This is the third in a series of reviews on the Ace Attorney series, and I recommend reading the first two before this. This post will contain spoilers for the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney trilogy, and all games in the series may be spoiled in the footnotes. Thanks for reading!
When asked about what my favourite game is, my instinctive reply is always “Trials and Tribulations”. As the final game in the original trilogy, it has a lot of weight on its shoulders to live up to the hefty pedigree of what came before, but I think that most fans consider it to have surpassed those expectations. Revisiting the game for this series was a perfect opportunity to reconsider my thoughts on it and judge anew whether it’s still my favourite game in the series.
I think before we jump in, I’d like to preface this by questioning what place the game has in the series. Although the trilogy is now packaged and sold as if it were always meant to be a whole, the first game wasn’t written with this plan in mind, and so the trilogy isn’t full of the most obvious hanging plot threads. Were Justice For All to have been the final game in the series, its final case would have been perfectly judged; wrapping up Phoenix’s arc nicely and providing suitable dramatic stakes for a grand finale. So it’s important to note that Trials and Tribulations is in the unfortunate position of having to conclude a story that has already had two suitable conclusions. Of course, there are a few hanging plot threads, such as those relating to the Fey clan, but generally it’s impressive that the story manages to feel like a conclusion without having an obvious route to being one. Anyway, I feel like we’ll get back to this later, so for now, let’s talk about the first case; Turnabout Memories.
Memories very much feels at first like a fanservice case in how it quickly reveals its all-star cast, from a younger Mia and Grossberg to a college-age Phoenix and a bequiffed Winston Payne. While that may be exciting for the long-time player and serve as an easier way to introduce new players to the mechanics than writing in temporary amnesia, I sadly don’t think the case itself works all that well.
Let’s start with the returning characters, because I think they’re an interesting example of how the writing and character design has subtlety changed as the series has progressed. The clearest example of this is, of course, our old friend Marvin Grossberg. In my review of the first game, I praised Grossberg’s subdued character design and writing, noting that his comparative realism adds some weight to the game’s ideas. Grossberg’s role in the first game was the apathetic personification of a world that has given up on a fair legal system, but in Trials and Tribulations, Grossberg has become more exaggerated and his role simplified to that of Mia’s comedic mentor figure. His suit has been changed from brown to red, and he’s been given a wacky character quirk in the form of his hemorrhoid problems.
You may well ask yourself why I’ve picked Grossberg to focus on, rather than the more obviously visually different Phoenix. Phoenix was nervous and maybe a bit naïve in The First Turnabout, but here all of that is dialled to the max as he becomes a pitiful love-struck student. While it’s not a change I’m particularly fond of – although he should be a nervous wreck, Takumi takes it a bit too far – his change has some impetus behind it. Phoenix here is played up as weak and pathetic in order to emphasise the evolution he’s made throughout the series so far, but the changes we see in Grossberg lack that same narrative reasoning. If anything, Grossberg’s played-up character quirks are simply to avoid him standing out too much among a cast that has progressively become more kooky. So while I’m not a fan of either change, I can at least appreciate the reasoning behind Phoenix’s.
The other major returning character here is of course, Mia, who you play as for the first time. Mia here feels a lot like Phoenix from the first game, which I don’t think is an awful thing; her inexperience here makes her otherwise unimpeachable demeanour in the first two games more palatable. From this case and the later Turnabout Beginnings, we can see the cases that have made a mark on Mia and relate them with Phoenix’s similarly formative cases to create a more rounded picture of Mia as a character. All in all, then, I think it’s a good thing that she’s here, although her appearance isn’t without problems.
The biggest issues are certainly in the lazy ways the writing tries to create drama for her. Mia is inexperienced, but she’s been through a trial before and isn’t as inexperienced as Phoenix was in his first trial. And yet, when she proclaims wildly that she can prove how Swallow was killed, her inner monologue tells us she’d actually forgotten she would have to present evidence to do this. This is the kind of artificial tension that Takumi should have moved past by now; at the very least the word ‘prove’ is strange for someone who’s forgotten about evidence. That may of course be a translation problem, but what definitely isn’t is the similarly artificial device at the end of the case where Mia’s career is suddenly put on the line because she hassled the witness too much. This comes out of nowhere and is forgotten almost as soon as it’s raised, but I think is sadly indicative of a need in this case and others to insert extra dramatic stakes to situations that don’t require them.
