I feel like you can’t play the Professor Layton games and not also stop to take a look in at Ace Attorney. The two franchises feel so intrinsically linked now to me as the premier puzzle-solving visual novel-style games. I appreciate that’s quite a niche subgenre, but Ace Attorney and Professor Layton definitely made it their own back in the early to mid 2000s.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (3DS, Android, GBA, iOS, NDS [reviewed], PC, PS4, Switch, Wii, Xbox One)
Released Oct 2001 | Developed / Published: Capcom
Genre: Adventure, Visual Novel
We play as Phoenix Wright, a newly-appointed defence attorney in the world’s harshest justice system. I’m not joking, I’m convinced that Ace Attorney takes place in some sort of dystopian hellscape. The gist is that because crime became so rampant, a new court system came into existence wherein a defence and prosecution attorney face off across a courtroom. There are no juries, only judges, and trials cannot extend past 3 days, so a verdict has to be reached there and then. From what we see of them in Ace Attorney, prosecutors seem to have madly limitless power, and proving guilt by way of forging evidence and phony testimonies seems to be commonplace. Defence attorneys on the other hand come across as always on the back foot, although perhaps a lot of that comes down to Phoenix being utterly hapless.
The game certainly starts on a dark note, as after we take Phoenix through his first case, saving his childhood friend from a murder charge, his mentor is brutally killed in her own law firm’s offices. This sets the tone for Ace Attorney; much of the game is wacky, goofy, and colourful, but its juxtaposed against a plot rife with murder and corruption. Wright is thrown into action, needing to both investigate in order to uncover the truth of the matter, and then prove it in court. Each individual case is a self-contained narrative, although the first three do all feed into the fourth in various ways, some more overt than others. It’s clever writing, and the subtle training of the player to recognise the links between the cases is a joy to experience.
The final case is a bit of a different beast though. It’s a bonus case, included from the DS remake onwards. I’m not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it contains some of the strongest character writing (such as the creepily affable police chief Damon Gant) in the game, and it’s a complex case, so solving it is extremely satisfying. In that respect it engages with what makes Ace Attorney so good. However, it’s also a very long and poorly paced case, and that complexity works against it at points as you have to make incredible leaps of logic to advance it. It’s also badly paced in the wider context of the game as it weakens the power of the story’s excellent conclusion in Turnabout Goodbye.
Much like Professor Layton, Ace Attorney is built on a visual novel foundation, although I’d say Ace Attorney is much more obviously a visual novel. As with all games of this type, if you’re not a strong reader, or if you aren’t a fan of lots of text in games then Ace Attorney will probably not be a game for you. It has a tendency to overindulge in its dialogue, as characters will often reiterate points to one another over and over, but in fairness it’s often done with the purpose of making sure you remember key bits of information that can prove vital in the cases. It’s also a game stuffed full with references and zany humour moments, which don’t much resonate with me. That said, I wouldn’t say much against the writing – naturally for a game of this type, it lives and dies on its characters, and in that regard I think Ace Attorney is a triumph.
I mentioned that Phoenix is hapless; indeed, I think you need a certain degree of being able to find enjoyment in a character kind of stumbling into success and making a bit of a fool of himself along the way, but he is also tenacious and when he senses victory his demeanor changes entirely to an absolute confidence, which helps endear him as a character. His opposite number across the courtroom, Miles Edgeworth, is the cornerstone of the game’s most engaging character drama. Although he’s introduced as an aloof, seemingly amoral prosecutor, his and Phoenix’s relationship evolves quickly as the two clash heads again and again, and when the two combine their efforts to force the truth of a situation out in the inevitable anime team-up moments it’s nothing short of fist-pumpingly cathartic.
So, you’ll spend a lot of your time reading, that much is obvious. However, Ace Attorney isn’t just a straightforward visual novel. It does actually pack a robust core gameplay loop as well. Each case is split between the Investigation and Trial phases. During the former, the game functions like a traditional adventure game, as Phoenix moves between different locations related to the case and interviews whatever kooky characters he comes across. Often they’re tight-lipped about things so you’ll need to do the tried-and-tested adventure game puzzle of using the right item on them to force them to open up. To that end, Wright can examine each screen and pilfer any useful items, both to convince interviewees to spill the beans and also to stash away in case they’re useful in court later (Phoenix it seems understands the only way to overcome a dystopian court system is to do tiny crimes and bluff your way to victory regardless). Once you’ve gathered all the information needed, the investigation ends and you move to the trial. Ace Attorney is very linear, and that does mean sometimes it’s very flaggy as well. Sometimes you’ll find yourself wandering around during investigation wondering why on earth it hasn’t ended, and it’ll almost always be something really innocuous, like you forgot to ask one specific person about one specific thing.
The Trial phase is where the real fun begins, and it’s this which elevates Ace Attorney into really special territory. During these, various witnesses are called to the stand to give testimonies and Phoenix must pick them apart in order to uncover the truth before the court. At its simplest this boils down to finding contradictions between what the witness says and what the evidence proves. You can access all your available evidence at any time to review it all, which is obviously a helpful tool, and frankly it’s a necessary one because this game throws a lot of information at you. Thankfully, often the contradictions are pretty obvious, and knowing what evidence to present to the judge to prove it makes sense, but every adventure and puzzle game will have its moments and Ace Attorney is no exception. There are definitely points where the game is either expecting you to remember some piece of seemingly absolutely throwaway information and apply it, or you need to make some utterly circuitous, reaching leap of logic to catch a witness out. Get it wrong and you get slapped with a penalty, which is where Ace Attorney’s challenge comes in; get too many penalties and it’s game over. The game isn’t terribly nice with its saving and checkpointing, so if you’re caught out you can definitely find yourself replaying quite lengthy stretches of the game. Still, for the most part if you pay attention these trials aren’t usually too tough to get through, and they’re by far the most exciting parts of the game.
I feel like there are things about Ace Attorney that ought not to have endeared themselves to me. As much as I love a well-written game story, I have to admit that visual novels are a bit of an alien genre to me, and I find the sensation of reading large amounts of continuous text an odd one for a game to offer me. However, Ace Attorney not only won me over with its excellent and fun character writing, but also the tension and excitement offered by the trials kept me hooked. It’s a game that left me with an immediate desire to carry on with the franchise, which is a brilliant feeling, and as far as first entries go, this is a stunningly strong one.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.