CHARACTER DRIVEN: The fictional world of Phoenix Wright trumps the low-tech design.
Anyone who’s ever served on a jury can testify that courtrooms aren’t nearly as exciting as so many television dramas have made them seem. The opening and closing statements are pedantic, not moving. The judge doesn’t order the bailiff to remove unruly spectators. Rarely if ever is there a Perry Mason–style breakdown on the witness stand, with a tearful, jilted lover confessing to having sealed her husband in an oil drum and rolled him off a pier. No, the legal system is a pretty boring place. The makers of the Phoenix Wright series realize this too, and that’s why they populate their legal procedurals with séances, demented circus performers, and one of the most endearing protagonists in the annals of video games.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney appeared stateside in late 2005 and was distinguished by a cracked sense of humor and dizzying plot reversals. For a point-and-click adventure game, the mechanics were nothing new. In the sequel, which is subtitled Justice for All, little has changed. Over the course of four hopeless cases, Phoenix gathers evidence, grills witnesses, and matches wits with merciless prosecutors. Even the backgrounds and the character sprites have been recycled from the first game — and they were rudimentary to begin with. This is as low-tech as it gets.
The one new feature is called the “Psyche-Lock.” During the discovery phases of the game, certain witnesses are shown to be hiding something from Phoenix. The visual is a little disconcerting: the background fades to black and several thick chains encase the witness. By presenting evidence that contradicts the witness’s deceitful testimony, Phoenix breaks the chains and gets at the truth. The Psyche-Lock adds a bit more urgency to the game, because presenting the wrong evidence can result in a penalty. Which means you don’t have to wait for the next courtroom scene for some excitement. Even so, it’s just a tweak. The trials themselves are where the game cooks, as before.
To play this sequel, then, is less about enjoying the novelty of a game about a defense lawyer and more about appreciating the bizarre little world Capcom has dreamed up. Each case has Phoenix defending someone accused of murder, but beyond that grim premise lies some absurdist comedy. We meet the Jammin’ Ninja, an abusive ventriloquist’s dummy named Trilo, and a Ziggy Stardust–like magician named Maximillion Galactica. The characters are outrageous, but their motives — vanity, jealousy, lust — ring true. Phoenix himself is a complex, affable protagonist not cast from the usual anti-hero mold. One of the game’s greatest pleasures is Phoenix’s running interior monologue, a litany of doubt and self-flagellation. He’s faced on all sides by blowhards and foes who strike with the blunt force of blind conviction. He’s like the liberal panelist on a cable news show.
Although the writing is fine, packed with jokes and tongue lashings of the highest order, the text presentation is a bit shoddier than before, with some lazy spellchecking: “alter” for “altar,” “breech” for “breach,” etc. Still, Phoenix Wright is an example for the rest of the industry. I’m not advocating an influx of lawyer games, only pointing out that it’s possible to create a compelling, even thrilling, gaming experience outside the conceptual bounds of dystopian shooters and high fantasy. Forget shotguns, rocket launchers, and chainsaw bayonets: Phoenix Wright proves that the truth is the most potent weapon of all.