Game Review

by Andrew Yoon,

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice For All

Nintendo DS

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice For All
Rookie lawyer Phoenix Wright returns to the courtroom, solving four new wacky cases. However, things are never easy for the defense attorney: he'll have to go head-to-head against Franziska von Karma, the undefeated daughter of Manfred von Karma, who you imprisoned in the first Phoenix Wright game.

The first Phoenix Wright quickly became a cult success on the Nintendo DS. And no wonder: there's an undeniable allure in pretending to be a lawyer, yelling “Objection” into the DS microphone. The highly likeable characters, the incredibly sharp writing, and some absorbing game mechanics made the first Phoenix Wright a real winner.

Phoenix Wright is one of the few text-heavy games to hit it big in the States. The Japanese have long embraced the interactive novel genre, but those games rarely make it to America. The few that do become localized are usually adult “hentai” games. Because of the genre's relative under-representation in the US, some may be surprised to learn that the gameplay of Phoenix Wright is nearly identical to the somewhat more “provocative” games. For the most part, there is very little gameplay: you move from location to location, talk to characters, and read through an incredible amount of dialogue. There are a few moments where players must make choices, but for the most part, the game plays like a choose-your-own-adventure novel.

While some may find the reading-intensive formula of the franchise to be overwhelming (or boring), those that can appreciate a well written story will find much to enjoy in the Phoenix Wright games. Comparing the series to a graphic novel series would not be unfounded. Like a good manga, the game features some lively characters that are drawn in an eye-catching style and animated nicely. The stories are compelling, as each case is filled with twists and turns: you'll find yourself continuing onward simply to unravel the mystery behind each case. However, the greatest aspect of the franchise has to be its truly AAA-caliber writing. The dialogue is hilarious, and surprisingly self-aware. The localization team has done a stellar job at not simply translating the text, but adding surprisingly biting, tongue-in-cheek jokes, and unexpected pop culture references. The titular character, Phoenix, is incredibly lovable thanks to the stellar first-person narrative the game possesses: his insights provide a captivating, grounded look into a zany world.

However, like many manga series, Ace Attorney is not very accessible to the first-time player. While the game makes many attempts at making the game feel comfortable for newcomers, the experience is certainly lessened when players encounter characters from the first game. In fact, a majority of the game's plot is driven by events and characters from the first Phoenix Wright. While this is great fan service for players of the original, it will undoubtedly be somewhat disorienting for newcomers. Considering how sublime the first Phoenix Wright is, I implore that you play the first game before purchasing this sequel. To do so would be akin to reading Bleach once the story moves onto Soul Society: it will be completely comprehensible, but you will lose much of the back-story of the characters. Also, like Bleach's later story arcs, Phoenix Wright loses much of its momentum in this second outing, becoming much too dependent upon its formulaic structure.

Players of the original Phoenix Wright may be disappointed to see that the game mechanics remain unchanged. The storytelling is identical to the first outing: you will always be in a murder trial, and you will always find a client that you believe is innocent, and you will always face overwhelming odds against a crazy prosecutor. Frustratingly, the story's plot twists are becoming much more predictable, considering the pattern set by the first game: one of the witness will always be the real killer, but the truth will not be revealed until you predictably unravel contradictions in their testimonies.

The recycling of many assets from the first game also becomes somewhat alarming. The returning cast (which makes up most of the characters in the game), are animated with the same sprites. Many of the backgrounds are the same: unimproved from the original. In video games, it's expected that a series offers improvements to the previous iterations, but this is Phoenix Wright's ultimate shortcoming: it is many ways a disappointing retread. For example, the original Phoenix Wright featured five cases, with one specifically designed for the DS's unique capabilities (which was a nice touch, given that the Phoenix Wright games arriving in America are ports of Game Boy Advance games). The final case was an incredibly absorbing one which upped the ante considerably: pages of evidence to sort through, a large cast of characters, and a moving storyline that drastically changes one character permanently. It was easily the largest case in Phoenix's career. The gameplay was phenomenal as well, allowing you take fingerprints at a scene but tapping the screen and blowing dust away. One impressive sequence uses the DS's advanced 3D capabilities to render a scene in full 3D.

Unfortunately, Justice For All does not feature a fifth case. While the four available in the game are still good, it's disappointing to not have the advanced features from the original's fifth case. Where are the touch screen elements? Where are the 3D elements? With these features missing in action, Justice For All feels like less of a game than the original. Understandably, it is also a lot shorter than the first.

It's not as though Justice For All remains completely unchanged from the original. There is a new gameplay mechanic, the Psyche Lock, which requires you to present evidence to characters to get information from them. However, this “new” feature isn't new at all: it simply introduces gameplay elements from court trials into the evidence gathering sections. Unlike the art assets, the music remains largely changed, which is unfortunate. The first game featured an excellent soundtrack, and these new tunes seem lackluster and out of place.

Although this second outing for our favorite video game lawyer is generally underwhelming, it still retains all of the elements that made the first game so charming. The writing is just as fantastic as ever, and the characters are still highly enjoyable. If you've played and enjoyed the first game, you'll want to pick up this second game. For better or worse, this reviewer has become invested in the characters of the franchise, and I want to find out what happens to them, regardless of the potential stagnation the series may struggle through.

Overall : B-
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : C
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : B-

+ Some of the best writing in a video game. Characters are endearing.
Much shorter, loses the DS-specific features from the first game. No genuinely new features in gameplay.

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