Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

I’ve been wanting to replay the Ace Attorney series and talk about it on this blog for a while, and while I’ve done two reviews and a sneaky mention before, I don’t think I can properly express my love for the series without a full-on series of critiques on each game. I’ve played each game in the series at least twice (editor’s note: I know for a fact he has not yet finished DGS2), and I also help manage the largest Ace Attorney fansite outside of Japan (follow us on twitter lol). With a new game on the horizon (writer’s note: written before the Tokyo Game Show panel and preserved for comic posterity) there’s pretty much no better time for a fan like me to revisit and re-analyse this series.

But I also want to set some grounding for this series of critiques. Firstly, I don’t want to do something like say that I’ll have them all done before a new game comes out, because I’ve never been good at writing series of reviews and that problem only doubles under even the slightest pressure. Secondly, I want this series to have appeal to those who are new to the series as well, so I’m going to avoid forwards referencing, except in footnotes, where I will be potentially giving major spoilers for any of the games. I would love to hear that some people will play or replay the games while reading these reviews, so ideally they’re accessible for all. I will, however, be fully spoiling the game I’m writing about, as well as any games already covered in the series.

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Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was first released in Japan for the GBA in 2001 and then re-released worldwide in 2005 and contained a bonus case, which I mention only to explain that I’m going to talk first about the initial release, and then touch on the fifth case, Rise from the Ashes as an addendum (although there’s lots to address there).

Although the game was initially conceived as a detective game, the action was moved to the courtroom with the main character, Phoenix Wright, becoming a defence attorney, as creator Shu Takumi thought that the main mechanic of exposing contradictions was more suited to a lawyer. The first case of the game, The First Turnabout, then, takes place entirely in and around the courtroom – the game’s investigation mechanic is not present until the second case.

In The First Turnabout, you’re tasked with defending Larry Butz, a close friend of Phoenix’s accused of murdering his girlfriend. Crucially, before the case starts, you’re shown the real murderer. Opinion on this is somewhat divisive – those who like figuring out who the killer is in a murder mystery may be disappointed by Ace Attorney’s tendency to give away the murderer in the initial scenes of some episodes, or having the murderer be reasonably obvious to figure out.

Of course, the decision to show the killer is always deliberate. Here it serves a dual purpose. First it establishes Larry’s innocence to the player. The series generally wants you to side with your clients, and while Phoenix may have a former connection with Larry, the player doesn’t so we need proof he’s innocent.

More importantly, however, it sets the tone for the style of mystery the series is going for. Ace Attorney does not operate on ‘whodunnits’ but rather ‘howdunnits’. The main gameplay is based on capturing the feeling of cornering a criminal, rather than the twist of figuring out who the criminal is. That’s not to say the series can never accomplish both, and in its best cases it often does, but in the first game only one out of the five killers isn’t immediately the obvious suspect from the first time you meet them. Showing the player Frank Sahwit and Redd White before the case even starts quickly conveys to the player that Ace Attorney isn’t really about traditional murder mysteries and so tempers their expectations.

Both killers also murder their victims simply, with a blunt object (in this case, the same blunt object) to the head. Once again, this is to convey the same point, albeit slightly more subtly. Ace Attorney’s killers rarely use complex murder machines or set-ups to murder their victims – it’s more about the cover up of a crime. Ace Attorney’s main focus then, is about how to topple the precarious alibis and cover-ups of murderers – and the thrill of finding and exposing the weak points within those hastily constructed shields, and it communicates this to the player in its first two cases.

So if The First Turnabout is mainly about set-up, it should really be judged as such and in that respect it’s a pretty brilliant case. The case involves only a handful of characters; Phoenix himself, his mentor Mia Fey, his childhood friend Larry Butz, the prosecutor Winston Payne (probably still my favourite of the huge amount of pun names in the series) and the murderer Frank Sahwit. Let’s go through them quickly (we’ll skip Phoenix for now, because I want to spend more time talking at the end).

Mia is the first character you meet as Phoenix, and I would excuse anyone who was slightly turned off the game by her extravagant design. Most of the character designs in the first game are more subdued than in the later games, but the key-word for most designs is still ‘exaggerated’, and this is present in Mia’s huge breasts and low-cut top. Mia is the boss of Phoenix’s law firm and serves as his mentor for the three games of the original trilogy. However, it’s not really until the third game that she gets much in the way of character development. In the first case, she’s helpful but not particularly characterful, and when she reappears in spirit from after her death in the second case, it’s mainly just to dispense sage advice. This isn’t bad per se, but it doesn’t make Mia a particularly interesting character in this game; she’s pretty much just the most basic form of mentor, without much going for her besides the fact that she seemingly knows her way around every situation. The case is also a little too short before she dies that there probably wasn’t enough time for this anyway.

