"The name's Wright. Phoenix Wright...Ace Attorney."
Capcom's Gyakuten Saiban series, interactive novels that give players the chance to solve murder mysteries, is very popular in Japan. While it started on the trusty GBA in 2001, ports have since spread to cell phones and Nintendo DS. Fortunately for us, Capcom decided to introduce the series to English speakers along the way, and the Ace Attorney series remains a crowd pleaser as Trials & Tribulations (T&T) concludes the Phoenix Wright trilogy.
For those still unfamiliar with the series, Phoenix Wright is a talented, unconventional, and trusting young defense attorney who must defend his clients—usually innocents accused of murder—by investigating and arguing in court. Phoenix lives in a fictionalized, anime-inspired version of our world; the English translations implausibly insist Phoenix practices in America and not Japan. While the series adopts certain concepts from real judicial systems, it by no means mirrors actual courtroom or investigative proceedings. Evidence contamination, rushed trials, and other no-no's are embraced in the interest of a compelling, dramatic narrative. Of course, you shouldn't be expecting a courtroom simulator when your sidekick is a genuine spirit medium.
The game design remains unchanged from Justice for All, which in turn only slightly augments the original's. The low-tech presentation is menu and text-based, with limited (but loveable) sprites and sound effects. You can use either the touch screen or D-pad + buttons to navigate and examine crime scenes, question witnesses, and gather evidence. In the courtroom you must cross-examine witnesses by questioning testimonies and presenting evidence to reveal lies, discover the truth, and ultimately prove your client's innocence.
Truth be told, the linear, multiple-choice-question gameplay isn't the series' primary draw. Sure, it's neat to play lawyer, point out contradictions, and yell, "Objection!" into the microphone, but the game's appeal really lies in its characters and their interactions. Phoenix's hodgepodge entourage of spirit mediums and deadbeats is still adorable, although the continued involvement of prior clients in unrelated murder cases is a bit silly. The franchise's humor is in full-force: crazy character designs, pop culture and video game references, and word play continue to amuse. And as with the first two games, it's always fun to see villains slowly lose their cool and transform in both attitude and physical appearance as the truth unfolds.
More than anything it's the hilarious and dramatic courtroom banter that has captured fans' hearts. As usual, because of Phoenix's by-the-skin-of-his-teeth defense strategies, he is constantly pinned down and chewed out until he somehow manages a turnabout victory. Trials and Tribulations introduces yet another prosecuting attorney bent on ruining Wright. Godot is a sly, coffee-fueled renegade with a mysterious past and a passion for offbeat philosophies. While Godot cannot compete with legendary prosecutor Miles Edgeworth from the original Phoenix Wright, his rugged, confident attitude and biting retorts are far more satisfying than the shallow ramblings of Franziska von Karma from Justice for All.
While each case mostly stands alone, the subplots spanning them are also part of the games' charm. This rings especially true for Trials & Tribulations, which takes place both before the first game and after the second as you play as Phoenix in the present and his deceased mentor, Mia Fey, in the past to solve separate yet intertwined cases. In doing so, the narrative brings the trilogy full-circle, resolving loose ends and cementing relationships. Cases are also cleverly presented out of temporal order, introducing brilliant twists of dramatic irony. Like Justice for All, you could certainly play this entry first, since Phoenix and the others reminisce as needed to fill in vital details, but prior cases would be spoiled, dialog would go unappreciated, and fan service would be utterly wasted. Do yourself a favor and play them all in order.
The game's shortfalls shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has played either of the prior games. Sometimes the defense must press the sections of a testimony in a particular order for no clear reason. This occasionally caused me to think I was pursuing a wrong angle when I was, in reality, correct. Similarly, when presenting evidence in court or during investigations, relevant evidence may not be among the correct choices according to the game, or you might be presenting the correct evidence against the wrong portion of a testimony. This happened to me with greater frequency in T&T, causing some minor frustration. Additionally, the player can present the correct evidence for the wrong reason or by brute force, which goes against the spirit of solving a crime. On a good note, the text no longer chronically suffers from the awkward sentence structures found in Justice for All, but a smattering of typos and singular-plural mismatches still holds this game back from reaching the original's incredible quality.
While Capcom is known for milking its franchises, Trials and Tribulations is not a mindless sequel. You'll cheer. You'll boo. You might even yell, "Objection!" The first entry is still the best, at least in English, but the final Phoenix Wright game definitely surpasses the second. However, all three feed off each other and are great fun, so playing them in order is strongly recommended. If you haven't played a Phoenix Wright game yet, try to hunt down a copy of the original Ace Attorney. If you're already a fan, then Trials and Tribulations finishes the trilogy with flair.