Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy

Nintendo 3DS

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy
Awkward yet determined lawyer Phoenix Wright never can tell what case he'll take next: perhaps a falsely accused TV superhero, a murderous spirit, a circus murder, a masked celebrity thief, or just a conventional killing surrounded by weirdos and lunatics. He contends with cruel prosecutors and an easily swayed court system, but the right evidence is always there if Phoenix looks hard enough.
The game-playing multitudes often worry over writing quality. Many of us want game stories to be the serious, respected stuff of collegiate literary analysis, and we get downright bitter when they fall short. In our alternating bouts of self-deprecation and optimism, we often forget that good writing doesn't have to be high-minded and masterful. After all, the Phoenix Wright games certainly aren't classic prose writ in pixel. If they were, they'd be priceless and groundbreaking, but they might not be as much as fun as they are now.

Phoenix Wright is a newly instated attorney, eager and affable and surprisingly naïve about the legal system he must have spent years studying. Then again, the courts of the Ace Attorney future tend to rush things: cases are tried within three days of the crime, and the proceedings tilt so much toward the prosecution that Phoenix's clients are essentially guilty until proven innocent. With help from his mentor Mia Fey, Phoenix picks up the art of cross-examining witnesses, catching them in lies, and noticing evidence that the prosecutors and police skipped. Such skills also work outside of the court. Whether browsing for clues or gathering witness testimonies, Phoenix needs to spot inconsistencies and blow them wide open.

The Ace Attorney series is an adventure game in simple terms. Phoenix and Mia will poke around crime scenes, but their cases always come down to conversations: prodding witnesses with proof, weaseling guarded details out of the increasingly dense Detective Dick Gumshoe, or discovering the bizarre yet convincing leaps of logic that exonerate a client. It's all a direct rail-ride. Advancing the story is just a matter of finding out which evidence to use and which argument to make when you're prodded, even when the game introduces psyche-locks and other witness barriers. A depletable meter keeps players from going purely by guesswork, but it's not very difficult to see the solution in most cases. The method and the culprit are often clear. The challenge is in deducing just how the game wants you to show it.

Such limitations don't matter to Shu Takumi, director and chief writer for the Ace Attorney trilogy packaged here. Instead of building a straight-faced legal thriller, he turns Phoenix Wright into a deliciously absurd courtroom drama. Each trial is a battle of wits between the player and a bizarre succession of prosecutors, ranging from the easily outmatched Winston Payne to the elitist Miles Edgeworth, the whip-cracking Franziska von Karma, and the crafty, coffee-swilling, half-masked Godot. There's an equally strange procession of misfits to take the stand, whether it's a nattering old security guard or an array of circus eccentrics. And Phoenix Wright lands at the core of everything, playing straight-man to the witnesses, the judge, the prosecution, and even his own psychic assistant, Mia's sister Maya Fey. He's a likeable doofus savant in court, forgetful one minute and sharktooth-sharp the next.

True to the game's turnabout theme, Takumi expertly spins the courtroom power struggle. Each case stacks the deck for the prosecution with downright absurd presumptions of guilt. It leaves Phoenix (or Mia) on the ropes, often clinging to nothing but their faith in a client's innocence. Then something changes. There's a crack in an oily witness's testimony or a strange new background wrinkle, and the tide of silliness rolls the other way. Ace Attorney is a comical game where murderers out themselves with cartoonish breakdowns and even heinous crimes take on ridiculous proportions. The contrast would shatter a less careful tale, but Takumi rarely falters. The cast, lawyers and villains and victims and all, seem genuine despite their amusingly animated quirks. Even the culprits, who are obvious from a mile away, often show traces of sympathy beneath the obnoxious façades.

Throughout the trilogy, Takumi toys with clichés. There are ghost-summoning mediums, corrupt prosecutors, vengeful specters, maid cafes, switched identities, pompous con artists, sudden bouts of amnesia, charming ingénues, masked thieves and their police rivals, TV superheroes and their crazed fans. The magnificent sprite animation sculpts them into charming oddities, and the characters are strong enough to push back the more annoying stereotypes. Perhaps the best contravention lies in Mia Fey. She's shuffled out early in the first game, like so many mentoring women are in fiction, only to jump back in the strangest way. The third game even puts her under the player's control for two cases, and it makes her the most important character across the trilogy.

With three games and over a dozen cases, it's hard to keep everything smooth. Fans of later Phoenix Wright games will find the original outing brief; the opening case is a blip, and the first real villain, built up as an insidiously well-connected blackmailer, goes down too quickly once he's on the stand. The second game, Justice for All, is the unfortunate middle act, and it runs into the trilogy's greater missteps. Franziska's whipcracks get old halfway into her first trial, and a ventriloquist-dummy schtick drags out a tedious circus-murder case that should, by all reasoning, be the highlight of the game. The finale, Trials and Tribulations, pulls the whole thing together nicely and finds a great antagonist in Godot, though it wouldn't stand up without the other games behind it.

Nor would Ace Attorney be the same without an inspired translation. The localizers changed a little with each game (the first game's staff included Alexander O. Smith; the third, Jeremy Blaustein), but they all knew when to play up Phoenix Wright's native Japanese details and when to change them. While the stories are unaltered, the names and local details saw heavy Americanization, giving us such characters as a policeman named Dustin Prince, a bumpkin photographer called Lotta Hart, or a fragile suspect called Ron DeLite. It's often quite obvious that the games occur in Japan and not, as the text would have it, some alt-reality Los Angeles, but that hardly detracts from the humor.

All three titles were previously available as DS games and mobile releases, though Ace Attorney Trilogy presents them in the best condition yet. The graphics are sharper, the Japanese versions are included, and players don't have to go through the trio in order. The text even moves faster and shows fewer typos. It's the best version of the original Phoenix Wright chronicle, even if it's pretty short on extras or any physical packaging.

Of course, these are old games—the originals were Game Boy Advance titles. Those spoiled by more recent Ace Attorney adventures will note that Phoenix's head looks a little too small for his body here, or that Edgeworth's graceful bow has only a few frames of animation, or that the music sounds a little basic despite its excellent, catchy composition. Yet fluid animation isn't necessary when Edgeworth's composure slips, when Maya perks up with some daft observation, or when Phoenix blinks through a faceful of coffee. The appeal is ageless.

In fact, these three Ace Attorney games show little wear, proving just as witty and endearing as they were many years ago. They're reminders that a story, wherever you find it, doesn't have to be an unblemished jewel of skilled prose and unique plotting. It just has to catch us up in whatever it's doing. Hiccups and silliness aside, Phoenix Wright's cases are hard to set down once you're in deep. They hold up well, as all good stories should.

Overall : A-
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B
Presentation : A-

+ Adorable, compelling courtroom antics unlike any other game
Underlying structure offers little space to explore

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