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Larry, on the other hand, is full of personality and one of my favourite characters in the series. His over-the-top reaction to being put on trial, and then later to finding out his “girlfriend” was cheating on him adds the game’s first comedic streak. Despite the slightly grim subject matter of murder and the criminal justice system, one of Ace Attorney’s main triumphs is just how bloody funny it is. It manages both a broad level of comedy with characters like Larry, where most of the jokes come from their larger than life personalities, but it can also handle wryer comedy with Phoenix’s inner monologue and the snappy banter between characters like Phoenix and Maya. Larry and Mia also set up plot threads that carry on throughout the game – Mia’s storyline is basically finished by the end of Case Two, but Larry introduces Phoenix’s childhood to the game and carries that torch until the end of the fourth case.

Winston Payne and Frank Sahwit are the major antagonists of the case. Frank is the killer, easily recognisable from the opening of the case by the large spot on his forehead. His name in Japanese is Yamano Hoshio, which makes it doubly clear to almost every player that he’s the killer (“Yama” being slang for a case, “no” indicating the possessive, “hoshi” being slang for culprit and “o” meaning man – so his name literally means “the case’s culprit”). In English the pun is less focused on his role as killer and more focused on his role as the only witness of the game. It’s worth noting that in almost every other way the English localization is one of the best around.

Sahwit uses the somewhat limited sprite animations of early Ace Attorney to great effect – he’s often shifty and squirming around from the get-go, and his sweating animation comes in early for some quick visual feedback. He also has two “breakdown” animations; one is when he throws his toupée at Phoenix after being accused, and the other him frothing at the mouth once his guilt has been proved. Once again, this is all about visual feedback, something Ace Attorney’s sprite-work is great at. There’s a lot of character built into the animations throughout the whole game (one of my favourite examples being that Mike Meekins’ sprites all avoid direct eye contact) and it helps the series establish the instantly memorable characters it’s known for.

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The animations are all pretty simple, but they squeeze a whole lot of character out of the GBA’s limitations. Sahwit obviously shows instantly that he’s a villain, and he’s easy to break, but later villains have tougher exteriors, reinforced by their sprite work (more on this in Case 3 especially). The same applies to the prosecutors. Winston Payne is prone to buckling easily under pressure, but he also throws out a variety of insults at Phoenix, so he’s still satisfying to beat while still leaving space for the prosecutors you face to increase in the threat level as the game goes on.

With all the major characters introduced, it’s time to talk about the case itself, which is extremely basic but also reasonably clever. The murder plot is so simple when looked at outside the bounds of the case; Larry leaves Cindy’s house, then Frank goes in to steal something, finds Cindy there and kills her with the Thinker clock. Then he tells the police that Larry did it.

The lies you have to expose, however, are well laid out. The first is a simple time puzzle that comes about 10 minutes into the game’s playtime. The first case, and indeed most of the first game, is pretty fast-paced. There’s still a lot of dialogue, particularly optional dialogue, but it’s a much speedier playthrough than many of the other games because a lot of the fat is trimmed. A good example of this is that only some cases and court days in PWAA have pre-trial conversations with your defendant, something that has become a standard in later games.

The second contradiction handles a common criticism of the game pretty well. You have to prove that Sahwit couldn’t have heard the TV because there was a blackout at the time. Sahwit’s testimony mentions the TV twice; the first time is “There was a voice saying the time… It was probably coming from the television.”, but he also says, “I guess the victim must have been watching a video of a taped program!”. You can present the Blackout Record at either statement and be correct, which means you don’t have to follow the developer’s logic, because both are logically contradicted by the blackout. However, this isn’t carried on throughout the whole game – there is often some guesswork involved as to where you can present something, which is where the criticism comes from. The first case tackles the problem fine, but later cases could do with following its example.

The final contradiction of the case is more complex. You have to show that, because Cindy was in France when she came back, the clock was set to French time. It’s the first instance of the ‘turnabout’ thinking that the series is named after in Japan. Here, you have to presume Sahwit is telling the truth about the clock’s time, and then think of why the clock would be 3 hours slow. If anyone is having trouble with working this out, then it’s handy that the only piece of evidence you haven’t presented yet is the final one you need.