Speaking of the witness, that’s Dahlia Hawthorne here, and while I don’t want to talk about her too much before we get to the end of the game, I’ll try and evaluate her introduction. Dahlia isn’t immediately threatening, but the way she transfixes the Judge and Payne sets her apart from Sahwit and Wellington. It’s also clever how she uses an obvious lie to cover for Phoenix at first, showing her apparent devotion to her boyfriend while leaving it very open for Mia to expose. Perhaps the most powerful showcase of Dahlia’s control, however, is Phoenix’s dedication to protecting her even to the bitter end. Him swallowing the bottle is a powerful moment, much more so than Dahlia’s flirting with the Judge and Payne. After all, Payne is already openly hostile to Mia from the start, so his affection to Dahlia doesn’t change the mood of the courtroom enough to be that impactful. Phoenix, on the other hand, is someone you might expect more from, so his naïve loyalty to the woman who tried to murder him comes as more of a shock.
While that particular moment is the case’s strongest point, it isn’t quite strong enough to save the whole case. This is Takumi’s first real go at a story that is properly interconnected, and it feels like it. Mia’s backstory and her relation to Dahlia is clumsily hinted at, as is Dahlia’s motive, which weakens her as a villain in this particular case. Most of the characters here feel like exaggerated versions of themselves, and that neuters some of the dramatic impact for characters like Phoenix. When you struggle to see any of the Phoenix you know in the younger version of him, it’s hard to stay invested in his character when the case asks you to care about him as much as you might about the adult Phoenix from the first two games. As a start to the game, it initially has more promise than something like The Lost Turnabout, but is generally unsuccessful at reaching its loftier goals.
Turnabout Memories is part of Trials and Tribulations’ ongoing plot, of course, so it’s difficult to talk about all these elements in great detail without confusing the structure of this critique. Instead, let’s shelve a few of these hanging threads and move onto The Stolen Turnabout, the first of this game’s two “filler” cases.
To call any of the cases here filler does feel a bit silly though, considering that each serves their purpose in the grand narrative. The Stolen Turnabout is Takumi’s way of introducing Godot while re-familiarising fans with the Fey clan and Larry Butz through the Kurain Treasures exhibition.
We’ll talk about Godot in a minute, but first it’s worth noting that this case starts as Ace Attorney’s first non-murder trial, a nice change of pace. The defendant this time is Ron DeLite, an ex-security guard turned phantom thief. Although we know through the Mask DeMasque symbol in his apartment that Ron is the thief, this isn’t a 2-4 situation where defending someone guilty is treated as something dubious. Instead, Takumi’s mastery of writing the first impression sides you with Ron despite knowing he’s the criminal and Maya the ‘victim’.
The case itself also shows how far Takumi has come in writing pre-planned murder mysteries of the type I think he struggled with in Reunion and Turnabout. Reunion suffered from having the locked room trick be too easily solved during the investigation, but in Stolen, Takumi takes the obvious conclusion of Atmey being the thief and deals with it within the first day in court. Having done that, the rug is expertly pulled out from under the player with the revelation of Kane Bullard’s death. It’s a much better controlled mystery than Reunion’s; one that takes the player with it at its own pace. Ace Attorney style ‘double jeopardy’ is introduced here for some more clever trickery on the part of Atmey, and it’s especially ingenious how the trick that Atmey tries to pull to save himself becomes the way Ron escapes prison.
Like Turnabout Memories, The Stolen Turnabout also features the return of some familiar faces; here, Adrian Andrews and Larry Butz. Andrews has changed considerably since we last saw her in Farewell, My Turnabout, but the change feels natural considering how that case ended, and it’s nice that moving into the final chapter of Ace Attorney we are shown how Phoenix’s actions have managed to help people in a way that extends beyond simply putting bad guys in chains. Larry, on the other hand, has changed nothing but jobs, but his importance is more in taking the player back to where it all began and creating a throughline from The First Turnabout to here. On a more practical level, of course, it’s a reminder that Larry exists before he’s reborn as Laurice in the final case.
