PHOENIX WRIGHT / Capcom / Nintendo DS

It's cute, stylish and it's packed with pop culture references, but underneath its slick surface the Ace Attorney series takes place in a rather frightening dystopian future.

In Phoenix's society, whether it be Tokyo or L.A. in the year 2016, courts have implemented something called the "initial trial" system which sets a limit of three days for every new case that comes before the bench. There are no jury trials, at least not at the time of the first Phoenix Wright game; everything is decided by a judge who can stop the trial and declare a verdict at any time they want. In conjunction with this time limit, defendants are essentially considered guilty until proven innocent. People can be arrested at the snap of a finger with no hard evidence, witnesses for the prosecution are free to revise their testimony on the stand multiple times when flaws are pointed out (and are always accepted as 100% credible by the court no matter how many times they have holes shot in their stories), and evidence can be pulled out of the asses of both the prosecution and defense right in the middle of the trial without any prior approval of or submission to the court.

Compounding this system are judges who are both inept and corrupt (taking bribes openly right in the middle of the case while still on the stand), prosecutors who forge and alter evidence as a regular matter of course, and pushy lawyers who cow the judge into submission simply by speaking in a commanding tone (and also occasionally brandishing weapons).

The only thing a defense attorney can do in this uphill battle, seemingly, is to keep on objecting and pointing out contradictions in testimony until the witnesses get so flustered that they suffer a psychotic meltdown. In Phoenix Wright, it will become your job to induce those meltdowns with the whole world seemingly aligned against you.

Phoenix is essentially a "visual novel", and those are not known for interactivity and replay value. This game is no exception - it's a story-driven ride with a lot of dialogue, and there's pretty much no reason to replay a case again once you've finished it as you'll see nothing new. However, the ride is worth it - the localization is great, the characters are endearing, the music is catchy and the courtroom battles are a blast in spite of being very linear. And it does offer a tiny bit more gameplay and interactivity than the usual visual novel does.

Phoenix actually first came out on the Gameboy Advance in Japan as "Gyukaten Saiban", back in 2001. The DS version is essentially identical, though it adds the use of the touch screen to make menu navigation a bit easier, and also adds a fifth case that was not present in the original. Each of the game's five cases are self-contained, but the stories tend to tie in to one another. They usually begin with Phoenix taking on the defense of a distraught client who appears for all the world to be guilty. Through investigation outside the courtroom, Phoenix gathers evidence to defend his client, then goes into the courtroom where he cross-examines the testimony of witnesses for the prosecution and tries to pick apart their stories. Fortunately for Phoenix, every client he takes on is actually innocent of the crime they are being charged with (in this game, it's always murder).

The cases tend to last anywhere from about three to six hours on the whole, and can be saved during the transition from Investigation to Courtroom mode. Investigation plays out like a typical Japanese menu-based adventure game; you cannot die or screw up, and simply must visit every available area and talk to every available person until you have everything you need to proceed. As such, it can get a little tedious; and unfortunately the majority of the game takes place in Investigation mode. The goofy characters and situations, music and sharp writing shore up these stretches however, along with the fairly complex unfolding mysteries of the story, keeping them fairly engrossing in spite of the repetitive nature.

Nice to meet you Blanco Nino.
Too bad your ass got saaaaaaacked.

Courtroom is the iconic mode of the series. In these, the prosecution will usually call a witness who testifies against your client. You then go through their testimony sentence by sentence, and can either Press them for more details on each, or Present a piece of evidence that contradicts what they just said. You have to be cautious when presenting evidence, however, as showing something irrelevant causes you to be penalized. Five penalties, and you automatically lose the case. You'll also sometimes be called upon to make decisions in the heat of the moment that can lead to a penalty if chosen wrong.

The fifth case of the game, which was designed specifically for the DS, shares this pattern but adds a touch more gameplay to the mix. While investigating, you can rotate many of the objects that you find to locate hidden details. There's also a point where you have to reconstruct a smashed item by fitting together it's peices, and dust a scene for fingerprints (clearing the powder by blowing into the DS's microphone). These are small touches and don't really make the game any less linear, but moments like these do help towards breaking up the monotony of the menu-based adventure portions.

The game is essentially a one-off; play through each case once and you are not likely to pick them up and play again, as there's no reason. As such, the game might actually work better as a rental if you can find it. I think it is definitely worth experiencing though, as something of a revival of the adventure game, and also a cultural meme that's fun to be in on.

Links :

* Court Records - An Ace Attorney fansite
* Objection!
* Phoenix Wright Case Maker

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
* The Blue Badger!
* A Boot To The Head
* Guilty Pleasure
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