So I think 2,000 words later we’re finally able to move on to the second case in the game, Turnabout Sisters, which introduces the investigation mechanic, and Maya Fey, your investigation partner. Sadly, however, as a case itself it has some stumbling blocks.

The opening forces you to move from the main office at Fey and Co. to Mia’s office, and so slowly introduces the investigation mechanic to the player. When you’re in the investigation phase you initially have two options, to move or examine. Turnabout Sisters first makes you move to Mia’s room, then examine her corpse, and after that introduces Maya to bring in the other two options, talk and present. The investigations in Ace Attorney often seemed a bit of a pace adjuster, because they remove the fast-paced courtroom drama and replace it with a much slower trickle of information as you move from place to place collecting evidence. In the second game you’re given more to do in investigations, but here they do tend to slow the pace a bit too much, especially when later cases force you to trek from place to place picking up various items for needy characters. But at the beginning of a case it’s not too much of a problem, and the pace can escalate naturally.

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After finding Mia’s dead body two more important characters are introduced; Maya Fey and Detective Gumshoe. Gumshoe is a necessary character for delivering case exposition in both investigation and courtroom sections. But Takumi gives him a lot of earnest personality, and the way you can easily manipulate him for more information is charming. I’ll talk more about Mia’s sister Maya later, but as I mentioned when talking about Mia earlier, her death doesn’t carry much impact to the player because we really haven’t had much of a chance to get overly attached. It perhaps has some shock value, but not much more. Instead, the game wrings its emotional value in this case by trying to develop the defendant Maya, although her spending most of her time in the detention centre slightly puts a damper on this.

During the course of the first investigation, you also meet the Bellboy, April May and Marvin Grossberg. All of these characters will play a role in either the upcoming trial or the rest of the game, but each has their own reason not to want to talk to you. The role of the defence attorney in Ace Attorney (and indeed, in the real life Japanese criminal court system) is downtrodden. The detectives are all buddies with the prosecutors, the witnesses have been told to keep their mouths shut, and even your bosses’ former employer is cagey. This gives the case, and indeed most of the game, a nice feeling of working against the odds. It’s at its most prevalent here though, because this is the first time meeting characters like Gumshoe, who will eventually warm to you.

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In the first trial of the case, you meet Miles Edgeworth, who it will later be revealed is another childhood friend of Phoenix’s and Larry’s. Here though, he’s built up to be a villainous prosecutor who will do whatever it takes to get the results he needs. He’s mentioned before you even meet him by Gumshoe, and when you do see him, he’s an imposing figure. His demeanour is much harder to crack than Payne’s, and quickly in the case he fucks you over by replacing the autopsy report at the last minute. Once again, this reinforces the idea of Ace Attorney not being a “fair-play” murder mystery – unlike similar courtroom-based series Danganronpa, you aren’t given the clues to the mystery beforehand. Instead they’re doled out to you in small parts, and sometimes even taken away, meaning it’s impossible to solve the mystery before the final court day.

Ace Attorney somewhat styles itself as semi-satire of the Japanese legal system. Edgeworth is a prosecutor who’s never lost a case in his career, which sounds surprising to most Westerners, but is a much more common occurrence in Japan. The conviction rate there is around 99%, because only cases prosecutors are sure will win are ever brought to court. So, as mentioned, the defence attorney is the perennial underdog, and even the cream of the crop are unlikely to win more than a handful of cases over the course of their careers. The surprising thing about Edgeworth, then, is not his stainless record but rather the rumours that float around him. A shady prosecutor and a put-upon defence attorney are, then, tropes of Japanese legal fiction and dramas.

The first court day also serves as an introduction to pressing witness – shouting ‘Hold It!’ makes them reveal more information about the statement, although the game never really tells you what question Phoenix is going to ask them. If you can spot a contradiction right away you should go for it, but if not then pressing every option might well be necessary. The testimonies where you have to press all to proceed have always struck me as a bit annoying – Ace Attorney is ‘gameplay-lite’ anyway, but these are a bit of a cheap way to progress the story because they put you in the mindset of looking for contradictions, but don’t deliver.

Talking about every case in huge detail would make this post even longer than it already is, so let’s skip past the fake-out villain of April May to talk a bit about Redd White. The idea of an all-powerful double-breasted-suit wearing murderer either above or controlling the law is a common theme for Ace Attorney villains, but Redd White is often overlooked because despite his braggadocios intro he seems to have no actual power in the game world.[1] We see a small effect of his power on Marvin Grossberg declining to talk to us, but it’s not quite enough to believe him as a serious threat, as he snaps all too easily.