Let’s quickly mention Godot here, because it’s worth noting how brilliant his introduction to the game is. Like Edgeworth and Franziska, Godot is foreshadowed by Atmey before we meet him, but this time his description is so formidable it’s almost tongue in cheek. A lot about Godot here pokes fun of the conventions of Ace Attorney prosecutors, including his line about not having lost a single case, which never fails to get a chuckle out of me. I think a prosecutor like this, whose smooth jazz theme tune plays over his nonsensical odes to coffee, was needed for a game whose characters are already veering more towards the extreme. Even his design, with his sci-fi mask, is the oddest of the prosecutors so far. Edgeworth and Franziska both had moments of wackiness, but Godot is much more inherently comedic in tone. Interestingly, while that’s my interpretation of the character, Takumi writes ‘There was no need for comedic elements. My aim was a character that was so incredibly cool, he’d make you laugh.’ Although his arc ends with a dramatic conclusion, for the most part the way he’s written emphasises Ace Attorney’s extremes of personality.
While The Stolen Turnabout is a strong re-introduction to the Ace Attorney status quo, the third case, Recipe for Turnabout is the real star of the the show. It’s worth noting that this case is the first third case to not be set in an entertainment field. It’s nice to see that, although all the cases in Trials and Tribulations owe a lot to the cases of the past two games in how they bring back characters and certain ideas, the cases feel like fresher ideas than the ones in Justice for All. I’ve always been a fan of this case for how it uses humour, but on replaying it I’ve come to appreciate it even further.
It’s a good thing that comedy is no longer the only draw of this case, because some of it is a little problematic. Jean Armstrong is an interesting character, but his feminine proclivities are too often made the butt of the joke. Janet Hsu, localisation editor of Ace Attorney, has written in further depth about this topic and its treatment in Japan, but some of the less-than-savoury jokes are kept in the English version, often leading to some slightly cringe-inducing moments. This is the same with the case’s use of Mia, which acknowledges her adult design by stuffing her in a waitress outfit and using her as bait for a pervy old man. Most of the humour, however, is still top notch, especially the central joke that a large red man with spiky hair can just put on a blue suit and a cardboard badge and nobody will bat an eyelid when he says he’s Phoenix Wright.
You might think from that that I don’t like the side characters in this case, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In my comments on Turnabout Big Top, I mentioned how that case was Takumi’s attempt to bring some pathos to the usually somewhat underdeveloped background cast of an Ace Attorney case. Although in that case I think he wasn’t entirely successful, in Recipe for Turnabout he knocks nuanced character writing out of the park (or Vitamin Square). The obvious ‘theme’ of this case is probably the idea of doubles and fakes (a fake Phoenix, a fake murder, a fake French restaurant), but the underlying theme is that of the often destructive power of money.
Every character in this case is somehow controlled and put down by their lack of money. Victor Kudo seems initially like the Wendy Oldbag type; an annoying old person whose only purpose is comic relief. His background though, is thankfully much more fleshed out. He’s a dying breed of craftsmen, constantly doubted and ostracised because he’s old, poor and his memory is failing. He’s not the only old person in the case; Bruto Cadaverini is old, but his vast wealth allows him to have control over every character involved in this murder in some way, without ever being seen in the flesh. But as a poor old person, Victor Kudo is at the bottom rung of society, and this makes moments like his final cross-examination carry a uniquely melancholic comedy. Jean Armstrong is similarly a victim of financial difficulties that force him into aiding a criminal. This puts Armstrong in a similar situation to the hacker Glen Elg, one of the few victims in the series to also receive some proper characterisation that links him to the theme of the case. Even the murderer, Furio Tigre (one of the many characters with a great, jazzy leitmotif), is merely a pawn in the corrupt financial situation that has sucked in so many members of this case’s case.
