Phoenix Wright defends upstanding lawyers everywhere, proving that suspense, wit, and humor are all that is needed for a fantastic game.
For a game that focuses on murders, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney sure is non-violent! Back in 2001 Capcom made Gyakuten Saiban for the GBA, which let Japanese players enjoy what happens after someone is ruthlessly killed. The game was successful and (in classic Capcom fashion) fostered sequels. Capcom has finally decided to release the first game in North America as a significantly enhanced port for the Nintendo DS. Yes, Phoenix Wright is a lawyer game, as well a murder mystery thriller, PC-style adventure, and spiritual successor to Carmen San Diego. More importantly, it is absolutely absorbing.
In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney the player assumes the role of the namesake rookie defense lawyer. His episodes are divided into two types of stages: investigation and litigation. The investigation stages of a case usually take place before and between trial sessions. Phoenix must gather information and evidence by talking with his client, associates, the police force, and witnesses. Players can change locations, examine evidence, and present items to characters through an intuitive touch screen menu. Sleuths may also examine the static environments using the touch screen to find more clues. Of course, even Phoenix admits that "attorneys aren't supposed to examine crime scenes," but Capcom's decision to glaze over such info-gathering legal caveats makes for a better game. After all, the plots would be less interesting or simply would not work without Wright investigating behind the scenes, and it is more fun to loot evidence than receive it anyway.
Discovering the truth is often only half of the battle, though: Phoenix must be able to prove it in court. In the courtroom Wright plays his official role as a defense attorney, and obviously the goal is to get a "not guilty" verdict. Doing so largely consists of cross-examining witnesses, pressing them on ambiguous statements, and objecting with evidence to contradictions in their testimony. The player will also have to respond to questions from the judge, witness, or prosecutor with a multiple choice answer or evidence backing up one of Phoenix’s claims. If Phoenix tries the judge’s patience too often with inappropriate objections or irrelevant evidence, the judge will become annoyed at Wright’s antics and declare a guilty verdict. Although it is superfluous, players may further engross themselves in their role as lawyer by pressing, objecting, and presenting contradictory evidence through vocal commands.
The investigation and litigation stages provide infrastructure, but frankly the game’s text is the true gameplay. Situational and verbal humor saturate character conversations: readers will delight in prose such as double entendres, Freudian slips, clever retorts, running gags, and side comments. Much of its comedy draws from Internet and anime subculture. Internet-savvy gamers will shout with glee as they read lines such as "For great justice!" or encounter a character who speaks in l33t. Others less obsessed with nerd-dom will appreciate Phoenix's thoughts on the absurd personalities he meets and their all-too-fitting names.
Even more impressively, the mysteries and their legal resolutions are novel, unpredictable and plausible. During heated lawyer battles, players will be on the edge of their seats because they care about discovering and proving the truth. The game’s soundly constructed cases reveal many so-called plot-driven games for the hole-riddled shams they are. The text even incorporates larger arcs of character development, providing pacing and cohesion among Wright's cases.
It would be unfair to give the text full credit for the game's entertainment value, though. Most of the game's graphics are dated, but Phoenix Wright has visual flair. Introductory cut scenes ambiguously yet stylishly depict each episode's murder. Anime-inspired "moving line" backgrounds provide both heightened tension and humor during attorney face-offs in court. The character animations —especially their stunned poses— are priceless. The music also complements the action with appropriately catchy and pensive melodies.
There really isn’t much to complain about in Phoenix Wright. Inexperienced adventurers like me will sometimes have trouble deducing the next required action during investigation stages when it is more arbitrary, such as when Phoenix must present his mostly-useless lawyer badge. This problem plagues all games with such exploration, though. Also, since the game is completely plot-driven, it has little replay value, though players will want to revisit it after a few years to appreciate its humor and craftsmanship.
Everything about Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is surprising, from its intricately staged murders and clever humor to its mere existence. Any gamer looking for a good mystery book or a good laugh cannot go wrong with this instant classic. In fact, Phoenix Wright’s intelligent design and undemanding interface makes it a strong choice for Nintendo’s precious non-gamers as well. Any objections?