike most videogame heroes who have a mountain of guns and unlimited ammo to vanquish their foes, all Phoenix has at his disposal are hit wits, his trust in his clients, and a bright blue suit it looks like he used to wear when he sold used cars.

The story is divided into four interlocking episodes, with each case comprising its own episode. The quality of the story sort of vacillates depending on how interesting the individual case is, and the story flirts with mediocrity for a couple of cases before deciding mediocrity is much uglier than her friend excellence and moves down the bar to get her a drink instead. The intro case is fairly straightforward and dull and uses amnesia as a story device, which is essentially all you need to know about it to determine its quality. The third case takes a sharp turn into crazy town, which is quite the accomplishment for a game that features a spirit medium that can channel the spirit of her dead sister as a main character. The murder is overly convoluted and ridiculously simple to figure out at the same time, which is a bit of a problem for a game where the mystery is part of the fun. However, case two was solid and case four is one of the best in the series, which some genuinely tense moments leading to a really satisfying conclusion. Even the other two cases aren't really bad, and while the overall quality of the cases is probably a bit below that established by the first game, it is still a fairly enjoyable package as whole.

While the quality of the cases might have slipped a bit, the dialogue doesn't and alone is pretty much worth the price of admission. The first game in the series was one of the few games that actually made me laugh out loud when it was supposed to and not ironically because the dialogue was so bad that even Bablefish would have rejected it because it has some standards. PW:JFA continues this trend, and there are usually at least a couple of moments in each case that are legitimately laugh out loud funny. Even during the cases that I thought were poorly conceived, the script was at the very least good and the dialogue was well written. Dialogue and writing is unfortunately treated like a red headed step child in most games today, and it is either ignored completely or tortured and forced to live in a basement sustaining itself only on fish heads. So it is nice that so much time was spent making the dialogue entertaining and comprehendible and relatable to a North American audience. I can't imagine enjoying the game nearly as much if the dialogue was just rushed through, and as it stands the script manages to carry the game even through the sluggish portions. There are a couple things that are perhaps a bit too overdramatic, and Phoenix dealing with Edgeworth's disappearance after the first game is almost laughably silly. It would be like if your friend forgot to return one of your t-shirts, and you responded by burning down his mother's house.

Another aspect of the game that was particularly well done was the characters, and the cast is well developed and actually feel like unique characters with individual voices and motivations. Phoenix is a perfect main character for the game, and he is the right mix of seriousness and silliness to fit the tone of the game. The rest of the main cast is excellent, with the bumbling but good intentioned Gumshoe and the eager assistant Maya both returning to great effect. The core cast is one of my favorite in gaming, and while the game is fairly silly in tone, each of the characters are well developed and don't feel like one dimensional running jokes. The supporting cast perhaps isn't as strong as it was in the first game, and the number of annoying characters seems to be multiplying at an exponential rate. The primary defense attorney, Franziska von Karma, isn't quite as intimidating or imposing as the ones in the first game, so cases typically aren't as tense or dramatic. Still, she is a fairly entertaining character and her biggest problem is the incredibly high bar set by the first game. The villains in the cases, however, are just as strong this time around. They might not be quite as frighteningly and comically evil (with one notable exception), but there are a couple that are actually fairly complex with motives other than appearing to want to audition for a maniacal villain on a Saturday morning children's cartoon. The game does a nice job playing with the idea of what justice means for all these characters, and everything is less black and white than in the first game.

The gameplay is pretty much just borrowed from the first game, in the same way a thief might borrow the contents of a safe. However, while the gameplay might be evolving with all the urgency of a conservative sloth from Kansas, it was entertaining enough in the first game that any major deviations from the formula would have hurt more than it helped. The game is split pretty evenly between court segments, where you interrogate witnesses and sift through their testimony, and investigation segments, where you go out and do all the work the lazy police department should have done in the first place. The court segments are still more enjoyable, and play the role of Batman to the investigations segment's Robin. Various witnesses take the stand and give testimony, most of which are either outright lies or slight alterations of what actually happened. Phoenix has to comb through each of these testimonies, pressing on statements to gain more information and presenting contradicting evidence when applicable to crush their feeble attempts to thwart justice. While not all witnesses are intentionally lying, they will at times misremember certain facts and it is up to Phoenix to set the record straight.

While this might not sound like the most entertaining way to crush your enemies, as a lot of gamers prefer the old tried and true bullet to the face method, these cross examinations are surprisingly enjoyable and going through testimony is much more enjoyable than indicated by Nancy Grace and her crazy pantsuit. The excellent dialogue helps, but there is something enjoyable about going through and figuring out exactly what is wrong with a specific testimony. It is a very unique and well executed concept, although somewhat less unique now considering it was featured in an identical way in the first game. It isn't perfect, and sometimes the evidence you need to present seems to be a bit off. Occasionally, you'll have two pieces of evidence that will prove the same thing, like a knife and a picture of the same knife, but only one will work to undermine the testimony, like the judge is incredibly picky as to what arguments you can make. A couple of the villains also seem to phone it in a bit at then end, and don't really put up as much of a fight as you might expect. They might have an incredibly solid lie put together, but after you point out one little thing wrong about it, they burst into tears and slap handcuffs on themselves. The third culprit is especially guilty of this, and the thing that ends up catching him up is so incredibly dumb on their part that they might as well smeared the victim's blood over their face and called it a day. Despite these minor hiccups, the courtroom segments are well designed and genuinely fun to play through.

