If the second Ace Attorney taught me anything, it was as a stark reminder of the perils of over-excitement. It was certainly a good reminder that visual novels live or die on their writing, and Justice for All definitely floundered. Still, there was of course a lingering hope that, on going into this third entry in the Phoenix Wright franchise, Capcom might have learned a lesson from what went wrong in the previous game and return to the heights set by the first game.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations (3DS, Android, GBA, iOS, NDS [reviewed], PC, PS4, Switch, Wii, Xbox One)
Released Jan 2004 | Developed / Published: Capcom
Genre: Adventure, Visual Novel | HLTB: 21 hours
The first whinge I had about the previous game began with the first case, which used a tired amnesia cliche to frame its tutorial. I mentioned that there had to have been a more elegant and interesting way to try and reintroduce mechanics to an audience that was likely to have already experienced them; Ace Attorney isn’t the most complicated game so I suppose I sympathise with the developers in terms of working out how best to accomplish this. Thankfully this game managed it in a far more engaging way than Justice for All. This time around for our first case Phoenix is in the stand, accused of murder. Defending him is none other than Mia Fey – hang on a moment, isn’t she dead? Obviously, this is a flashback, but it’s a cute way of bringing in the mechanics. It works on two levels, really; for one, the game doesn’t overdo the tutorialising like its predecessor – in fact, it even has an option to skip extra tutorial information for returning players – and for two, it works on a narrative level as we get to see Mia at one of the earliest points in her career, which is a far better framing device than giving our hero amnesia.
We get another flashback midway through the game in which we get to see a younger Edgeworth at the beginning of his career. It’s almost jarring to see him return in an antagonistic role since it’s been so long and his character arc has been so well-built but of course his reputation prior to the first game was that of a ruthless prosecutor. I particularly like the touch of him using the same animations as his mentor, Manfred von Karma, which have been lifted straight out of the first game; it works to make Edgeworth seem significantly colder and more villainous, though thankfully it’s only a temporary moment in the game!
As I’ve said all the way through, visual novels like Ace Attorney always live or die on their character writing. That was yet another fault I held against the previous game, which struggled to maintain any persistent level of quality with its writing, but thankfully this is another flaw that Trials and Tribulations rectifies. One of the central stars is the new prosecutor Godot, a mysterious white-haired man who speaks in random idioms and is obsessed with coffee. Like many of the franchise’s characters he sounds ridiculous when you put it down on paper but in practice he’s fantastic; he manages to straddle the line between feeling threatening and mysterious, plus he has an absolute banger of a theme.
Another thing I’ve found that helps to craft an enjoyable experience with these games is when the narrative embraces a central concept to tie the cases together. The first game, for instance, explored Phoenix and Edgeworth’s relationship and used the framing of the DL-6 case and Edgeworth’s childhood trauma as a vehicle to deliver a ton of brilliant exposition and character development. The second game lacks anything quite so powerful; Trials and Tribulations however, opts to place the wider Fey family at the core of its story, from seeing Phoenix’s mentor Mia in her earliest days as a defence attorney through to delving into a plot that was only teased in the previous game about the schemes of the branch family. The end result is Ace Attorney’s best writing yet, and it’s a testament to the quality of it that it manages to hold together a plot which at times threatens to lose itself in its own complexity.
The thing with trilogies is not only does each individual entry have to be good, but there’s so much pressure and expectation on the finale of the 3rd entry to be the crowning jewel of the franchise. Ace Attorney does have a good track record with its big finishes though. I said before that the ending of the first game is fantastic; everything leads up to it. The relationship between Phoenix and Edgeworth is a central driving aspect of it, and the final showdown between Phoenix and von Karma is so complex and tricky that it feels properly triumphant and satisfying to crack it. While the 2nd game is weaker overall, I still maintain that the last case is the game’s peak as it twists the usual way the game proceeds completely on its head, leading to some nail-biting moments. This 3rd game however feels like the grandest of all. Not only does the entire game once again lead up to it, and it does so in an even more overt way than the first game, but the set up for the final court battle feels almost like fanfiction as characters from across our time playing Ace Attorney join forces and engage in a duel which almost eclipses the actual content of the case.
However, it does seem that Capcom can’t help but indulge in stereotypes when making their characters. Much like Max Galactica from the previous game, we get a similar character here, with lots of pontificating from characters about how weird it is that they can’t work out a character’s gender and lots of joking around “are they a man or woman”. While many will no doubt find it harmless, I still like to point it out as a thing to watch out for since it’ll make someone uncomfortable, and if that’s you then you deserve to know about it before going in.
EDIT: I don’t often do this, but I’m appending a small edit to try and better explain my concern here, and to better prepare any reader for whom this might be a more pressing question. Mostly it’s centered around a character who is a figure of comedy, which sucks, but there’s also a large part of their character which is more complex and deeply intertwined with the case they’re involved in and not related to their gender. The majority of it is that the localisation never settles on a gender (itself not problematic if the intent is to portray someone who is gender non-conforming, of course) but some characters do the whole “are they a man or a woman?” thing which is plain annoying. The character in question never really commits to any pronouns, but seems to identify as male based on general pronoun choice. The character dresses in deliberately non-passing drag to match an aesthetic for their business, but their mannerisms are sometimes overblown in a way which feels like parody. I find it interesting that one of the localisation team addressed this, saying that there would be a much better attempt at addressing this were they to approach this game as a modern release.
If you were looking at Trials and Tribulations and maybe hoping for some new gameplay extras, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, there are no gameplay innovations or changes at all from the 2nd game. Instead, it seems Capcom were satisfied that they had crafted the tightest and best possible Ace Attorney experience and instead went all in on building the cases to live up to the mechanics. It’s a rare thing, but in this instance I’d say they were absolutely right. As ever, the game is split between the two phases of investigation and the trial. During the investigation portions of the game Phoenix must explore the surroundings of the crime, examining evidence and talking to witnesses in order to try and piece together what happened. Returning from Justice for All is the Psyche-Lock system. Occasionally Phoenix comes across people who try to hide information from him; however, our hero is equipped with a magatama, a magic stone that allows him to visualise these secrets as giant locks that hover above people’s heads. This prompts a minigame where the player must present evidence that exposes these peoples’ secrets in order to break their resolve and cause them to spill the beans.
The real joy of Ace Attorney, as always, comes in the trials, where witnesses take the stand to deliver testimony and Phoenix must expose the contradictions and figure out the real truth of the case to get his client acquitted. The games always do a grand job of leading you to the correct evidence they want you to present, and Trials and Tribulations is no exception, but it stops just shy of hand-holding; it is a puzzle game after all and you will need to think about what statements you press for more information and what the right evidence is at the right time. Getting it right remains a fantastic rush that I don’t think any other series has managed to replicate for me.
Playing Trials and Tribulations was like playing the first Ace Attorney all over again. I think that’s the best praise I can give it, to be honest. From the opening I was absorbed once again into Capcom’s weird courtroom drama, and this time there wasn’t a single bad case in sight. Trials and Tribulations represents the pinnacle of its trilogy, a fantastic whirling powerhouse of brilliant character writing backed up by the same marvellous contradiction puzzling that has always elevated Ace Attorney. While I doubt it holds the same resonance for someone dropping into the franchise at this point, it feels deeply rewarding to have it cap off the first Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney trilogy.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.