It’s safe to say I went into the second Ace Attorney with high expectations from the first game. However, I’m not entirely sure what I wanted from it though. The strengths of the first game were I suppose partly in the surprise of it being a visual novel I genuinely enjoyed, and partly because the mechanics in it were super tightly built; for the sequel then I think I wanted basically just a good story, which given the first game seemed a sure-fire given.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice for All (3DS, Android, GBA, iOS, NDS [reviewed], PC, PS4, Switch, Wii, Xbox One)
Released Oct 2002 | Developed / Published: Capcom
Genre: Adventure, Visual Novel
Our tale begins with our favourite hapless lawyer, Phoenix Wright, getting cracked on the head by a criminal desperate to avoid a guilty verdict. As a result Phoenix develops amnesia right before the trial is due to start, and has to wander into court and defend his client while frantically trying to recall how this whole lawyer shindig works. This might be one of the pettiest complaints I’ve ever had but this opening genuinely annoys me! I feel like there simply must have been a better, more elegant way to introduce the tutorial sequence of the first case but instead we get a trial which feels tiresome to someone already familiar with the series, and relies heavily on a tepid humour to carry it. Thankfully it only lasts until the end of the first case.
Our troubles don’t stop there though. It’s hard to escape the lingering thought that some of the cases just aren’t as strong as before. The second case revolves around Maya being accused of murder while channeling a spirit, but it relies on reason and logic that really reaches, rather than on more straightforward or logical ideas. In fairness to Ace Attorney that’s not a totally alien factor to the franchise – this is after all a court which accepts a basic truth of the universe to be that mystics can call spirits forward and admits that idea into testimony and evidence – but even so, usually once you accept the game’s paranormal conceit the rest of the trial is still supposed to follow some semblance of logic in order to enable the player to actually have a crack at solving the damn thing.
I’m slightly overblowing it. It’s not that the game is completely devoid of logic, of course; the entire premise of the way Ace Attorney works is that you need to discern that train of logic and use it to follow the events of each crime through to their real conclusion. It means you always have some sort of inkling of what to do; the witness on the stand has to be wrong in some way because Phoenix believes his clients are innocent, and therefore there has to be a contradiction to expose. The difference between this game and the previous however is that the pieces of evidence which prove those contradictions are sometimes more obscure, or are otherwise more finicky to present; often you can find yourself knowing what it is you have to prove and hoping that the evidence you’re using is the one the game has flagged as right for that specific moment.
The third case, Turnabout Big Top, takes the cake for the worst case in the series thus far. Because it concerns a murder in a circus it seems that this was taken by Capcom as carte blanche to go wild with adding in the most obnoxious characters yet. From the clown that makes hideously bad puns (and, speaking as a lover of bad puns, we’re talking actually shit puns as opposed to funny bad puns, you get me?) to a ventriloquist act built on a man arguing with his rude puppet, it’s hard not to sigh as the case drags on and on. What makes it worse is that it also showcases some less than ideal stereotypes in its writing. The defendant is an outrageously flamboyant androgynous man who is made into a figure of fun, and one of the characters is considered to be unable to do anything at all because he is disabled. I know this game was made nearly 20 years ago at time of writing, and it may have been written by a team ensconced in a culture or values that we might look on now as regressive, but it’s still an important point to note for patient audiences to consider. Even if you don’t think these are problematic, underneath it all the case is paced interminably slowly and feels like a waste of time.
The final case is, thankfully, one which very much helps the game to save face. Although it’s hard, Farewell, My Turnabout showcases some of the most interesting writing in the series to date. Like the finale of the previous game, the case’s narrative twists and turns through some incredibly complex movements. This means it’s worryingly easy to get lost in it, and you do definitely have to do your best to keep up with how it develops, but what’s particularly interesting however is that it puts Phoenix in a completely new position. To say in what way is to spoil, and I’d hate to do that, but it offers a moral quandary that flips the regular Ace Attorney experience completely on its head, and really looks to challenge the player’s perception of a number of the game’s main cast . It’s perhaps unsurprising for a visual novel, but I think this focus on the writing elevates this case despite the difficulty in following its logic sometimes.