The investigation segments are perhaps a little more dull and straightforward, but only because of how enjoyable the courtroom stuff is. They play a little bit more like a classic point-and-click adventure game, and Phoenix must scour various areas to look for clues and talk to witnesses. You can also present evidence or profiles to characters you run in to, which can either help find out some new clues about the case or just provide a couple of humorous lines. While they aren't quite as entertaining as the courtroom portions, these segments are quite well designed and feel very cohesive. There is a good balance between searching through scenes to find evidence and talking to people to learn some more about the case, and it prevents the segments from going stale. They are somewhat slow and they don't really capture the intensity of the courtroom battles, but they are still quite enjoyable.

The basic gameplay is mostly the same, but the most substantial and important change to the basic format established by the first game was the inclusion of psyche-locks, which sounds like something a faith healer would try to scam you out of your money to cure. During the investigation segments of the game, you occasionally run into people that are trying to hide some secret, like the fact that they know more about the crime than they're letting on or that they recently tweeted photos of their junk to a couple college girls. While normally you would just have to wait around in frustration while they keep on lying until they have a teary-eyed press conference about a week later apologizing to their wives for their errors in judgment and their poor understanding of how computer hacking works, Phoenix has a tool at his disposal that allows him to uncover their lies immediately. He receives Maya's magatama early on in the game, and this allows him to see people lies though…uh, lets say magic. Various locks and chains will appear over the characters like they were just visited by Marley's ghosts for refusing to celebrate Christmas and hating orphans. You can unlock these by going through a mini cross-examination portion, where you prove their statements are lies by presenting the correct evidence. Breaking all the locks causes them to break down and confess what they know, like a politician after being confronted by their entourage of mistresses.

While this might not sound like a substantial modification, it actually makes the investigation portions flow better and gives them some of the same tension that is found in the courtroom segments. The courtroom portions are still the strongest aspect, but at least there wasn't as much as a chasm between the two. In the first game, the investigations tended to drag just a bit, and I tended to rush through them so I could get back to the courtroom and lay down some sweet, sweet justice. However, the psyche-locks end up bringing some of the cross-examinations to the investigations, and they really help improve these segments. While the investigations themselves weren't particularly bad, and pointing-and-clicking your way through the areas and talking to people is all fun and good, at times you feel like you're just wandering around until the game gives you permission to get back to the court. The psyche-locks not only give you some clearly defined goals, they also help the pacing of the investigations, and overall were a nice addition that helped buttress one of the weaker aspects of the first game.

The controls are great for the game, and the touch screen interface is used perfectly. Usually the touch screen is implemented in a DS game the same way a stripper is integrated into a child's birthday party, and the end result results in nothing but confusion and people running around crying. However, the touch screen interface just makes sense for this sort of game. You inspect certain areas by just moving the stylus to the point you want to look at on the touch screen. Conversation options, selecting evidence, and pressing for more information all can be done the same way, and everything is just intuitive. The touch screen interface is just about perfect for a point-and-click adventure game, since you can now literally point and click.

Visually, everything is fairly impressive as well. The character sprites movements that accompany their dialogue are all well designed, and some are so good that they can elicit laughs themselves. They all seem to fit their characters quite well and beyond that they just look nice. They aren't going to find themselves in any sort of art gallery any time soon, but they are bright, colorful, and fun and really fit the game nicely. The music is once again great, and my music snob friends assure me that the soundtrack is what all the cool videogame nerds are listening to. The bells and whistles have always been a strong point in this series, and this is true this time around as well.

As a whole, PW:JFA is probably a bit weaker than its predecessor. It does offer some nice new additions, and the ability to present character profiles and the addition of psyche-locks manage to add some more depth to the game and improve upon the already entertaining investigation segments. Still, the strongest aspect of the first game – the story – takes a bit of a hit this time around and some of the cases just aren't as worthwhile to play. There is also less content as a whole this time around, and with only four cases the game feels a bit brief. Still, it is hard to recommend against this game, especially if you were a fan of the first. The humor, charm, and entertainment is all here in spades, even if there is a little bit less to go around than in the first game. This is still probably the most fun you're ever going to have in a courtroom, unless you show up in a judge's robe and try to convince everyone that the real judge is a fraud. So this is the most fun you'll have in a courtroom that won't land you in prison.

Justice For All (THE GOOD):
+Script is great; lots of laugh out loud lines
+Gameplay is surprisingly fun for a lawyer sim
+Courtroom segments are well designed and thinking about the logic behind arguments is enjoyable
+Addition of psyche-locks and profile presenting adds some more depth to investigation segments
+Great music and nice artwork
+A couple of real well done cases that feature fun "whodunit" mysteries

Lawlessness For Some (THE BAD):
-A couple of the cases are overly complicated and not well thought out
-Some portions are far too easy; a lot of the villains seem to give up with little fight
-New cast is somewhat weaker than the old one
-Some weird problems with evidence at times; not all contradictory evidence is accepted

Cake For Nobody (THE UGLY): This game introduces the character of Pearl Fey, spirit medium in training and adorably precocious little girl. All is well until she needs to channel Mia, a process that causes her to take on the body of Phoenix's buxom mentor from the first game. So now what you have is a five-year-old child with the body of a 25 year old and who's tiny clothes can barely contain all of the curves. It was like the developers looked at the first game and were like, "This isn't nearly creepy enough. We must remedy this somehow."

THE VERDICT: 7.25/10.00

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice for All (US, 01/16/07)

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