Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
"The only thing this lunch lady is serving up ... is lies!" -- Phoenix Wright, from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
[b]Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney[/b] is a game about lawyers and trial proceedings and the dead possessing the living. You cross-examine a parrot. You search for a mysterious sea monster. You bribe a ten-year old fanboy with trading cards. You do all these things and more in the name of justice and due process, of defending the innocent and preserving habeas corpus, and of paying your friend back for something he did in the fourth grade. I sound like I'm setting up a joke. But I'm not.
Modern science cannot explain how a game about an attorney got to be this good.
But good it is, and as a connoisseur of fine gaming experiences, you would be foolish to pass on it. In ten years, when the DS is replaced by the UltraDS or the DSMarxistCoup or whatever, I guarantee that Phoenix Wright will be memorialized as one of the ten greatest games of the system. I know those are strong words. Hyperbole, even. But this point-and-click game is worth the possible abuse of the English language.
In Phoenix Wright, you play the eponymous rookie defense attorney as he blunders, bungles, and bluffs his way through his first five court cases. You are not alone; assistance comes from the brilliant (and impossibly buxom) attorney Mia, her Miss-Cleo-in-Training sister Maya, and one over-enthusiastic detective named Dick Gumshoe. With their help, you act as both detective and defender. Each case features an investigative phase, where you speak to witnesses, gather clues, and examine crime scenes; afterwards there is a trial, where you cross-examine witnesses and present evidence, in an attempt to exonerate your defendant.
But this is not your average courtroom. The trial law in Phoenix Wright is straight out of Ally McBeal, and the proceedings resemble the climax of Chicago, minus the strange hats. Court cases are thrown out after only three days; the defense never presents witnesses; and, of course, evidence you steal from a crime scene is completely legal. In a lesser game, this absurdity would overpower the experience. In Phoenix Wright, you suspend disbelief, even despite yourself, because you are too absorbed in the farce. (Don't worry; the real criminal is always sniffed out in the end.)
For an episodic game, there is alarming narrative consistency among the cases. The first four cases, ported from the Gameboy game that never appeared stateside, tell a self-contained story, while the fifth, specifically designed for the DS, advances the themes presented in the first four. You see the same characters, frequent the same haunts, and repeatedly return to the same secrets in order to peel back layers of a dark, seedy history.
The game plays like an anime, but in the fun, over-the-top way (not the tentacles and demons way). Phoenix resembles Roger Smith from Big O in more than just appearance, and everyone is optimistic in the face of certain defeat (except, amusingly, the hero). There's a genuine innocence about the game, despite the murders and bloodshed; there are good guys and bad guys and it's your job to determine which is which. The dialogue is good-natured but ribald, the graphics are crisp but slightly exaggerated, and the characters are unapologetically likable. If you're in the mood for a game where you run over prostitutes and beat up cops, this isn't it. If you're in the mood for a game where the police have a mascot, and it's a dancing, mechanical badger, well, then, perhaps you're in luck.
Unlike Metroid Prime Pinball, which utilized the dual screens of the DS effectively while ignoring the rest of the handheld's capabilities, Phoenix Wright masterfully employs the entire system. You play the game primarily by stylus, which means that the touch screen feature, which was so tangential in games like Metroid Prime Pinball and Castlevania DS, is finally relevant. You use the stylus to navigate menus, investigate crime scenes, interrogate witnesses, scrutinize court evidence, hunt for fingerprints, and reveal pools of dried blood. Additionally, to make an objection or to press a witness, you may optionally scream "Take That!" and "Hold It!" into the microphone (though, I warn you, this will earn you strange looks from passersby and dogs). Even the two screens become vitally important, as you view testimony on the top screen while, on the bottom one, you scan your inventory for the evidence that contradicts it.
My favorite use of the DS's unique capabilities is fingerprinting, which appears in the fifth case. With the stylus, you dump a bunch of white dust where you suspect there might be a hidden fingerprint; then, you literally blow the powder away. As in, you huff and puff on the touch screen and microphone until the dust is gone. That, I think, is truly clever and innovative. (However, it is also dangerous, for I spent so much time blowing on the DS, almost passing out from over exhalation, that I think I've developed asthma).
Another excellent feature of Phoenix Wright is that you can save the game at any point--even mid-sentence--and shut off the system. When you return, you resume precisely where you left off. Since this is a long, complex game, requiring much conversation, the ability to save at will (rather than having to replay huge chunks of court cases) makes for easier gameplay.
And this truly is a long game. I must have clocked thirty to forty hours (although your mileage may vary, depending on how much time you waste fingerprinting things). The fifth case is as long as the previous two cases put together. I enjoyed the length, and although this is not a game you could replay immediately after you finish it, I felt I got my money's worth. Thirty dollars for the same number of entertainment hours isn't half-bad.
The adventure genre is a bit of a lost art these days; with all the focus on 3D gaming and bigger/better/brighter graphics, nobody seems willing to give the old point-and-clicks a chance. But some mechanics are universal, even if they've been forgotten. Phoenix Wright plays well and it feels well. Indeed, it reminds me of DéjÃ Vu, a brilliant, under-appreciated title released back in the Stone Ages (that is, 1985). This game is joy in pixilated form. I can't imagine a better title to resurrect the adventure genre.
In the end, however, all my fuss is just sound and fury. What really matters is that in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, you can scream "Objection!" at a sleepy and confused parrot. For these are the moments which make life worth living.