Monday, March 26, 2007

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Review

The witness sits on the stand, giving his testimony. As he mentions the time at which he supposedly observed the murder, something seems off. You yell out "Hold it!" and press him on this issue. He flinches and mentions that he definitely heard the time so the television must have been on and he heard it spoken. You have him here - this is a clear contradiction with the facts. You pull out the power company records showing that the power was out at the time he says he heard the time on the television and yell "Objection!" into your DS microphone, startling your dog into getting up and coming over to see what is the matter.

Such is the life of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. As a defense attorney fresh out of law school and working for a small firm, Phoenix Wright must prove himself as a lawyer and starts out by taking on a murder case. In fact, all of his cases are murder cases - this guy doesn't get any easy stuff. As you progress from case to case, your reputation increases. You meet familiar, recurring characters and develop relationships with them. The game always takes a fairly lighthearted tone, even when dealing with serious things like murder and blackmail.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is an adventure game divided into two gameplay sections: Investigation and Trial.

During investigation, you check out various locations pertinent to the crime in order to gather evidence that will help your client be exonerated. You are given four options: Examine, Move, Talk, and Present. Examine lets you move a cursor around the screen (using the directional pad or the stylus) and check out objects there. Sometimes these objects are added to your "court record" (inventory) to be presented later. Other times, examining them triggers important story actions. The rest of the time, you get a description and a fun dialogue between characters about them. The move command lets you go to different locations. Sometimes you have to talk to people or acquire certain items before a new place is available to go to. The Talk and Present commands are used when there is a person present on the scene. The Talk command lets you ask them about various topics and the Present command lets you show them items you have.

The investigation portion is interesting at first, but you quickly realize that you cannot progress past it until you have acquired all the items needed for trial and heard all the important information. While it is interesting to see the case unfold and find out the new information, the lack of options for things you can do during investigation makes it feel less like the puzzle-solving typically present in adventure games and more like exhausting every possible option. Still, twists and surprise evidence for the trial are found during investigation so it is important and rewarding to pay attention, even if very little game playing goes on then.

The trial portion of the game is where it comes to life. The witnesses get up and the stand and give their testimony. Then, you get to crossexamine them. The point of crossexamination is to find a contradiction in the witness' testimony so that you can nullify anything negative they had to say about your client. During crossexamination, you see their testimony section by section. At each section, you can choose to press them on that to see if they might reveal a bit more. Once you come to the section of their testimony that you feel reveals a contradiction, you have to find the correct evidence in the court record that contradicts that and present it to them. As the trial progresses, you may be put on the spot to come up with theories as to why you think the witness is lying or other reasons Phoenix Wright gives for why the witnesses testimony is faulty. These are often presented as multiple choices options, but sometimes you are forced to present some evidence. Presenting the right evidence or choosing the right dialogue option moves the trial along, but performing the wrong action results in a penalty from the judge. Five penalties and the judge declares the trial over and your client guilty.

The DS version of the game (the original was released in Japan for the Game Boy Advance) adds a new fifth case that makes more use of the DS' features. You use the stylus to rotate objects, reassemble a broken jar, and even pause and rewind a video to find evidence. In the regular game, the stylus can be used to point to an object on the screen instead of using the directional pad. Also, instead of merely using a button, you can yell "Hold it!" or "Objection!" or "Take That!" into the DS' microphone when pressing a witness or presenting evidence.

The stories and characters in the game can best be described as whimsical. None of the stories in the cases are particularly moving or high literature, but they are well enough done that you could imagine them in an episode of Law and Order or a typical legal suspense movie, or even a John Grisham novel. The dialogue and text contains a fair amount of jokes and commentary, and they work well to amuse you while playing along. The localization effort is pretty good in the main cases (particularly the character who talks in l33t-speak), but is a bit shoddy in the fifth, added on case.

The game is quite logical and so the puzzle of figuring out what evidence to present when can almost always be worked out. While the investigation portion can sometimes feel frustrating because you are just exhausting every option, the trial portion is appropriate tense because of your limited chances to make mistakes. You get a sense of sweating over where to object to the witness' testimony and what evidence to present then. The ability to yell "Objection!" into the microphone when you think you have the witness nailed to a contradiction becomes incredibly satisfying. The fifth case is, again, not quite as well put together in terms of the logic of how and when to present evidence, but it doesn't detract much from the case.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is really and interactive legal novel. You follow Phoenix as he attempts to prove his clients' innocence. Along the way, you help him ask the right questions and examine the evidence carefully. In court, you let him master the trial and confound the rival prosecutor. The game is mostly reading text and honestly not a lot of game playing, but the game playing present, especially in the trial scenes, just feels great. For anyone interested in adventure games, Phoenix Wright gets it done.

Rating: 8 / 10

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