What’s the Deal With Ace Attorney?

It was a cold Christmas in 2008. Most Christmases, my family would have a big family meal cooked at home and all gather around the table to eat. This year however, we’d decided to change things up and try Christmas dinner at a local hotel. As we sat in the front bar waiting for our table, we exchanged our table presents. This might be a British tradition, or it might just be my family, but we’d always hold back one present to be opened at lunchtime. Since we were waiting so long for our table, we decided to open them up before we were seated. I can’t remember what my mum or dad got that day, but I remember receiving a little box. I immediately recognised the shape as the iconic chunky European DS cases. Now, back in 2008, there was one hot DS game on everyone’s lips – Professor Layton and the Curious Village. I remember I had been wanting to try it too. ‘You didn’t!’ I exclaimed as I began to peel off the wrapping paper and reveal… Not Professor Layton. Instead, I was greeted by Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations. I had no idea what it was.

As we waited for our table and then our food, time continued to drag on. I was encouraged to try out my new game on my DS, so I popped it into the console and booted it up. It was my first time playing any kind of visual novel game, and so it was a whole new experience for me. I immediately fell in love. The plot was pretty fast moving, the characters were cool, the art was nice and the script was amusing. I enjoyed following the characters’ conversations and trying to find the correct piece of evidence to break through witnesses’ false testimonies. I only played a little that first lunchtime, partly because it’d be rude to continue playing games at the family dinner, but also because I had found myself stumped on one bit of testimony. It was brilliant. Having to put the game down to think of the answer to the puzzle and come back to it later was a tantalising taste of what was to come, and I was hooked.

Since that day, I’ve played through a number of Ace Attorney games and still find them to be just as interesting and exciting as they were that first time. I’ve used them in a variety of ways too – originally I played through them just as fun games, but after moving to Japan and studying Japanese, I found them to be a really good way to improve my Japanese vocabulary and reading speed. I’ve got to say, I do now seem to have an oddly large law/crime based Japanese vocabulary. Playing the games again in Japanese had a whole new feel to them – I felt immense pride that I had been able to play these games I’d loved for such a long time in their native language, but it also allowed me to experience some of the titles that were never translated into English. Ace Attorney Investigations 2 is a particular standout. I’m constantly recommending the series to my friends, both gamers and non-gamers alike, to the point where they must be sick of hearing about it. So what is it exactly that makes Ace Attorney so appealing?

The Characters

This has to be one of the biggest things going for the series. The characters making up the games are just so damn lovable. For the first trilogy, you mainly play as Phoenix Wright, a new defence attorney who matures into his position as the series continues. In the first games he is unsure, clumsy, but ultimately reliable. As the series has progressed, so too has Phoenix Wright, now taking on a more mentorlike role in his law firm. Other key characters include the Fey family, notable Maya Fey, who becomes Phoenix’s companion through most of the original trilogy and is generally viewed as his key partner. She is a spirit medium whose powers allow her to, at times, summon the spirits of the dead and act as a vessel for them to talk to Phoenix. Miles Edgeworth and Dick Gumshoe are the other two core characters from the original trilogy – going so far as to get their own spin-off series, the aforementioned Ace Attorney Investigations, although – although the cast of recurring characters has continue to grow and expand throughout the series’ life. They are all unique, charming characters in their own unique ways and are generally a joy to spend time with. Even the ones who are not such a joy are normally designed that way at least. This recurring cast is one of the things that makes the games so fun to explore – you never know when that side character from two games ago is going to randomly pop up in a future case, and stumbling upon them or seeing them reappear in a new chapter of their lives is an absolute joy.

The Cases

With any series that has gone on as long as Ace Attorney (the original games were released in Japan on the GameBoy Advance in 2004), there are bound to be ups and downs, but there are few series that have managed to keep up the same generally high level of quality as the law franchise has. The best cases can span hours of gameplay, wind through flashbacks, family drama and decade-long feuds before all coming to an ultimate climax in the court as you duke it out with rival prosecutors and shady witnesses. Trials and Tribulations, the third game in the series, and my entry point into the games all comes together in a magnificent climax that effectively spans two cases, while Ace Attorney Investigations 2 ties together not only all of its cases, but also some of the first Investigations game’s into one triumphant finale. When the series is at its best, there are few mystery adventures that can hold a candle to their complex webs and intrigue.

Even when the games are at their lowest, they tend to power through with the delightful cast and some generally bizarre situations which manage to keep your interest. Justice For All, the second game, has earned a bit of a name for itself with Big Top Turnabout, often regarded as one of the weakest cases in the series’ history, for example, but I never knew that before following the Ace Attorney community online more regularly. Playing the game, I remember feeling like it wasn’t quite up to the levels of the previous cases, but it doesn’t stand out as anything particularly bad. Unless you have a crippling fear of clowns. In that case… Anyway, Justice For All recovers quickly and closes with Farewell, My Turnabout, conversely regarded as one of the best cases in the franchise. Generally, every game consists of roughly four or five cases, and normally at least one of them will be widely considered to be up there with the greatest cases the franchise has to offer, showing just how balanced the games are.

The Gameplay

Of course, what is the thing that makes you keep coming back to any game series? The gameplay. The stories of the Ace Attorney games are generally split into two distinct sections – investigations and trials. During investigations, you’ll be tasked with examining crime scenes, searching for evidence and gathering information from witnesses and people related to the case. Here, you’ll often start getting hints of the truth behind the incidents, and the thrill when you start to realise what really happened is almost second-to-none. Almost. The trials feel like the meat of any Ace Attorney game, as you stand locked in battle with the prosecutor. It’s tense – you’ll often feel like you’ve managed to crack a witness, only for the prosecution to shatter your plans and reveal it was all a trap which you’ve only just gone and walked right into, you foolish defence attorney! Picking apart witnesses testimonies in court is a great little puzzle as you try to find the right statement to present the correct piece of evidence. Generally, these are very well thought out, although there is the odd time when there is a bit of a leap of logic required.

This brings us to the ultimate joy of Ace Attorney, in my humble opinion. In most games, be it Assassin’s Creed, Mario or God of War, you do incredible things with your character, but there is always that undeniable fact that you didn’t do these things, the character did. It’s not you stabbing people in the neck (thank goodness) or stomping on giant turtles’ heads. It feels great, sure, but there is somewhat of a disconnect – you are relying on the abilities of the player avatar. In Ace Attorney however, things are a little different. It really is you solving these puzzles. It really is you sorting through evidence and finding the small inconsistencies in witnesses’ testimonies. The story takes place around Phoenix Wright, the lawyer, but the gameplay really requires you, the player, to actually do the hard work and see through the smoke and mirrors. I think this is what gives you that deep sense of satisfaction when you finally crack a case and see your clients cleared. You did it. It’s a magical feeling, one that is hard to replicate in more action-oriented games.

The Ace Attorney franchise has been with me for a long time now, and it’s one I’m going to continue to follow for years to come. I have fond memories of every game in the series, and the characters have a special place in my heart. Ultimately though, I always come back to that Christmas morning, when my parents (who have a hard time keeping up with what games I’m into and which ones I’ve already got) surprised me with a game that I hadn’t asked for, had never heard of, but they had a little inkling I’d enjoy when they’d come across it hunting for Christmas presents in the local game store. How right they were. I did eventually buy Professor Layton and the Curious Village for myself.

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