May 25, 2017

That's A Wrap: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

objection! may contain spoilers

I got my first look at the Ace Attorney series when I did a 3DS Game Binge for the site a couple months ago. I've been hearing people raving about these games for some time, but I guess I just shifted it to the back burner to focus on the more "heavy duty" games I wanted to play. Doing that binge helped me learn that, in fact, it's Phoenix I need in my life right now... he's all I've got time for!
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a 2001 interactive courtroom "drama" game by Capcom, originally made for the Game Boy Advance and later ported (and expanded*) for the Nintendo DS (and others) in 2005. It's the first of many in the Ace Attorney series, which, as the title suggests, follows a number of elite lawyers in their bid to bring justice to all.

I suppose I expected AA (teehee!) games to be puzzle in nature, and obviously law themed. I wasn't too far off. The game plays like an interactive novel, where a number of cases play out and it's up to you - as Phoenix - to memorize facts and point out inconsistencies in the stories of all people involved. A slight departure from the law theme, the game also includes an investigative portion in which Phoenix acts more like a detective than a defense attorney.

In terms of how the game looks... it's aged rather well! The game mostly utilizes the classic Japanese
cartoon style and simple, effective - albeit limited - animations to bring them to life. Backgrounds are stationary and pretty detailed, usually. Each character comes preloaded with a number of "stances" to help
convey their emotions - for example Phoenix will shake his head when he's got you cornered; tap his papers when he's contemplating something; sweat bullets when he's in trouble or ridiculed; and of course there's his iconic pointing gesture for when he makes a big revelation.
Unfortunately, the game also makes use of a number of annoying graphic embellishments to further emphasize the feeling of the moment. These include strobing lights and shaking environments... you almost feel like you're being assaulted every time someone makes a drastic motion or statement, or even just shouts... which is a lot. It's extremely repetitive and very exaggerated and abrasive over time. This is honestly what would stop me from recommending the game to many people... they just wouldn't take it seriously due to these "get the attention of the four-year-old" antics.

The music in AA is cool but nonintrusive. Basically each segment has its own theme - the courtroom lobby, the testimony theme, the victory theme, etc. - and sometimes different areas during investigation will, too.
By far the coolest and most outstanding theme is heard when Nick corners a witness with evidence during cross examination - I believe it's called "Pressing Pursuit". These moments are accompanied by a fast paced, heavy beat which expertly says, "haha, sucker! I got you!" I also find the courtroom lobby theme oddly soothing, considering what's to come.
In the effects department, sadly they mostly just emphasize the overbearing graphical annoyances. There's no real voice acting in the game, save for each character's "objection!" and Nick's "hold it" and "take that!" I kind of like that, though, it makes these moments all the more important, and you really begin to look forward to them. Each of the lawyers have their own "objection!" and von Karma's is by far my favorite. He's so old and snooty...

Speaking of von Karma, I guess I should introduce the characters.
Of course we have the titular Phoenix "Nick" Wright, our green defense attorney who keeps a very odd farm of friends.
Mia Fey is Nick's well endowed mentor and motivator... too bad she dies after our first court date. That doesn't stop her showing up, though!
Larry Butz no, I'm not kidding is Nick's highly animated friend from way back in the day. He has very poor taste in women and tends to fly off the handle without notice... as they say, "when something stinks, it's usually the Butz."
Maya Fey is Mia's younger sister and a spirit medium in training. Of course there had to be some irritating, useless fucking teenager that never leaves me alone and never stops talking. The good news is she can channel her dead sister when we really need her.
Ema Skye is yet another youngin' who basically replaces Maya after the latter decides to return to her medium training. Equally exasperating and also attached to her older, law educated sister, she intends to be a scientific investigator (clearly she's never hung out with Maya) and brings a new element to the investigation aspect of the game.
Clueless Judge - self explanatory. Apparently this area only has one judge.
Det. Dick Gumshoe is an investigator for the local P.D. He's a bit of a spazz and definitely not the brightest crayon in the box, but he usually helps you out.
Officer Jake Marshall essentially replaces Gumshoe towards the end of the game. Kinda. This dude is every western stereotype incarnate... therefore my favorite.
Then we have our parade of prosecutors - our enemy for the level, if you will - including Miles Edgeworth, Manfred von Karma and some geeky dude I can't remember the name of, but you face him in the first trial. Edgeworth and Phoenix were also kids together, and of course Edgey studied under the legendary von Karma, taking on many of his courtroom mannerisms. Karma is like prosecuting royalty in the Ace Attorney universe. I mostly just like him 'cause he hates idle chatter and actually moves the game along.
Finally, we have assorted witnesses, defendants, victims and a parrot. Usually these folks only stay with you for the duration of their specific chapter, unlike most of the aforementioned cast. But as you can see, there are many involved in the game, and they vary greatly in personality.

