THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a courtroom drama visual novel developed by Capcom in 2001 for the Gameboy Advance, originally for a Japan only release. However in 2005, with the release of the Nintendo's newest handheld console, the Nintendo DS, Capcom saw an opportunity to re-release an upgraded version of the game to North American and European markets, and later the Australian market in 2009.
The decision to release the game in these new markets was a calculated risk, and it payed off.
The Ace Attorney franchise is regarded as a cult classic. The games are not mainstream, but have many devoted fans who enjoy the gameplay, characters, writing, and other various mechanics that are found in this quirky series.
The North American release box art.
Being a visual novel, the writing needs to be top-notch to convey a believable and appropriate story. Fortunately the games writing is superb, being able to combine the seriousness of the subject of the various crimes, with light hearted and funny comedy.
The year is 2016. You are young, rookie defense attorney Phoenix Wright, who is under the tutelage of Mia Fey, a very famous and successful defense attorney. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Mia hands over the reign of her law firm to Phoenix, who she believes is ready to begin his own legacy.
The game is separated into five different cases, including a "tutorial" case. While that might not seem like a lot, the first three cases can go for as long as 3 hours, and the final two cases can go as long as 5 hours.
Each case is it's own story, but the character interactions and themes of the cases set-up storylines for cases in future games. The writing in each story is very meticulous, giving out subtle clues and possibilities in the games dialogue, allowing you to come up with an idea of who could possibly have committed the crime.
But there is a common complaint regarding this games story, and that is the severe case of linearity. The game follows a straight path through every case, meaning that there is no chance of missing clues, or failing to speak to witnesses. The game will simply not progress unless every clue is found, and there are no alternate endings to any case.
That being said, there are many twists and turns that each case may take that result in an interesting story. In most of the cases, you will never know who to suspect and who is innocent, making it unique in it's own right.
There are many memorable characters in this game. Prosecutor Miles Edgeworth with his smug, arrogant nature. Detective Dick Gumshoe and his professional clumsiness. Maya Fey, Mia's carefree little sister. Even the Judge, who often shows signs that he might be senile. All the various characters have their own personality and nearly every one has a humorous quirk found in them somewhere, which is what makes them memorable.
Phoenix Wright, with rival Miles Edgeworth, and the Fey sisters
Gameplay is simply played in two parts: investigation, and of course, a trial.
Each case begins with ambiguous cutscenes that generally show the crime being committed, allowing you to establish some theories about the case before it starts. In this game, the first two cases both show who the killer is though, ruining some of the mystery of the game. This was likely done to allow new players time to get the hang of how the game works before throwing them in the deep end of unraveling the mystery by themselves.
Investigations are completed by Examining, Moving, Talking, and Presenting:
Examine allows you to look at the location with your stylus and point out any interesting or unusual areas on the screen. This could lead to finding a new clue, or just a simple chat with your partner (which can be humorous at times). Moving is simple. Press that button to move between places of interest.
Talking allows you to ask a list of questions to any witness or police that are involved in the case. Talking will generally give you clues, or give you leads to track down further info. If you weren't paying attention, or struggled to understand what was said, you can always re-ask the question and receive the same answer. And finally, Presenting allows you to present evidence that you have found to these witnesses to hopefully get more information, or a new angle, on what the object is.
These investigations, can be frustrating because of the games desire for you to find everything. Meaning that if you don't examine properly, or present a certain piece of evidence to a certain person, you will not progress. Rarely though will you get flat out stuck on the investigations and you have access to your 'Court Record' at all times allowing you to review all the evidence you have collected in detail.
Trials are where this game shine though. Through each case, you will be gathering witnesses to testify in court about their view on the series of events, and your job is to point out flaws and contradictions in their testimony. You will first hear the testimony in full, but then will be able to 'cross-exam' the witness. This breaks down the testimony into individual parts to narrow down with statement could possibly have flaws in it. You can 'Press' each statement to ask the witness to go into more detail about that statement.
When you find a contradiction, present the piece of evidence that contradicts them with the signature cry of 'OBJECTION!' and you will catch them out. There are quite a few times though when you present something that in your mind points out a contradiction, but the its not the evidence the game wants you to present, or the write statement to present it at. This can lead to a few 'that's what I was trying to say!' moments.
The game is puzzling, but not very difficult. You will find yourselves stuck on certain points and need to think your way through slowly, but there is no real way to fail the game. If you get an objection wrong you will be given a penalty. If you receive five penalties, your client is declared guilty and you will have to restart from your last checkpoint. Failing is nothing more than an annoyance as if you must restart, you know exactly how to get back to the point you lost at before, and it just consumes time.
Phoenix's iconic pose.
The graphics are relatively unchanged from the original GBA version, with a few touch ups and polishes. Characters animations look good, though these animations are usually only found in trials. Otherwise characters will strike different poses to indicate their thoughts or feelings.
Textures can occasionally look a bit rough due to the GBA origins, and the backdrops of the different locations have no moving parts. Policemen and other people can sometimes be seen standing completely still like guards at Buckingham Palace.
Part of me wants to say the sound design is lacking, but at the same time the different sounds you hear all work the way they were designed to. The sound of text crawls have two pitches for male and female voices, you hear various 'revelation' noises (where if something important is discovered, you hear a little light bulb type sound), gunshots sound okay, and voices are as clear as you can get for GBA/DS.
The music is fantastic. This game has some great melodies and tunes to go along with the different atmospheres the game can project, such as suspense, sorrow, revelation, and many others. Characters theme songs fit well with their personalities and only a few times do songs feel out of place. You may get some songs stuck in your head for a few days.
First I will say this. This is a puzzle game, with deep stories that require a lot of reading. If you don't like either of these aspects, this game is not for you. Phoenix Wright has solid mechanics for a crime-solving game, with plenty of humour, references, and fun characters to make it an enjoyable ride.
The only real negative is the linearity of the game, which the series (and even the crime-solving genre itself) is known for. Because of the linear nature of the story, there is hardly any replay value at all either. I would recommend this cult classic for anyone who owns a DS, though I admit it is a try-before-you-buy type of game.