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Speaking of Grossberg, I mentioned before that the first Ace Attorney game was slightly more down to earth than what comes after, and Grossberg is one of my favourite examples of that. He has a slightly strange lemon obsession but is otherwise simply a normal attorney whose role in the story is to personify a crippling of the legal system.[2] Although it’s never given full attention, the legal system of Ace Attorney’s near future setting is all kinds of fucked up, with three-day trial limits and only one real judge. Grossberg, who was once a respected attorney but now lives in fear of a murderous blackmailer and was there to witness the fuck-up of the DL-6 case, personifies the flaws within the system. His apathy also further emphasises the heroic struggle of Phoenix and Mia as attorneys doing something to tackle the flawed system, in whatever way they can.

This is mostly Mia’s work in Turnabout Sisters, of course, and it’s unfortunate that no discussion of this case can go without mentioning the final contradiction. Phoenix gets far in cornering Redd White, but Edgeworth forcing Redd White to confess to planting the wiretap saves White’s skin at the last minute. This final blow brings out the ghost of Mia to tell Phoenix to turn over the receipt, but also to give a hitherto unseen sheet of names that forces White to confess.

This moment is pretty complex to unfold – a lot of people think it’s bullshit, but there are arguments to be made in its favour. After all, this case has been Mia’s from the start and, character-wise, it certainly makes more sense for her to deliver the final blow, even if it’s from beyond the grave. Phoenix’s development over the course of the game is to move into becoming an accomplished lawyer in his own right, but the second case is too early for that to happen. The player’s satisfaction in taking down White is robbed from them, sure, but as a character beat it makes a lot of sense, even if as a gameplay beat it’s much worse. It’s a shame that the game couldn’t have devised a way for the two to work in tandem – for example, allowing the player to work out the receipt contradiction, but still giving them the list of names from Mia that ultimately breaks White into confessing.

The other point to mention about the moment is the introduction of ghosts to the series. Spirit channelling is mentioned by Maya in the detention centre, as well as by Grossberg in relation to the DL-6 case. The only real role of it in the first game is to have Mia aid the player from beyond the grave, however. As such it sticks out a bit – later games will develop the spirit channelling system and give it more developed rules so as to work in a murder mystery setting, but here it exists solely for Mia to give helpful advice and for Maya to have something to work towards. As such, it feels like the germ of an idea here, while it has some uses, it’s too huge a concept to drop into a murder mystery game with so little fanfare.

I think, really, that Case Two has a lot of missed potential. To me, it feels a little too short, and a bit misplaced within the game. Now moving it later on would mess up a lot of plot points, but as it is there’s a lot here that doesn’t quite work this early in the game. Mia’s death doesn’t have the emotional impact it quite needs, the need to show the player the killer works against the case’s favour with regards to April May being set up as the real killer and Redd White’s potential is neutered. Moving the case to a time where the player was more familiar with the mechanics would also make the “Mia ex machina” moment feel more deliberate than like the game was trying to hand-hold you.

Still, the introductions to the extended cast of Ace Attorney are all handled well, even if that cast will be put to better use in the next case, Turnabout Samurai.

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Turnabout Samurai is the first case in the game that makes full use of the trilogy ensemble cast in their usual set-up. It’s also the first case in the game with no real connection to the overall plot-line, making it somewhat of a ‘filler’ case.

The main purpose of Turnabout Samurai seems to have been to flesh out Maya’s role as Phoenix’s assistant. It’s Maya, after all, who convinces Phoenix to take on the case of Will Powers, star of her favourite TV show “The Steel Samurai”. Maya is only 17 during the events of the first game, so much of her personality is based around her youthful energy and optimism in contrast to Phoenix’s slightly jaded outlook on life. The Steel Samurai case is a perfect way to highlight this – Will Powers’ “horrific” appearance, for example, showcases Maya’s naïveté – but her connections to the world of kids’ (or teens’? I’m not entirely sure what the target audience for the Steel Samurai is, given its wide-reaching appeal) TV are able to appeal to Cody Hackins and Penny Nichols later in the case, showing her use to Phoenix.

The cast and crew of the Steel Samurai is perhaps the weirdest batch of characters in the game yet, and I think their influence is wider reaching within the series than the one-off characters introduced before. There’s a certain gimmicky nature to each of their personalities that I feel has had a real part to play in the series’ future. It might make sense, then, to hear that Turnabout Samurai was the first case written for the game. Characters from Turnabout Sisters, like the Bellboy, certainly had small personality quirks, but Cody Hackins and Sal Manella are pretty much all quirk and little personality. They’re not on screen or in focus long enough for this to ever matter too much, however, and it allows the team to create memorable characters without having to invest too much time into them, which is the mindset used in future cases’ witnesses.

