Otherwise known as the Phoenix Wright games, Ace Attorney is a port of a previously Japan-only game. The game involves playing as a defence attorney, who is tasked with defending some very bizarre cases and battling it out against a variety of quirky prosecutors, witnesses and one rather dim-witted judge. It has become something of a cult classic of DS games (despite its GBA origins) and now has 4 main games and 3 spin-off titles (including a Professor Layton crossover game) in the series, with another main game in the works. This review will focus on the 4 main games and I’ll avoid spoilers, because trust me, this isn’t a game whose stories you want spoiled.
The main gameplay switches between courtroom scenes and external investigation scenes. In the courtroom, you interrogate witnesses, find discrepancies in their testimony (the amount of perjury in these games is a tad ridiculous) and generally find flaws in the prosecution’s argument in order to exonerate your defendant. Outside of the courtroom, you become more like a private investigator, running around crime scenes and trying to find clues and information which will help you in your court battles. But to be honest, it’s not the gameplay that this game is renowned for. In fact, the gameplay is nothing spectacular and mostly involves clicking through long pieces of dialogue. If you’ve ever played a visual novel game, you’ll be in familiar territory. The courtroom scenes are essentially long drawn out pieces of dialogue, where you can interrupt parts to ask further questions or to present a contradiction (by shouting OBJECTION!). The investigation parts are not big on gameplay elements either, and mainly involve the sort of thing you’d do in a point and click adventure. That being said, the port to the DS has been well done. They added microphone support so you can shout OBJECTION into your DS as loudly as you want (I recommend not doing that in public) as well as touch screen support which makes investigation and interrogations a lot smoother. Plus, there’s a few other strange mechanics like using the psychic token to talk to the dead which also make good use of the DS features. So although the gameplay is nothing to shout about, the real appeal of this game lies in the cleverly crafted and downright hilarious story.
You see, the world of Ace Attorney is incredibly goofy and ridiculous. Characters are more like caricatures than real people. It’s a world where psychic mediums actually can communicate with the dead (and both your boss and sidekick Mia and Maya possess these abilities). It’s a system of law where interrogating a parrot on the witness stand is acceptable. The world is just jam-packed full of zany characters, whose antics will undoubtedly make you laugh. The dialogue is an absolute pleasure to get through because it is so funny. But even despite the ridiculousness of its set up, the humour isn’t just lowly slapstick; it is witty, well-constructed and often very topical with well-placed pop culture references. The translation team have done an amazing job in making the game funny for English-speaking audiences, because it’s obvious many of the jokes have been reworked to make sense for Western players. Occasionally this translation can be a bit out of place, considering the English games are set in the United States which apparently has cat cafes and ramen stands…which I’m sure it does, in some places, but you can’t deny that the settings are distinctly Japanese. Still, that I think is part of the genius of the translation team, that this is something you wouldn’t really find immersion breaking and they did such a good job of making the characters seem believably English speaking that I never found it an issue with the game.
Furthermore, it’s not all just laughs and silliness. The game can be incredibly heartwarming at times, as well as mysterious and dark. There’s a lot of fandom surrounding this game, and that’s a testimony to how well-fleshed out many of the major characters are. For example, Miles Edgeworth, a hotshot prosecutor, may seem like an arrogant and annoying opponent. But you soon learn about his tragic backstory and his upbringing which generates a lot of sympathy for him. He was such a fan favourite that there’s a spin-off game devoted to Miles Edgeworth, which is actually quite entertaining, combining the story elements of the main series with a slightly different investigative mechanic which helps make the game much more interactive.
Anyway, back to the main series. You’ll become emotionally invested in many of the characters. It helps that a lot of the more fleshed out characters will make cameos across the games and you’ll constantly be reminded of certain people. Everyone has a part to play, whether it’s to make you laugh, make you hate them or make you feel sorry for them. Again, kudos to the writing team for making such a compelling storyline which is both incredibly funny yet touching as well. The structure of the games is done in such a clever way to expose you to just enough of each character to make you want more.
Now, a bit more information about the series as a whole. The first three main games are devoted to Phoenix Wright, a defence attorney who starts off as a newbie to the whole law scene. Each game generally has four or five cases, one of which might be more of a short tutorial level. The cases generally link up with each other in various ways. Of the main series, I would say that the third game is the best, followed by the first game, and then the second game is slightly less memorable. Mostly this is because of their respective stories. The first game is very much an origins story, setting up the character Phoenix Wright and the world he’s in, as well as focusing on the backstory of his assistant Maya. The second game is a bit more goofy and the cases lack cohesion between them, which is its main flaw. The third game though doesn’t have the restrictions of having to set up or explain anything, and can instead devote itself to a much more epic in scale story and contains cases which all build up to a tense finale. Still, it’s definitely a game which you want to play in order. You just cannot get the most enjoyment out of it if you don’t play it in order, because a big part of the appeal is watching the characters develop. It would be like watching a TV drama series out of order; it just doesn’t make any sense.
The fourth game in the series, however, shifts focus to a different attorney named Apollo Justice who is under the reluctant tutelage of Phoenix Wright. The fourth game introduces a slightly different cast of characters, but retains cameos from the others. Whilst I do think this is the weakest of the games, I think this might be rectified by further games focusing on Apollo Justice and expanding on his development as a character. Many fans of the game didn’t like Apollo as a character, but my personal opinion is that he is a good character but is overshadowed by the popularity of Phoenix Wright. Still, some people might argue that you could play this game without playing the others; however I would still recommend playing the first three before playing this fourth one, because you’ll miss a lot of references otherwise. It’s not quite as essential to play this after the first three, but I still think you’ll have a better experience if you known the backstory, because although Phoenix isn’t a main character, he still plays an important role in this new game.
Anyway, the next game is slated for a Fall 2013 release for 3DS as a digital download. So now would be an excellent time to get into this amazing series. If you don’t have a DS or can’t find the DS cartridges anywhere (they’re kinda rare, especially in Europe), then it’s been ported to iOS as well. I think it’s also on the Wii as digital Wiiware, so that’s another option. In total, it’ll probably take about 6 hours per game to finish so they’re not exactly long games. There’s no replayability really, unless you’re like me and forget stories fairly quickly and are willing to replay games just as you would re-read a book (I’ve probably replayed these games a dozen times each). But if you’re a fan of visual novels, comedic writing and brilliant stories, then you’ll fall in love with the characters and the world. Even though the gameplay elements are a bit lacklustre, the other aspects more than make up for it. I’m a huge fan of the series, and I do think these games deserve the attention for their unique approach to adventure gaming. Plus, nothing is more fun than shouting OBJECTION! in every day speech, as a homage to these brilliant games.