Perhaps it’s because of this focus on money that the real lead character of Recipe for Turnabout is Dick Gumshoe, who finally gets his moment in the spotlight here. Gumshoe is a series mainstay, but the central joke of his character is how downtrodden, unlucky and poor he is. Even the defendant, Maggey Byrde, is brought back to orient this case around Gumshoe, whose crush on her was established back in The Lost Turnabout. Here, Gumshoe is pushed down as further than he’s been before as Maggey constantly rejects him, but he remains loyal and upbeat and gets his moment of triumph by the end, bursting into the courtroom to deliver the crucial bit of evidence. The moment this reminded me of the most is Mia’s production of the evidence that takes down Redd White; like that case was Mia’s, this case is Gumshoe’s, but I think it’s handled a bit better here by making you have to figure out how to use it in one of the best bluffs in the whole series.
I’m a big fan of Gumshoe, and maybe that’s why I feel a lot of warmth towards the case that gives him his long-deserved five minutes of fame. But even without that, Recipe for Turnabout emphasises and personifies everything I love about Ace Attorney. There’s a memorable supporting cast of characters that start as thinly sketched comic caricatures but slowly reveal the depths of their personalities; there’s some moments of great comedy that co-exist beautifully with an underlying but never melodramatic layer of tragedy, and of course a clever and surprising murder mystery. It’s controversial, but I think Recipe may well be my favourite case in Trials and Tribulations.
But, of course, before we jump to conclusions, there are two more cases to examine, both of which return to the plot threads set up in Turnabout Memories. In Turnabout Beginnings, we return to playing as Mia, this time with Diego Armando at your side. Armando’s identity as Godot is never really hidden from the player, but nor is it spelled out, which is a nice balance, trusting the player to notice the obvious. The other returning character is, of course, a young Miles Edgeworth. More so than in Turnabout Memories, the returning cast here creates a natural intrigue based solely on the returning player’s knowledge; we know Mia’s first case ended badly, we know her boyfriend was ‘murdered’ before the events of Memories, and we know Edgeworth has never lost a case in his career before Turnabout Sisters. With that information, Takumi can wordlessly set up a premise filled with tension.
Edgeworth here is already a much better look at a younger character than Phoenix was in Memories. He retains a lot of the Edgeworth we know, but while he’s also slightly exaggerated, it makes sense here; his costume and animations blur the line between the Edgeworth we know and Manfred von Karma, showing a character still very much under the influence of his mentor.
In general, the case itself is also a lot better written than Memories. In particular, it’s impressive what Takumi can achieve in terms of puzzle complexity while restricting the amount of evidence at play. With only about eight pieces of evidence and no investigation segments, Takumi constructs one of the most tightly written cases in the entire series. He also ups the drama of the bottle swallowing scene from Memories without relying on a character we’re supposed to already have sympathies for. Terry Fawles isn’t the most interesting defendant in Ace Attorney, but his death in the courtroom hits hard, and for me is the thing that makes Dahlia into a properly detestable villain and Beginnings into a truly impressive tone-setter for the final case.
Finally, we come to Bridge to the Turnabout, the final case in the Ace Attorney Trilogy. Bridge starts with an opening that talks about fate and determinism; although the branches of fate seem numerous, they all conclude onto a fixed point. Everything that happens was always going to happen; the path of fate is set. It’s an interesting point, although somewhat irrelevant to the wider themes of Trials and Tribulations (This isn’t Zero Escape, after all). It ties in somewhat, however, to Takumi’s fixation with the way the past influences the present. I’ve mentioned this before, but in most of Takumi’s cases (and games) he’s fixed on drawing criminal motivation from past tragedies; DL-6, SL-9 and here the events that took place on Dusky Bridge preceding Turnabout Beginnings. Of all of the games so far, Trials and Tribulations, with its many flashbacks, is certainly the game that delves the deepest into these ideas, but it’s a shame that for me, those ideas aren’t as rich a vein as Takumi might hope.
The first trial day of Bridge to the Turnabout allows you to play as Edgeworth and face off for the last time against Franziska in court under the supervision of the Judge’s inexplicably Canadian brother. Edgeworth is once again handled well in this case, and it makes me suspect that he’s the character Takumi has the greatest handle on writing. His inner monologue seems markedly different to both Mia and Phoenix; while those too are both snarky yet nervous, Edgeworth is cool, collected and occasionally downright cruel in his thoughts, especially regarding Larry, who returns here as the artistic apprentice Laurice Deauxnim.