The star of the Steel Samurai case, however, is the villain. If Sahwit and White were too easy to break, then Dee Vasquez is the opposite. She maintains a perfectly cool composure from the moment you meet her, and this continues pretty much until the end of the trial, where her “breakdown” is clenched teeth and her breaking her pipe. If anything, Vasquez shows that a compelling and intimidating villain is not born of their connections, but more their demeanour.

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Vasquez also injects a hint of sympathy into the crime. Whereas Sahwit and White were just plain evil, Vasquez has some sentiment behind her. Although she has mob connections, although she treated Hammer like dirt, she killed him only in self-defence. If I had to connect Turnabout Samurai to a theme, it would be the subversion of expectations. You expect the malicious party to be Vasquez, but it was really Hammer; you expect the weapon to have been the Samurai Spear but it was the fence; you expect the crime scene to be Studio One but it was Studio Two. Most importantly perhaps, you expect the crime to be a simple one – the setup is, after all, the good guy killed the bad guy with his weapon. But in fact, the truth of the case reveals some moral grey areas behind the cast of a TV show with much simpler morals.

The final case of the game is Turnabout Goodbyes, which manages to tie together some of the game’s disparate threads. Takumi has said that the idea to have any overarching plot came from someone else on the game’s team, but I give credit to Takumi for how neatly it’s integrated. Hanging plot threads are never too noticeable within their individual cases, so the game is able to provide a satisfying resolution to each episode, but they’re present enough that they don’t come out of nowhere in Goodbyes.

The major plot thread here is the DL-6 incident. Yanni Yogi, the court bailiff and suspect of DL-6, has one of the most tragic arcs of the game; falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit and driven to despair by his wife’s suicide he’s pretty much a broken man when we meet him in the guise of the Boat Shop Caretaker. The game hints at a lot of this tragedy without going into it too much though – his wife’s suicide, for example, is only mentioned in a single piece of evidence and never properly touched on in dialogue. This robs Yogi of some of the pathos he perhaps deserves, but it stops the game from ever getting too caught up in its own depressing elements. Takashi Miike’s film adaptation of Ace Attorney shows the suicide of Yogi’s wife onscreen, and it leads to some odd tonal whiplash that the game cleverly avoids.

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Linked to DL-6 is, of course, the story of Miles Edgeworth. The story of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is often said to give more of a character arc to Edgeworth than Wright, and I think that’s true. Edgeworth starts off the game as a very different character to his appearance post-Turnabout Goodbyes. At the start, he’s a menacing opponent who bends the rules to try and win cases, but after being accused of murder and as the events of his past come to light it’s clear that Edgeworth is merely someone erecting a façade of emotionlessness as has been taught to him by his mentor Manfred Von Karma. The ways in which the often tragic events of the past inform the characters of the present is perhaps the major theme in the Ace Attorney Trilogy, and indeed in most of Shu Takumi’s writing. I mentioned this in my critique of Ghost Trick, and you can certainly see it here as well; Turnabout Samurai, Turnabout Goodbyes and Rise from the Ashes all have characters whose actions and motives revolve around a tragedy in their past, and I’ll keep mentioning this whenever it arises in later games.

A theme most present in this first game, however, is the influence of mentors on the two primary characters. Phoenix’s mentor Mia is someone who has such a strong presence she continues to guide his actions from beyond the grave. She’s not controlling, however, she steps in only when Phoenix has, in theory, done all he can, at which point she steps in to support him. Manfred von Karma is the opposite. He’s extremely controlling and seems to have stifled Edgeworth and moulded him in his image, cravat and all.[3] Visually, he’s the natural step up from Edgeworth in terms of video game boss design, but it’s seeing his vice-like grip on Edgeworth that makes him truly scary. On the prosecutor’s bench Edgeworth is someone who seems in charge of the situation, but remove him from that and put him up against his mentor and he cracks completely.