Despite being called 'Ace Attorney', this is actually Phoenix's first foray into defense law. He'd previously studied under a successful lawyer named Mia, but the game begins with his first solo (kinda. Mia is there but not really helping) court date. By the end of the game, Nick becomes a confident and undefeated Ace Attorney, though he struggles with his personal life and motivation.

PW: Ace Attorney shakes down in five episodes, which expand in length and difficulty over time. I support this method because it keeps the game from becoming overwhelming and offers many good resting points.
The game starts out pretty much holding your hand for the first trial, and then slowly lets go and hopes you figure it out on your own. For the first couple of cases, the killer is made known to you in advance. This kinda killed the mood for me. I prefer not knowing if I'm defending the killer or not!
The writing is cheesy, the names are cheesier. But despite the episodic nature of the game, there is a linear story throughout, which obviously remains personal to Phoenix.
It's important to note that there's a new method of law in the game, which states cases must be closed in three days. That means trials happen almost immediately after the crime is discovered and a (usually guilty) verdict must be assigned by the third day, even if there's more evidence or testimonies to be had.

As such, the gameplay comes at you in two modes: investigation and trial. Each chapter will begin with an opening scene, often depicting the murder, and then someone beckoning Phoenix for representation. Nick will then visit the accused in jail and begin to collect the facts, and the investigation ensues. You'll visit the crime scene, the police department, other law offices, whatever is necessary to collect the evidence you need and meet your witnesses, then you're off to trial.
I could do with less out-of-court shenanigans. Lawyers seldom investigate their cases the way Nick does. I know it's not uncommon for lawyers to research legal matters as it pertains to their case, but I don't think they typically take evidence directly from the crime scene, and so on...
Trial is the fun part, as far as I'm concerned. The investigation part of the game just adds a lot of unnecessary time and talking. Trial is where the actual law practice comes in, if you can call it that, and it's where the puzzle aspect of the game really ramps up.
So then court breaks down into two additional sections: a whole lot of chatter (except with my man von Karma!) which eventually leads to the witness testimony, which is then presented to Phoenix line by line. You're given yet another two options from here: you can "press" each or every statement as you see fit, which will force the witness to elaborate or clarify their statement - sometimes causing them to restate or adjust their testimony. During this process you're expected to find contradictions you can prove with the evidence in your court record... which you then "present" to advance the game.
You've only got five chances to present the correct evidence or you'll be held in contempt and thrown out of court with a blemished record, or lose the case with a guilty verdict. It's important that you pay attention to every detail handed to you in the 30 million lines of dialogue during investigation and testimony. The cases get more and more convoluted over time and there are points where you might be certain you know what to do or what happened, but it doesn't matter unless you present evidence in the correct order in court. You'll gather a lot of pieces for your court record during investigation, some of which seem like they might be useless, but everything has a purpose. So ultimately, it's very difficult to mess up, if you pay attention.
There are no real side quests or mini games in Ace Attorney, apart from Ema's scientific nature which adds the ability to test scenes for blood and fingerprints - easily the most fun to be had in the game! I wish they had introduced activities like this earlier, it would have made investigation much more tolerable (alas, it is a port. GBA didn't have the hardware necessary for this). There are also some optional-ish conversations to be had but the game is already long...

In the menus department, there's really only your court record and profiles log. The record holds all
the bits of evidence for each case (and your coveted attorney's badge) and you can access it at pretty much any time. Each entry will have a little blurb for you to memorize so you'll know when to call upon it during trial. The profiles log just keeps track of all the people mentioned during the case, even if they're not present. That's it!