Playing as Edgeworth against Franziska does feel a bit like fan-service, but it serves some narrative purpose as well; the game keeps you from feeling too on top of the case during its first day; while you make some headway, you constantly feel like you’re stalling before the main players arrive, grasping at a mystery that some other people hold the cards to. With so many playable protagonists, separated from each other by death and illness, no one yet has all the pieces of the puzzle, making the ending feel all the more satisfying. And yet, this stalling tactic (this waiting for Godot, as it were (sorry)), also has the unintended side-effect of making the first trial day a bit dull. Bikini’s testimony reveals little, and while Larry’s revelation of the flying culprit is something to latch on to, it’s way too drawn out as he spews testimony after testimony of obvious lies with no real reasoning or tension behind it.
Eventually, you’re allowed to take back control of Phoenix in order to investigate the other side of Dusky Bridge. Both Maya and Pearls are missing here, which isn’t really an ideal situation. The story revolves around the Fey clan, and yet for the purposes of the mystery, Maya –whose mother is the victim – is entrapped either with the spirit of Dahlia or in the training hall. There’s some mention in the first investigation day of Maya’s relationship with her mother when her and Phoenix find the hanging scroll, and a brilliantly heart-breaking moment where Maya says she wouldn’t have recognised her were it not for the Master’s seal, but it doesn’t feel enough; Maya has always felt like she’s drawn the short end of the straw in terms of development and this case initially seems like it continues that tradition, despite being ostensibly focused around her.
In court, the status quo is revived for the second day; the normal judge is back, as are Phoenix and Godot. The way the body got across Dusky Bridge is the first major revelation, and it’s an absolute classic; I’ve mentioned before how Ace Attorney’s somewhat cartoonish universe allows for tricks like this to be pulled, and I’m always glad to see that taken advantage of, especially when as something this madcap feels appropriate for a final case of this scale.
The other revelation is that the Iris in court is actually Dahlia being channelled. Although the series has been carting out spirit channelling since Turnabout Sisters, it’s only here where it becomes fully involved in a murder plot. The Judge’s confusion is rightfully put aside so that the case can take the existence of spirit channelling as a given, which I think is probably the best way to do it.
It also allows Dahlia some more screen time, so I think this is an appropriate time to comment on her role as the game’s villain more fully. Of course, it’s worth taking into account that she occupies a somewhat strange role; the real mastermind of the game’s murder plot is Morgan Fey, but she’s already in prison, so Dahlia’s role already feels a little like a stand-in (she’s the Furio Tigre to Morgan’s Bruto Cadaverini). I do like how imposing Dahlia is in general; she has the same power and control over the courtroom as a villain like Damon Gant, but her anime eyes have a different kind of power than Gant’s imposing stare. But in general her motives feel weak; her underlying desires were a hatred for her father and a desire for money; the former never expanded upon enough and the latter just a bit boring. What is more interesting is the way her one crime spirals so much into more and more murders; the concept behind Ace Attorney’s main gameplay mechanic is that one lie will necessarily beget more and Dahlia embodies that on a more deadly scale, but it also makes her feel like someone always playing catch-up. As Mia proclaims, she’s a failure. All Ace Attorney villains will necessarily end in failure, but there’s something especially pathetic about Dahlia Hawthorne’s repeated attempts at crime and revenge. This could be an interesting idea, but until the very end Dahlia is still presented as a serious threat, creating somewhat of a disconnect.
There’s also, of course, the fact that Dahlia isn’t Phoenix’s rival, but Mia’s, returning this case (and this critique) to the end of Turnabout Sisters. I think though, that here the fact that Dahlia’s exorcism is done at the hands of Mia is done a lot better than in the first game, because as we’ve been playing as Mia we feel a connection to this rivalry that would have had some impact lost from it were Phoenix to have done it alone. Phoenix also has his own rivalry to contend with that we’ll get to in a minute. But one moment that doesn’t sit right with me is that it’s Mia who gives Maya the plan to channel Dahlia. I’ve mentioned already that I think Maya gets the short straw on screen time, but this also applies to plot agency. Maya in this case now does nothing except try and fail for a few testimonies to protect Godot. Her role here is even less involved than in Farewell, My Turnabout where she was kidnapped, which I find incredibly disappointing.