Of course, we can’t leave it as simply as that, because the other reason Edgeworth is so broken is that he’s been accused of murder. The case in Turnabout Goodbyes strikes the right notes, because it starts relatively light before moving onto solving the DL-6 murder. The first section of the case starts with the comic relief characters of Larry and Lotta before it gradually gets more serious until we’re solving a case with emotional stakes for the characters. It’s for this reason I don’t quite think the parrot cross-examination works. Takumi said in his dev blog that a TV director had told him that to capture the audience you need children and animals (opposite advice than that you’d receive from a US TV director). Children had already appeared in Turnabout Samurai, so Takumi instead dropped the parrot into the middle of Turnabout Goodbyes. I don’t think it’s too silly an idea for Ace Attorney, and it’s certainly a memorable moment but as a transition into talking about DL-6 it’s a bit tonally clunky. Returning to Yogi for a minute; while I said ignoring his wife’s suicide was a good move, that doesn’t mean you have to treat it so lightly that it becomes the inspiration for the name of a parrot (especially when that name is Polly).

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So what about DL-6 itself? Well, as a mystery I find it rather disappointing, despite the fertile set-up. Three people trapped in an elevator – none can quite remember what happened because of the oxygen loss, but one ends up dead, one ends up accused and one ends up thinking they’re the murderer. That’s great ground for a murder mystery – it’s a mini locked room. We don’t think Edgeworth did it, and Yogi says he didn’t do it – so what happened? Well, the solution is disappointing and a little confusing. Von Karma happens to be outside the elevator when Edgeworth throws the pistol, and it happens to pass through the door into his shoulder, and gee golly wouldn’t you know it, at that moment the power comes back on and Von Karma, who coincidentally is pissed at Gregory Edgeworth, decides to shoot him there and then. There are a lot of arguments to be made later in the series about cases with improbable solutions, or that rely too much on coincidence but even so I think DL-6 is an egregious example of this.

That might also be because the trial for DL-6 is over quickly, and even though it has had some foreshadowing when talking to Marvin Grossberg, it doesn’t feel enough. Coincidences in murder mysteries are not only allowed, they’re going to happen, but the cause of each should be explained if it’s going to feel satisfying for it all to tie together. Just looking back at the first half of Turnabout Goodbyes and you see what I mean – Larry and Lotta being there on the day of the murder is a huge coincidence but their appearances are given thought and consideration. But DL-6 all feels too rushed, and it relies on two coincidences that are unexplainable (the earthquake taking place when Von Karma’s animosity was at its highest and the trajectory of the bullet from the thrown gun), as well as one that’s not explained (why Von Karma was outside the lift at the time (they could have dropped in a line to say he was going to kill Gregory Edgeworth anyway, which would have explained that)). You could argue that DL-6 only has to work on a character level to be a success, and while I agree in part, I think a disappointing mystery only serves to distract most players from the case’s successes.

The revelation that Von Karma was hiding the bullet within his shoulder is expertly done however. Mia flashes before Phoenix’s eyes telling him to turn the case around, but not giving much concrete advice. It’s a much better use of Mia than just telling Phoenix what to present where. It also means the player has to make the connection to use the metal detector to expose Von Karma’s injury. It’s a perfect moment of evidence just slotting right into place. The best Ace Attorney cases are structured in this way; you collect a lot of disparate evidence and clues during the investigation and the early trial portions, and then you can deploy them strategically. It’s much more successful when the evidence is seemingly irrelevant until the moment to use it clicks – when it’s something like the DL-6 bullet it becomes more of a waiting game to use the evidence, rather than a satisfying revelation of its importance.

When the case ends, Maya feels unfulfilled. Despite grabbing the crucial evidence, she failed to summon Mia, and immediately jumps to feeling completely useless. This little part of Maya’s story feels a little tacked on, as if Takumi realised he hadn’t yet given Maya an arc, and so needed to do so as quickly as possible. It’s true that her failure to summon Mia is touched on in Turnabout Samurai, but it’s much more prevalent here, even though she does more in this case than she did there. It never really feels like it gets enough screen-time to develop. So while I like Maya a lot as a character, and I’ve already talked about how she serves as a perfect foil for Phoenix, I’m not sure why she needed an arc like this. Were I writing the script, I might make her arc about getting over the death of her sister and not being able to see her when she’s being channelled, but that might be a little too dark, which is why I imagine that mainly takes place off-screen in this game. Her lack of training might make sense for why she isn’t summoning Mia 24/7, but it’s an underwhelming and tacked on arc for an otherwise fun character.

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The only character I’ve yet to mention is Phoenix, and that’s because there isn’t too much to say about him. He’s likable and snarky, but his nature as player character means that he isn’t given all that much in terms of arc, so there isn’t that much to say about him. I’ve talked a lot about characters with development and arcs, but those things aren’t needed to make a compelling or likeable character, which Phoenix is, but it also makes it a little harder to write about. His big ‘change’, as it were, is getting more confident, but even then, it’s not by much. What Phoenix does get is a childhood backstory that inspires him to be a lawyer, and in a funny and true to life way, neither Larry or Edgeworth even remember it. It’s that kind of human detail that brings Ace Attorney’s writing to life; a lesser game might have made that story an integral part of each of the character’s lives, but it has more impact as something that only Phoenix remembers. Backstories and past events play a role in every Ace Attorney game, but the delicate way it’s handled here is something unique to Turnabout Goodbyes.

