"Capcom wants to teach us about Japanese lawyers. According to the house that Captain Commando built, we can come to understand a few things about the lawyers we'd find milling about Akihabara district, and the legal system in which they operate: "
Capcom wants to teach us about Japanese lawyers. According to the house that Captain Commando built, we can come to understand a few things about the lawyers we'd find milling about Akihabara district, and the legal system in which they operate:
- Defense attorneys have spiky hair.
- Defense attorneys loudly scream, "Take that!" when meeting their opponents' challenge to present conclusive evidence.
- The jury is absolutely nowhere to be found.
- You can lie and leave out details when testifying, and for a good while the judge simply asks you to "revise" your statements.
- The judge's decisions are influenced by the jubbulent mammary glands of female witnesses who seem to be doused, almost criminally so, in pink. (These mammary glands are so powerful that I had to make up the word "jubbulent" to describe how "jubbly" they are. Boing boing, objection overruled!)
You can learn these facts! and many more! by taking Capcom's Japanese Lawyerese 101! ...known more affectionately as Gyakuten Saiban, and more appropriately to us wacky Americans as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
Let's get the obvious and important concept out of the way first. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is NOT a lawyer sim. It is NOT Law and Order: Small Claims Court Investigator Bonanza Dairy Supreme DS. In fact, in this game, it'd be less of a surprise to see Johnny Cochran visit us from beyond the grave and use his infamous "Chewbacca is a Wookiee from Endor" argument than it would be to see the judge actually do something about testimony rife with perjury.
No, that doesn't mean that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney plays like a South Park episode, in case you were wondering that. What it does mean is that Capcom chucks legal realism out the window to provide you with a wholly entertaining, charming and humorous videogame experience that happens to be grounded in the legal world. Anyone that manages to do this with a game that basically only has you tapping on dialog-tree choices, pixel hunting and finding the right item in your inventory (or Court Record) to expose a witness' lie must be commended.
So Capcom, I commend you.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is hilariously fun in that quirky Japanese way, but not so much due to the gameplay mechanics. In fact, the mechanics might even seem mundane on paper. For the most part, it resembles a traditional adventure game. But there are no on-screen avatars to move with the d-pad; even if there were, there are no maps for these avatars to traverse. Almost everything is done by tapping an option on the screen. The game is split into two main parts - investigation and trial. During investigation, you're tapping on one of several location menu choices to investigate, tapping on topics to ask people you run into, and pixel-hunting on static backgrounds for clues and then tapping Examine to examine said clues. During trial, you're tapping on items in the Court Record (that's Japanese Capcomese Legalese for "inventory") and then tapping "Present", tapping on "Press" to get a witness to elaborate, or tapping on yet more dialog-tree choices. Oh, sure, Capcom lets you hit Y and yell into the mic, "Hold it!" when pressing or "Objection!" when presenting evidence. It still doesn't fully mask the fact that the entire game is based on you tappity-tapping like Savion Glover.
Even the bigger-picture gameplay structure becomes repetitive, nevermind the incessant stylus tapping. You pixel hunt on static screens, find clues, present certain clues to people to get them to talk. Then in court, you press witness testimony because you can't find contradictions. You might get some new info - read, lies - that reveal objectionable content. Then you find the piece of evidence that contradicts the objectionable content, and present it. Again, it all sounds mundane. It sounds monotonous. It's really not.
Like any great traditional adventure game, the reasons behind the "repetitive" actions and the thinking that it takes to give your actions meaning are what drive this here Lawyer Game. Why do you bother examining the victim's watch? Because the battery in the watch died as a result of the victim raising his arm in self defense, when the murder weapon broke it. Which tells us the time in which the attack took place. Which tells us that the witness was lying when he said the murder took place at 4:20PM. So then we present the watch, Phoenix screams, "Objection!", grins with his arms akimbo, and the witness is shaken up. We're then able press his revised testimony to reveal more lies, deceit, and tomfoolery.
This doesn't happen in the game, of course; this ain't no Walkthrough in Disguise after all. But it just illustrates, very simply and perhaps crudely, the thought process behind playing this game. Every clue, every piece of evidence, every bit of testimony holds a clue to the truth behind the cases you take on. You may end up staring at one of these three things for minutes on end before realizing how to connect the dots. Or, you may find out right away what a horrible liar the witness is because you looked over the contradictory evidence a few minutes prior. The lies get more complicated, the testimony gets more specific, and it takes you more and more effort to find holes. The reasons change. The personalities become harder to break. You're doing the same thing over and over again, but the cases are different, the deduction process becomes tougher, and the cases become longer and more entertaining to live through. On Action Planet, it's ingenious level and enemy design that helps ease the experience of holding down on the Fire button forever (you go buy Ikaruga now! Hayaku!). Whatever we'd equate good level and enemy design to in Lawyer Game But NOT Lawyer Sim Planet, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney's got it.
It could be all bunk. You might have seen it as a mundane-playing game, and no amount of ingenious thinking on your part would save the fact that all you do is tap and object. You've already got it drilled into your head that it's the same thing, with nothing to spice it up. Capcom's presentation, then, swoops in to save the day with this one. It's not often that I consider that presentation is supremely important in games. However, this game is one of those whose presentation is nailed so perfectly that you wonder how the game could succeed without it.