Given the nature of the gameplay, the controls are exceedingly simple. You basically just mash 'A' or tap the screen a bazillion times to move the dialogue along at snail pace. You can scroll through your court record and use 'A' to select something - oftentimes you can "check" them further, which will allow you to zoom in and rotate, or whatever the piece calls for. There are also buttons for presenting evidence when applicable. Otherwise there will just be a back button to return to your court record. You can toggle between your record and profiles using the right shoulder button if you prefer. I mostly just used the DS's touch screen for navigation.
There is one other fun addition to the game: voice commands. These are awesome! And they allow you to play with one hand! Always a plus, for me, when it comes to handhelds. Basically there are a few distinct moments in the game during which Phoenix would call out one of his catch phrases. Rather than tapping the screen, you can hold the 'Y' button and shout the phrase yourself! For example, while cross examining a witness, you can press a particular statement by navigating to it, holding 'Y' and saying, "Hold it!" into the microphone. Just a fun little addendum to the game... I appreciate it.
Lastly, you can suspend and save your game at any time by pressing the 'Start' button, or you can just play until the next "natural" stopping point - usually between bouts of investigation and trial - at which point the game will ask you to save. If you use the suspend feature, it will overwrite the previous save file, so even if you screw up and want to go back, you won't be forced to return to the chapter start or the last "natural" save, you will resume from your suspended save state until you overwrite it - although chapter start is also an option!

There is only one difficulty mode in Ace Attorney and I found it to be... not easy, per se, but not as challenging as I had hoped. It's not very evenly weighed, in my opinion. Most of the meat of the game comes from the mundane investigation aspect, I had really hoped for more court dates (never thought I'd say that!). You have so few options, so when it really comes down to it, you just have to try everything and eventually you'll get it. The game is very linear and it's almost impossible to screw up.

According to my 3DS's stats app, I clocked a whopping 26 hours in my inaugural playthrough, and I don't feel like I was slacking, either. I was under the impression that I was swimming along, actually, so I don't know how you'd possibly shave down that time much.
Regrettably, due to the pace of the game and dialogue, the game feels even longer. I recommend playing as I did, in controlled bursts - 10 in total, for me. Take a break after each day or two in the game if you feel like it's starting to drag. As long as you don't put months between plays, I think you'll come back more than prepared to resume. In fact, even if you don't, the game offers you the ability to resume gameplay from the beginning of the chapter as well as your save state, so if you do come back after a long hiatus, you won't have to replay the entire game if you don't want to! Completed chapters remain unlocked for replay at your discretion.

I'm sure you've gathered, by now, that I hardly think Phoenix Wright is the perfect game. But its flaws are very succinct! For one, it desperately needs options or a pace improvement. I really don't mind a lot of reading, but you literally spend 80% of the game just tap, tap, tapping your way through slow dialogue that adds very little overall. And it could be less convoluted and more truly... difficult? at times. The game adds all sorts of hang ups to confuse you, like asking you to hear something again or expecting you to press a certain statement more than once. There's no way to know if this is necessary or just annoying until you've tried everything else. It gets frustrating when the direction isn't clear, and not for lack of trying. I'd much rather the difficulty be found in the actual evidence, or maybe based on which prosecutor you're squaring off against.
As I mentioned before, the game is presented as very child-like. I know plenty of people (mainly casual gamers) that would enjoy the shit out of Ace Attorney if it were more calm and perhaps more realistic. Not everyone grew up watching anime and has the tolerance for the over exaggerated theatrics of literally everyone in the game, which also defies everything I know about criminal law... i.e. what t.v. taught me. A more realistic handle on the subject matter would be appreciated. P-Dubs truly feels like a children's game even though it's centered on murder trials. That's not to say that it isn't charming and cute, but after 26 hours of the same thing... there's room for improvement.
And despite my complaints, I did actually enjoy playing Ace Attorney. It has great roots, really. It just desperately needs a pace adjustment and perhaps to tone down the boisterous Japanese-television-show-ness to be more accessible to older audiences. I am still very interested in checking out other games in the series; I hear they get a little more refined with time and that's exactly what I'm hoping for.

Speaking of which, the Ace Attorney series has produced many sequels, some of which do not revolve around Phoenix, or Phoenix alone. Nick has four sequels: Justice For All, Trials and Tribulations, Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice; his fellow attorneys Apollo Justice and Miles Edgeworth both have a game or two, and then there is the Professor Layton crossover game, which I'm told throws our main man into another time. Sounds fun!

*The original game only consisted of the first four chapters. The fifth was added to the port!

I didn't find court hard to follow, but investigation is a chore. Here are a few LOTIPS:
  • You'll know you're on the right track when you visit someplace and are greeted with green text. Like this:
  • Exhaust your talking points. This way you'll always know if something new has been added since you last spoke.
  • For want of that, you may have to present evidence to get someone talking. It's often the thing least related to your actual case, or the most recently acquired.

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