So Phoenix finally gets his moment in the spotlight when combatting Godot. Even here, however, Mia gets to pull the strings. She mentions before the trial that she knows who committed the crime, but everyone insists on Phoenix doing this one alone. In that briefest of mentions, however, the case weakens itself. If Mia knew that Godot killed Misty, why not just say? The first Danganronpa is rightly criticised for having a character who always knows who did it and how and yet never says anything, and that same situation seems relevant here. This moment makes the showdown between Phoenix and Godot smack of the same artificial tension I complained about in Turnabout Memories, but with the added cruelty of making a traumatised Maya testify.
Of course, it’s not as bad as Danganronpa, because the final trial moments of Bridge to the Turnabout are still some of the best in the trilogy. The cross examination with Maya is smart and her character manages to shine through on the witness stand; she’s witty but not always quite on the ball, and her interactions with Phoenix and Godot are both sweet and melancholic. Of course, the remix of the first game’s Pursuit theme and the spirit of Mia running through Phoenix’s Objection are the obvious highlights, but it’s nice that here at least Maya is able to stand out.
Godot is also a much more engaging villain than Dahlia – Dahlia was motivated by revenge and seemed to always see herself as some kind of villain, but Godot has the interesting edge of being able to fool himself into thinking he was doing the right thing until the very end. I think his hatred of Phoenix for letting Mia die is a little stretched, but the final moment where he admits that he didn’t really want to save Maya, but just to have done something to have taken some kind of revenge, gives me chills. It might be a stretch to call Godot an early 2000s criticism of toxic masculinity, but his impotent feelings at being unable to protect Mia certainly call that to mind. There’s something very human about the way people delude themselves into thinking what they’re doing is right, and I find Ace Attorney’s best villains are the ones that have that motivation that feels real enough to overcome their often ridiculous designs and characters. It’s for that reason that characters like Godot and Acro are often allowed by the story to realise their own flaws and come to terms with them, while still being duly punished by the courts.
I think I’ve complained more about Bridge to the Turnabout than I have praised it, and that’s as much as a shock to me as it might be to you. It’s far from being a bad case; it has some well-handled fan-service, some extremely memorable moments and manages to skillfully wrap up plot points from all the way back in the first game. But at the same time it too often indulges Takumi’s worst traits. I mentioned that I don’t think Takumi’s obsession with the way the past influences the present is as deep a well as he might think; when, as in Bridge, everything from the past is of the utmost importance, it starts to feel somewhat contrived. Not only is every past event involved, but everyone is as well. Every character has a part to play in this to the extent that it risks escaping the realm of the believable. While in DL-6 and Farewell, the interests at play were focused mainly on only one character (von Karma and Engarde respectively), here Godot, Morgan and Dahlia are all vying for control of the cases’ story. In my review of the first game, I mentioned that one of my favourite moments was how Phoenix’s motivation for becoming a lawyer was something in the past that neither of his friends even remembered. In Trials and Tribulations, it sometimes feels like that moment would have been remembered by and participated in by everyone.
It’s not that Takumi has completely forgotten how to write poignant, human moments in his larger-scale cases; the photo in Misty’s pendant and the way Maya stays strong for Pearls’ sake stick out to me in that regard. But it feels that occasionally the situation has become of such a scale that it threatens to engulf all that humanity in a sea of ghosts and complex family politics. I think that might be why I prefer Recipe for Turnabout; Takumi’s smaller stake cases still have some memorable moments but they allow for more of the characters to shine through.
So, on reflection, Trials and Tribulations doesn’t feel exactly like the game I remember it being, for better and for worse. There’s a sense of ambition here for what would be the final game in the series, an ambition that is admirable if not entirely successful. Takumi’s attempt to try and create a story that bridges multiple cases feels a tad rocky, but the cases themselves are, for the most part, well-written, tightly plotted and absolutely charming. Trials and Tribulations manages to encompass all that I love about the Ace Attorney trilogy and I think that, although I initially planned to, I don’t really want to rank these games. In one of his dev blogs, Takumi writes “You can’t go ranking them, pal! All three games together are Ace Attorney!”
In the next post, we’ll be saying goodbye to Maya, Edgeworth, Gumshoe and co, and heading into a new era of Ace Attorney with Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice. As always, thanks for reading.