For Japanese players in 2001, this marked the end of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, but when the game was re-released on DS and released for the first time outside of Japan, a new case was added: Rise from the Ashes.[4] Rise from the Ashes is the largest case in the series so far – it’s got the highest number of trial parts, the most amount of evidence, a large cast of (semi) exclusive characters. It’s also probably my favourite case in the game, because it uses its size to tell a story with some real weight.

The case starts with Ema and Lana Skye, a clear parallel between Maya and Mia Fey, something the game is keen to remind you of. The point of this remains a bit foggy though – I guess it could be to make you bond to the sisters without having the build-up, but I found it a bit unnecessary. Lana is much more interesting than Mia, although to be fair she has more screen time in this one case than Mia has in the rest of the game. She’s got an ‘air of mystery’ about her that makes her intriguing – this isn’t simply because she wants to be found guilty, but because part of her doesn’t want to be; that she appears reserved about her own defeatist conviction. The reveal that she’s being manipulated by Gant in order to protect her sister is also sweet and provides a worthwhile pay-off.

If the Maya connection was meant to endear me to Ema, however, it certainly failed in its mission. If Maya wasn’t the smartest legal aide in the world, she was at least savvy in her own ways; her quick wit is the foundation of her enjoyable banter. Ema seems to be the dullest tool in the box, despite her forensic aspirations. She’s so unbelievably slow to pick up on almost everything that it becomes more annoying than charming.[5] It’s only because of Lana that I cared for them as siblings (although I can’t say I didn’t feel for the elder Skye sister having to put up with Ema).

Sistersaww

Ema’s main role in the case is to introduce the new forensic investigation mini-games, made to show off the amazing new features of the DS. The only one that really works is checking evidence, which provides good new mystery solving opportunities without any real drawbacks. Luminol testing is also alright – it’s really just pixel hunting in another form though, and you’re best served by prodding the touchscreen randomly until you find something. Video analysis is fine, but while playing the video for yourself gives you fast-forward and rewind buttons, the game fails to make use of those innovations when showing the video in court. Proving the locker sensor was jammed, for example, causes the same clip to play twice in real time, with both instances far too close to one another.

Fingerprinting can, however, go fuck itself. It’s tedious to fill the screen with powder, and it’s exhausting for someone as unfit as me to blow on the screen – I can’t imagine what it would do to the lungs of a serious smoker. I’m exaggerating a little of course, but it’s a stupidly clunky and often annoyingly precise system that takes up too much time and of the new mechanics is the one that feels the gimmickiest. Its narrative uses are well done, but the system itself needs work.

The case starts a bit slow with the Angel Starr cross examination but comes into its own with the introduction of Police Chief Gant and the simultaneous murder gimmick. Gant has one of the best introductions of any villain in an Ace Attorney game. He’s immediately commanding, with unblinking stares that force the game to a complete stop while the animation plays out. He’s also pretty jovial and reasonable, though, and this dual personality makes you more on edge around him than if he was hard-boiled all the time. Likewise, he treats Edgeworth with contempt, but Wright extremely cordial. We play as Wright, but we’ve recently bonded with Edgeworth in Turnabout Goodbyes, so our loyalties are split and Gant exploits that. It really is pitch perfect in execution, and Gant continues to be one of the most interesting villains in the series, which I’ll get to later.

gant-wahahaa

I’m going to talk about some of the case’s larger themes in a second but allow me to quickly nitpick about a moment in the case’s second trial. I talked all the way back in The First Turnabout that people sometimes complain that the writers force you to think their way during cross-examinations, but I mentioned that case allowed you to present the correct evidence at almost any of the relevant statements. The same cannot be said of Jake Marshall’s testimony in the second court day of Rise. The line in question says ‘Too bad it wasn’t me in that video, right, partner?’. The contradiction to this statement lies in the video tape, but you can’t present it. Instead, you have to press the statement first, at which point Phoenix presents the tape for you. It’s a small thing, but moments like this are present throughout the series, and do cause annoyance. I tend to be tuned-in enough to the writers’ thought routes to not run into roadblocks too often, but it would be foolish of me to ignore the problem completely.

