A judicial system where literally any old scrub can practice law. A court that's apparently never heard of being in contempt. A courtroom in which playground insults can be hurled around and witnesses can be cautioned for "wanton winking." Welcome to the world of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, the first three games of which have been repackaged in glorious, non-pixelated HD for the Ace Attorney Trilogy. Phoenix Wright is a detective series of games consisting of collecting evidence and interrogating suspects, as much as it is a courtroom showdown of proving contradictions and errors in witness testimonies. Practicing law in the anime world is a hell of a good time.
USG's veteran staff writer Nadia Oxford once called Valkyria Chronicles "world war anime." If Valkyria Chronicles is anime on the battlefield, then Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is the anime version of Suits. Leave your legal knowledge at the door, because in this fantasy world all that matters is circumstantial evidence. Then again, maybe it's wrong to call Phoenix Wright a courtroom fantasy when its legal system actually works, whereas ours hands Paul Manafort a slap on the wrist with six years of jail for repeated massive financial fraud.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is segmented into episodes, like a standard television courtroom drama. Every episode kicks off the same: there's been a murder, or wrongdoing or some sort, and only Phoenix Wright can come to the aid of the accused. There's a serious shortage of defense attorneys in the world of Phoenix Wright, apparently.
It's now your job to collect evidence on behalf of the accused. This middle part of each episode usually consists of Phoenix and his companions snooping around the murder scene, putting literally everyone and everything under a microscope until something gives. When I say "gives," this usually means getting a witness, or someone associated with the accused, to crack under pressure. I think this is called witness intimidation, but this is Ace Attorney we're talking about, where every single witness on the stand forgets to mention some crucial information related to the case.
Once you've collected and bagged all the evidence from your time spent role-playing as a detective, the final part of each episode of Ace Attorney ends in a courtroom battle. Hotshot prosecutor Miles Edgeworth faces off against plucky upstart Phoenix Wright in the courtroom, and it's honestly where Ace Attorney shines.
The courtroom sections of each episode usually go like this: Edgeworth introduces a witness for the prosecution. The witness gives their statement, and then Phoenix, using all the items of evidence and statements you collected from your detective work, attempts to prove that they are lying. This is where Ace Attorney takes the form of a massive jigsaw puzzle. You've been given all the tools needed to crack the case, you just need to work out which items of evidence prove that a witness is lying.
For example, a photograph taken from a security camera labeled 'Photograph 2' points to there being a first photo that the security guard witness has tampered with and deliberately left out of the case. Phoenix Wright isn't an overly complicated game, you've just got to use logic to match up the items that correspond to claims from a witness. Ace Attorney doesn't hide anything from you.
Sadly it can be a little easy to spam your way through a courtroom battle with Edgeworth, Franziska von Karma, and any other prosecutors, as well as their witnesses. When it comes to cross-examining a witness that the prosecution presents, you can select to either "press" them on what they've just said, or "present" a piece of evidence that proves a contradiction. While the latter will penalize what is effectively your 'health' bar if you fail to provide the correct evidence, you can spam the "press" option with gusto, hampering witnesses on every single sentence they've said in the hope of finding any sort of contradiction. There's no punishment for overly pressing a witness, which makes the process of elimination in the courtroom a whole lot easier.
Thankfully the second game in the repackaged trilogy, Justice For All, introduces one new mechanic. As well as having items of evidence to present to a witness, you can also present the profile of anyone relating to the case, if there's any contradictions relating to an actual person, for example the misspelling of a supposed perpetrator's name at a crime scene. It's a nice added dimension to the courtroom battles, but it's a shame that it's the sole new feature between Justice For All and Trials and Tribulations, the two sequels in the trilogy.
Show me someone who claims modern anime characters have nuance, and I'll show you a liar. Look, I love Mob Psycho 100 and My Hero Academia, but let's not pretend that half the characters from both shows aren't complete caricatures. With MHA in particular, nearly every character wears their personality on their sleeve, meaning there's rarely more to them than meets the eye. The same can be said about the characters of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which is crucial considering that you're often judging witnesses on their character.
Anyone from a mega-rich media tycoon, to a security guard, and a young elitist college student, might get called up to the stand for you to cross-examine in Ace Attorney. The trouble is that when a witness is acting like a bit of a dick, you can absolutely guarantee that they're lying. This golden rule helps break apart some otherwise uncrackable cases. Although it's incredibly satisfying to knock the cultural elite and the powerful down from their ivory towers, Ace Attorney's paper-thin caricatures let you know which characters have something to hide, and which of them you should be breaking down on the witness stand.
While the witnesses are shallow at best, one of the better characters comes in the form of Mia Fey, a mentor for our protagonist who unfortunately doesn't stick around for long. Phoenix Wright's mentor gets her head caved in during the second case of the first Ace Attorney game, and with that we say goodbye to not only a better lawyer than Phoenix Wright has any right to be, but also the only character that talks any sense. But don't worry! Mia Fey is sometimes reincarnated through Maya Fey, her younger sister, who happens to be a spiritual medium. You can tell when Mia inhabits Maya's body, because her boobs burst forth from her dress to signal that she has, in fact, arrived. Subtle this is not.
I've never been one for retro or electronic soundtracks, but the way the music in Phoenix Wright punctuates the court cases is excellent. There'll be a smooth, steady beat going while you're combing through the witness testimony, which will then ratchet up to a vibrant, upbeat rhythm when you correctly identify a contradiction. The soundtrack jumping around between rhythms and pitches isn't offputting, but rather pushes you forward through the cases, making you feel like you're chaining together multiple confessions and barrelling through the defense of the witness with ease.
I've enjoyed my time with Phoenix Wright. Ace Attorney, Justice for All, and Trials and Tribulations offer up a litany of varied and intriguing cases for our rookie lawyer to solve, and witnesses, no matter how paper-thin they are, to skewer on the stand. It's immensely satisfying to chip away at the arrogance of a key witness, finding one weakness and honing in on it with expert precision to tear them apart.
There's no denying that breaking down an arrogant witness, and ultimately winning a case in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney feel fantastic. Fitting in the right pieces of evidence to find contradictions is extremely satisfying, I just wish there was more depth, and a little more nuance, to both the witnesses you're breaking down, and the game at large.