What we have here is the odd mix of great American localization with decidedly Japanese graphical charm. Where oh where do we begin? While I'm typing words, let's go with the dialog localization. I admit - I ran into one or two "your-instead-of-you're" errors here and there. Pish posh. Not a big deal. Pay more attention to the random, stupid-but-funny banter between the attorneys or the other NPCs. When the prosecutor objects to Phoenix's objection solely because he "finds it objectionable," when your protagonist is called all manners of nicknames from Phoenix Wrong to Phoenix Left, or when even something as childish someone mistaking Phoenix's friend Larry Butz's name for "Harry Butz", you can't help but giggle. When you encounter the fanboyish anime cartoon director who literally speaks ENTIRELY in "1337" speak, you'll let out a quick burst of laughter when Phoenix's assistant responds to, "That r0x0rs!" with, "Hey Phoenix, what's a Rock-sore?"
Then you mix that in with the game's audiovisual presentation, and you try to decide if this is game has been Americanized, or if this is still Japanese, or if it's a little of both. The last one is accurate; it truly is both. Where the dialog is much appreciated by Western audiences, the sound effects and the visuals simply shout, "SHONEN JUMP!" The visuals consist mainly of static backdrops which range from colorful and sharp to somewhat fuzzy and dithered, and big, screen-filling, beautiful character graphics that follow the "paper doll" motif. Each character has a few frames of animations for choice actions and different frames for emotional expression. What really gets the whole Japanese thing going is how characters react to one another visually and how they're presented in certain situations.
Take, for example, the lunchlady carrying a bag of box lunches when you meet her - complete with an animation that has her handing you one of those tasty obento. When she is called as a witness, she's still handing out lunches - to the judge, no less. Or the bellboy carrying a tea-set when you find him in the hotel. And in court? "That tea set looks rather heavy, so let's get started with the testimony," says the judge. WHY would you carry a tea set on the stand? Because that's what Japanese bellboys in Japanese courtrooms do, of course. Classic stuff.
Better yet are the reactions that happen when you show a knock-out piece of evidence, or when the prosecutor has you cornered with nowhere to go. Picture this hypothetical exchange. The prosecutor snaps his fingers, and a sound like clashing samurai swords is heard. He then asks the witness to answer a question with an answer that'll undoubtedly ruin your chances. The witness does so, and the screen quickly pans to Phoenix, complete with motion blur. You hear the sound of a sword slicing into flesh as Phoenix literally rears back with agony written all over his face. The screen pans to the prosecutor, again with motion blur, and he bows. Panning back to Phoenix, he thinks, "I've got to find evidence to counter his lies." You find it in the inventory, and when you present it, "OBJECTION!" appears in a huge jagged-edge word bubble on the screen. You tell them how this relates, the screen pans quickly to the witness who's stunned, then to the judge who's now wide-eyed and intrigued, then to the prosecutor who himself is now reeling back in pain to the sound of sword skewering flesh.
What is this, a fighting game? Sure seems like it, with combat sound effects and the ultraquick-paced focus shifting from person to person. Even the cross-examination begins with a Street Fighter-esque "Versus" screen that shows a picture of you versus the prosecutor. Trial sequences in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney truly resemble battles rather than dry speech; the Finger Point, Table Slam and Arms Akimbo are your special moves, and Objectioning with relevant evidence is your level 3 super.
The music is no slouch here, either, providing fast paced and tense sounding tunes when things get heated in the court. During testimony, before you actually take serious action, the music is less fast paced and less tense - but still has that little anticipatory edge that makes you kind of lean in and read the testimony closely. The tunes themselves aren't remarkable, and half of it sounds like it comes out of a Gameboy Color, but they're used to great effect in the courtroom. It's less satisfying out of the courtroom, where the tunes might as well be little ditties - in fact that's all they are. They neither add nor detract to the experience outside of court, save for making things a little less boring.
With the great presentation otherwise, however, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney hardly needs ditties to make the game entertaining. The entire concept is wrapped up nicely in cases that start out as really mind-boggling mysteries with satisfying conclusions, characters who are either endearing, laughable caricatures, or both. All of this is presented in five chapters, each one longer than the last, and the game surprisingly ends up weighing in with a lengthy first-run playtime. Depending on your reading speed, my rough estimate might be anywhere between ten and fifteen hours of game, which is nice for a DS game of the traditional adventure mold. Those familiar with the four chapters of the Gameboy Advance original - it's a remake, after all - will be tickled to find a very long, final fifth chapter added solely for the DS version. Better yet, new gameplay mechanics such as finger printing, uncovering bloodstains and examining evidence more closely by rotating certain pieces make their way into the chapter. It's just a shame that these only come into play for the last few hours of the game.
We've made it through this text without a single, annoyingly bad legal pun. I owe Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney that much. It's got laughs. It's got satisfying closure. It's got great thinking-man's gameplay bolstered by a decidedly anime presentation. It's even got the jubbulent pink-clad witness. Whatever you think of traditional adventure games, whatever you thought of "that lawyer game" when you first heard about it - play this game. What's supposed to be slow and plodding ends up being quite a thrill ride. It'll definitely be a cult classic, but here's hoping that it'll be a bona fide widespread hit.
[This review was originally written by me, MrCHUPON, for publication in Trigames.NET. It also appears under my handle, MrCHUP0N, on Gamespot.com.]
Community review by mrchupon (March 28, 2006)
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