I think the final case also highlights a vital difference in the quality of Justice for All compared to the first Ace Attorney. A cornerstone of the way the first game works is that it is, at its core, a story about the complicated relationship between Phoenix and his prosecutor rival, Miles Edgeworth. The pair clash across the courtroom as the game progresses, but it becomes clear as you work through the story that both share certain goals, and when those goals intersect the pair strike a brilliant balance as they furiously unpick testimonies and counter-arguments. Structurally, each case is built to show just a little more of this, and then, when they are at their peak, the final case rolls in and tries to shatter it. It’s masterfully done because each case prior to the finale leads into it in clever and subtle ways. There is unfortunately no such subtlety of storytelling in Justice for All however. While I enjoy the presence of a new prosecutor in the form of the furiously unethical Franziska von Karma, her relationship with Phoenix doesn’t have the same charm, and I feel like rather than having each case be a step which leads to a glorious finale, instead the game limps along until it gets to the one interesting case.
I think perhaps my faults with the writing are exacerbated by the fact that not much else has changed, particularly in the gameplay. Ace Attorney gave us a masterfully constructed gameplay loop and it seems Capcom decided everything was already fine from their first go at it, which I’m inclined to agree with. The game is still built around the two phases of Investigation and the Trial; in the former Phoenix wanders around the places that are relevant to the crime and interviews people to gather clues for how to defend his client in court, and during the trial days witnesses are called to the stand to give testimonies while Phoenix throws evidence to prove the contradictions and hopefully prove his client’s innocence. The sequel feels a lot more generous with save opportunities than the first game, and the trials break more frequently, so while they don’t always go into the third day, they do often use recesses as a means to extend the game and break up your play to let you save.
Although it’s not a new mechanic, it’s noteworthy that this time around we’re expected to make far greater use of something we had at our disposal in the previous game, namely being able to present profiles of characters during interviews and cross-examinations. This is one of those things that helps contribute to the difficulty of working out the logical threads sometimes; you have to keep in mind that if your physical evidence doesn’t prove a contradiction, it might be that you need to present a profile instead. Our only new addition to the gameplay is the presence of Psyche-Locks. Early on, Phoenix is given a magatama, a special stone that allows him to channel spiritual energy and sense when people he talks to are deliberately holding information back. What follows is a little puzzle where Phoenix must present the right evidence to break through whatever is causing his subject to hold back. It’s a clever thing, especially as it uses no really new way of interacting with the game; it all happens through the same interface and structure as the trials, so it immediately feels right and at home. It also gives you a bit more to do during the investigation portions of the game; it’s not like the game was lacking, but I can’t imagine playing Ace Attorney investigation sections without something like this now, which is a pretty good sign of a well-added mechanic.
I confess to being a little torn on Justice for All. I want to like it a lot; indeed sometimes when I get sequels like this I know I’ve said before things like “oh, it’s more of the same, and that’s good.” But this time I don’t feel I can say that with any integrity. Justice for All is indeed more of the same Ace Attorney gameplay on the surface, and if that were all it had to offer it would be a better game than the first. However, visual novels absolutely live or die on the strength of their writing, and Justice for All simply isn’t as strong a narrative as its predecessor. While there’s nothing deeply wrong with it, it’s hard to escape the fact that I found myself sighing or idly clicking past dialogue, just waiting to get to the next good bit. Part of me wonders if this is because I played them both relatively close together, but that’s an argument which lets Justice for All off the hook for what I think are clearly and demonstrably worse instances of character and scenario writing. I think it’s important to note that Justice for All is still fun to play, but it’s much less consistently so than its predecessor; in any case, roll on the third game.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.