Anyway, after the first trial you can talk to Marshall and Angel Starr to learn about the SL-9 incident, a serial killing case that is once again rearing its ugly head despite nearing the statute of limitations. SL-9 is a pretty direct parallel to DL-6 and helps prove that Takumi too often falls back on this kind of thing when writing his longer cases. SL-9 is, at least, much more interesting than DL-6. While it also involves a child being unable to remember a murder and thinking that they were responsible for it, when in fact it was a high up official in the justice system, SL-9 uses that framework to raise some interesting questions about the limitations of Ace Attorney’s evidence-based court system.[6]

Joe Darke is a serial killer who we never meet in-game, but we are assured by reliable parties of his guilt. In order to convict him, though, the police needed to forge evidence. The morality of this is an interesting dilemma that isn’t given a clear answer in game. Gant is clearly a villain for what he did, because he used the situation to gain leverage on Lana and the Prosecutor’s Office, but Takumi stops himself from fully condemning Lana for forging the evidence that ends up convicting Joe Darke. In a court system where evidence is everything, whether it’s morally justifiable to forge evidence to catch an uncatchable killer is a question I’m not equipped to answer, but the case commendably asks it and presents a variety of sides to consider, while still giving a partly satisfying resolution with the takedown of Gant.

Gant’s ‘we’re not so different, you and I’ speech to Edgeworth at the case’s conclusion brings us to the other big subject the case tackles; Edgeworth’s development and his departure from being a prosecutor. Without spoiling much, Edgeworth is absent at the start of Justice for All, the game saying he’s disappeared after the events of Turnabout Goodbyes. Some might feel, however, that the events of that case weren’t sufficient reason for his departure and I think I see what they mean. Edgeworth gets a lot of focus in this case, and the pressure mounted on him for the rumours surrounding his career are bought to a head here. It certainly makes sense that it’s these that would make him take stock in his career, as opposed to the resolution of his childhood traumas. Rise from the Ashes, bring written after Justice for All, has the chance to fix this issue.

Rise somewhat muddies the waters, however, with the revelation that the evidence forgeries in SL-9 were solely the work of Gant and Lana. The case never explicitly says this was the only reason that Edgeworth is surrounded by rumours, but it focuses entirely on this incident, so it’s pretty implicit. We know, however, from Turnabout Sisters, that Edgeworth plays pretty fast and loose with the rules even without this on his record. Rise from the Ashes seems to paint Edgeworth as a maligned good guy who has a stain on his record that has caused him grief while seemingly ignoring some of the tricks he’s pulled before. A brief mention at the end seems to show that Edgeworth leaving is because he thinks he could have become like Gant, but the rest of the case plays it all a bit differently. Takumi has mentioned in an interview that he didn’t plan to write Rise from the Ashes, and that his original idea was for a disconnected “episode X”, which might explain this. There’s no direct contradiction between the Edgeworth of Rise from the Ashes and the Edgeworth of the rest of the game, but there’s still a slight disconnect.

And so, two credit scenes later, we come to the end of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. If this game has the unhappy task of introducing people to a now 16-year-old series, then it pulls it off with aplomb. None of the cases are without their flaws, but it’s impressive how well the game holds up. I think I was most surprised with how much I admired the first cases’ effortless introduction to the series’ tone and mechanics, but also with how seamlessly that half-hour introductory case transitions through the rest of the game into the multi-hour, multi-day epic of moral ambiguity that is Rise from the Ashes.

Victorywv1

I hope to see you at some point soon for a look at the second game in the series, Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Justice for All. The announcement while I was writing this post of a re-release for the Trilogy has thrown my plans into a bit of a tizzy, but hopefully I won’t wait until early 2019 to get the next one out. After all, I’m already itching to revisit it.


 

[1] I think villains like Alba achieve what White is going for much better – even Von Karma exerts more control over the court than Redd.

[2] Perhaps in a slightly more subtle way than screaming about the Dark Age of the Law

[3] The whole ‘prosecutor is nice guy controlled by evil-doer’ works so much better here than in Spirit of Justice.

[4] This case was partially planned by Takeshi Yamazaki, who would go on to direct the series from the fifth game onwards. He was also director of the two Investigations spin-offs. You can read an interview between him and Takumi about this case here: https://gyakutensaibanlibrary.blogspot.com/2016/07/yomigaeru-gyakuten-blog-entry-3-vs.html

[5] Explains her Apollo Justice demotion as well.

[6] Takumi will of course return to this in Apollo Justice’s final case.

 

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