Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy for 3DS

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy is a trilogy of video games, so-called visual novels, directed and written by Shu Takumi and developed by Capcom. It consists of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations.

They were orignally developed for the Gameboy Advance 2001- 2004, but were first translated into English when re-released for the Nintendo DS. In 2014 the entire trilogy were released in a single package for the Nintendo 3DS. It can be bought and downloaded from the e-shop.

Visual novels is a video game genre mainly developed in Japan, that place a heavy emphasis on story and text, rather than gameplay. The experience is like reading an interactive novel. They are most similar to the western genre of adventure games, but are even more story-focused. I've previously covered another game in that genre: Hotel Dusk

You play Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney. Though, in the third game, you get to play briefly as other defense attorneys. Phoenix, like Perry Mason, only takes on cases in which the defendant, his client is innocent. They are always cases of murder (one is reminded of Van Dine's seventh rule.) Phoenix does not only prove his clients not guilty in court, but also acts as a detective and solves the case, revealing the true murderer.

You help him do this through two modes of gameplay. The first in Investigation. You investigate the crime scene and other places of interest. This plays like traditional point-and-click adventure games. You examine everything that seems interesting (using the DS touchscreen) and talk to everyone about everything. This way you gather evidence about the case. Everything in the game revolves around this evidence.  When you gathered sufficient evidence, you move onto the Trial mode of gameplay.

During the trial, you have to prove your clients innocence in court, using the evidence you gathered. The Prosecution calls up witnesses, which give testimony in favour of the prosecution's point of view that the client is guilty. However, this testimony nearly always conflicts with the evidence you gathered. The witness is lying or mistaken. It's the player job to point out these contradictions, by matching up ("presenting") the evidence with the statement in the testimony that it contradicts with.

Phoenix then uses that very evidence to figure out the solution to the murder mystery and prove the guilt of the real murderer. During this, he is asked questions by the judge and prosecution, which the player must answer by choosing the evidence that supports Phoenix's claims or the right answer from multiple choices. If the player makes a mistake during all this, you get a penalty from the Judge. Get enough penalties, and it's game over.

This is more exciting than it sounds. No description can capture the feel of actually playing the games. It's tremendously fun to point out these contradictions and you feel very smart when you figure something out and pick the right evidence.  The cases are well thought-out murder mysteries, which are satisfying to solve. It's an stimulating intellectual challenge,

And while it is a challenge, it isn't too difficult either.  The games moves from investigating the crime scene to the trial only when you have all the evidence you need. The deductions you have to do are all within reason. Phoenix himself does the real difficult stuff. So you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to play this game.
Of course, the legal system in these games don't correspond to any legal system in reality. It would be an article of it's own to point all the inaccuracies.  One of the most basic must be that the defense must prove the innocence of the defendant, rather than the prosecution prove their guilt. Though I have read an article that argues the the games are a satire of the Japanese legal system, in which prosecutors have inordinate power and nearly every trial ends with a conviction.
The games are very storydriven. They are not called visual novels for nothing. The majority of the experience is reading text. Thankfully, the games are well written. Shu Takumi can write. They are thankfully well translated into English too.

Their tone is generally comedic, often wacky to the point of absurdity.  Characters often act in a bombastic manner, which is deliberately meant to be funny. Phoenix Wright himself, for example, has unrealistic spiky hair, tends to shout, bang his hands on the table and literally point his finger at those he is accusing. And he is rather restrained compared to most of the people he meets during the cases, who are often rather colourful characters, to put it mildly. Character names tend to be puns or otherwise meaningful.

Thankfully, this is actually rather funny. I often found myself laughing at some clever turn of words or some clever name. A good example of the latter is a narcissistic man whose name is Luke Atmey.

And all this comedy doesn't mean that the game lacks a serious side. Phoenix deals with cases of murder, after all. There's plenty of drama to be had, which somewhat surprisingly works. The game are not only funny, but moving. Character reveals depths beyond their funny quirks. The game not only has bombastic humour, but dramatic subtlety. The player is given serious messages of the necessity of trusting other people and the importance of accepting the truth, no matter how horrible it may seem.  It's a sign of how well-written the games are that the balance between the absurd comedy and serious drama seems rather natural.

Much of the drama comes from a single story arc, which develops over the course of the three games and comes to a satisfying conclusion in the final case of the third game. Phoenix is accompanied and assisted in his quest by a girl named Maya Fey who is a spirit medium. Her power is very much real. This larger story arc revolves around Maya and her family, who nearly all are spirit mediums.

The games are focused on the text, but they have visuals, graphics. And they are a case of making the most of what little you have. All the visuals in this game are handdrawn, not computer-generated. The backgrounds are static, while the characters are traditionally animated. The games mostly lack cutscenes, the few that exist are all very short and simply animated. The games instead rely on still images to illustrate events.

This system, admittedly, doesn't look slick at all. You can see the limitations of time and data space. Each character has only a limited set of expressions and poses, which they constantly reuse. The character animations are very simple. Switches in animation can be very obvious and clunky. When a character enters or leaves the scene, they simply fade in or out.

But the hand-drawn graphics are very charming. The experience of playing these games is more like reading an illustrated book, than playing a typical video game, which is rather pleasant. And the visuals are well drawn. The backgrounds are gorgeously detailed. The characters are very expressive; the amount of expressions are limited, but they manage to say so much with them, that it all works.

The games also of course have sound. Mainly sound effects and music. The amount of music is like the character animations rather limited. But most of it is rather good, especially the exciting tracks that play when Phoenix is having a winning streak with his deductions (like this track from the first game and this from the third).  The games also have minor voice acting. It's just some phrases, such as "Objection" and some others. It's not much, but it adds some atmosphere to the proceedings.

In the end, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has become one of my favourite game series of all time because it's excellent writing and exciting gameplay. If you like reading and intellectual challenges and don't mind the humorous tone of the games, be sure to play them. It can easily be found on the Nintendo 3DS e-shop.

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