Playing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney on the Nintendo DS takes me back years ago to my gaming days on the Apple II. One of the first games I ever acquired for my computer was a text adventure based upon Perry Mason; it was, in retrospect, a pretty crappy and linear adventure, but at the time it was cool to try a hand at digging for clues in order to prove a client innocent or guilty in the courtroom. Twenty years later that same feeling's come back with Capcom's latest DS game: Phoenix Wright isn't much more than elaborate, visual text adventure that's harshly linear in its design. But it's easy to lose hours playing this game because the script is so interesting and well written, even if no court system would ever operate this way in the real world.
Phoenix Wright may be making his debut on the Nintendo DS in America, but Japanese gamers have already fallen in love with the character on the Game Boy Advance in three different novel-based adventures. The Nintendo DS version is actually an enhanced and updated, dual-screen conversion of Gyakuten Saiban on the GBA, but that really doesn't matter to US gamers since none of the three GBA games ever hit the shelves on these shores.
The design is a point-and-click style adventure that puts players in the role of Phoenix Wright, an up-and-coming attorney that's a little green around the gills in his trial experience. In fact, the first chapter in the game is Phoenix's premiere trial, which makes it a perfect opportunity to train gamers in the process of cross-examining witness testimony
pretty much the meat of each of the several chapters in the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney design. But it's not just about the trial process, and in most chapters there's a heavy focus on digging for evidence in order to prove a client innocent. The Nintendo DS system's dual-screen design makes it easy to navigate all the menus for dialogue and investigation; the game isn't much more than a text adventure with a graphical user interface, but navigation is much more intuitive pointing and clicking on a touch-screen than tapping around a cursor using the D-Pad. But you can play that way too if you want.
Once players run through the initial phase of acquiring evidence for a particular case, it all boils down to proving yourself in court. Can you present the evidence at the proper moment? Can you dig at the witness into slipping up and changing their testimony? It's during the trial where the case is won and lost, so paying close attention to the details presented by the prosecution and the witnesses is integral to winning a case. At each particular testimony, Ace can interrupt the witness with a "Hold it!" to poke for more details, or to present evidence that contradicts the particular statement.
The writers clearly had a ton of fun westernizing a straight out Japanese concept and design. Along with the infusion of the over-the-top Anime-style humor, the localization team had a field day poking fun at some elements that probably weren't a part of the original Japanese text. The game doesn't go beyond a rigid "paper doll" animation for its story presentation, so it's particularly humorous to see the writers make fun of, say, calling a Bellhop to the stand when he's the same exact bellhop sprite used at the hotel
complete with tea set in hand. And there are quite a few laugh-out-loud passages in the script and dialogue, and it's really hard not to smile at the "fighting game" style of the trial process; you'd expect Phoenix Wright and the Prosecution to trade blows in a 2D Street Fighter game with the way the transition plays out between witnesses.
On the downside, even as well written as the game is, it's clear that the localization team had to dumb down the script in order to make the stories work. This isn't a justice system simulation, and you don't have to sit through a semester of law school to find some flaws in the logic and convenient contradictions in the story. Sometimes you just want to smack the judge around a bit for being as naïve as he acts when the prosecution presents his findings as fact, but then that just makes it all the more satisfying when you present the proper evidence that shows how stupid he was for believing the witness to begin with.
But Phoenix Wright boils down to one particular issue: it's extremely linear in design. The chapters follow a specific script that can't be strayed, and the puzzles aren't really all that tough because players are encouraged to simply stop a witness's statement at any time without penalty. Only by slipping incorrect evidence or objecting to rock-solid prosecution will lose favor with the judge -- essentially the game's "power bar." And it's not like this game can be played multiple times because once the story's been successfully played through, you already know the dialogue tree to get through it a second time.
The game tries to inject a bit more energy into the adventure by implementing voice recognition. Pressing a button down and speaking "Hold it!" or "Take that!" in the microphone is supposed to press for more info or present evidence, but since the voice recognition is so wonky and because it's a simple matter of touching the screen to do the same command, it's a silly little gimmick that gets lost in the presentation.
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