OBJECTION! HOLD IT! TAKE THAT!
In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, you play the title character, a defense attorney starting fresh into the world of law. The game progresses through a series of trials which test your logic and eye for detail in progressively more difficult cases. The game takes place in the not-too-distant future in which cases must be solved in three days. As a result, you’re always pressed for time and doing your best to get to the bottom of whatever dilemma as soon as possible.
There are two main elements to this forensic adventure; an investigation phase and a trial phase. In the investigation phase, you gather evidence by speaking with witnesses and heading to the crime scene to try to make sense of what’s going on. Then once you’ve done some investigating, you head into court for the trial phase, where you do what you can to clear your defendant’s name using evidence you’ve gathered.
Each chapter starts with a defendant somehow falling right into your lap. Each case involves a murder, and your defendant is being accused of the crime.
Before you head into court, you’re tasked with gathering evidence to prove that your defendant couldn’t have committed the crime. Usually, starting out, the situations aren’t clear-cut, so you end up just getting a grasp of the case. Evidence can also come in the form of witness testimony, so you end up interrogating people and finding progressive clues. Someone may alert you to a bit of information that will send you to speak with someone else, or provide you with, for example, a key that allows access to a room that you didn’t have access to prior. Sometimes you have to negotiate a trade or bribe someone in order to get them to talk, so there are a few short but sweet side-quests.
The courtroom sequences are where the chapters reach their climaxes. In these periods of the game, you face witnesses usually called by the prosecution. They testify, and then it’s your turn to cross-examine them in hopes to find contradictions in their testimony with the evidence presented. To keep you from just systematically objecting to every line of every testimony, you’re given five ‘warnings.’ Present an improper or irrelevant objection, and the judge slaps your wrist. Five warnings and the judge throws the case out, and you’ll have to start from the beginning of the day; an annoying inconvenience for sure.
One of the DS enhanced features is the voice recognition technology used; if you need to press a witness to explain an element of his or her testimony in more detail, you can hold the Y key and shout HOLD IT! If you have a piece of evidence that explains a contradiction, shout OBJECTION! It’s worth noting that while it’s cathartic and fun, shouting or even talking is not required; you can select the options via the in-game menu. This is important to know in case your girlfriend is sleeping next you in bed while you play and you don’t want an elbow in the ribcage. TAKE THAT!
In the American release of the game, the first four trials combined are actually the second Japanese release of this game series, (which means we can hopefully look forward to sequels!). These cases stand alone as one story unit, and when you beat the fourth, the credits for that unit roll, and it unlocks the fifth trial.
The fifth trial is a custom-made trial for the DS. This custom trial takes advantage of the touchpad and microphone hardware, as well as the overall increased horsepower in some creative ways. At one point you need to reassemble some evidence using the touch screen, as well as rotate a piece of evidence in 3D to view it from a debated perspective. You are given some investigation tools at one point, one of which enables you to dust for fingerprints. Tapping the screen sprinkles silver dust on a suspect area; blowing on the screen blows away the dust and (hopefully!) reveals a fingerprint. It’s gimmicky but it works.
One of the unfortunate side effects of adventure games, especially ones with such detail-oriented aspects as legal investigations and courtroom dealings, is the dreaded concept of Deus Ex Machina. If you miss a SINGLE clue at any point, forget to ask someone a question, or lose the ‘assumed’ train of thought, you will get stuck. It’s the kind of stuck that you have to tuck your tail between your legs and look up a game, because the game won’t progress anymore.
Difficulty aside, I could not put this game down. The writing and plots of each case were robust enough to keep me constantly riveted. Each case had its share of twists and turns; just when you think you nailed the witness with a huge contradiction, a witness remembers something, or the prosecution pulls something up that validates the contradiction. This leads to yet another day of investigation, more clue-gathering and witness questioning. The stories behind each of the cases are exciting on their own, and end up having intertwining people and plots. The characters are colorful and full of personality.
For a game that’s nothing more then navigating through windows and watching lines of text unfurl on the screen, it’s worth every second you put into it. Its fun to play like a book is fun to read or a movie is fun to watch. During each trial, you’re right there in the courtroom with Phoenix, slamming on the table in objection, making silly faces when put on the spot, or sweating bullets as an entire courtroom awaits your presentation of evidence to prove your point.
I’m looking forward to future ports and more episodes of exciting legal action, and for that matter, I’d love to see more episodic story games on the market. To me, games like this are stories, just as much as television shows and movies are.