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Phoenix Wright: game over

09 October 2007


Phoenix Wright: Ace AttorneyPhoenix Wright is the first computer game I've completed in decades. I'm more accustomed to playing retro games which either loop forever or drive you insane before you have to switch off the power, losing all your progress so far. Phoenix Wright on the DS lets you save at any time, which is a good thing.

In Phoenix Wright, you're a rookie lawyer in a fantasy world where the police, prosecutors, witnesses and defence attorneys all team up in a quest for the truth. You explore the crime scene for evidence, chat to the witnesses to elicit clues and then cross-examine them in court.

In the olden days, we might have called a game like Phoenix Wright a graphic adventure, a close relative of the old text adventures where you had to type in directions for your character. Back then, the challenge was to work out how to phrase your commands so they could be understood.

Unfortunately, a fair amount of the challenge in Phoenix Wright is still in the interface. To solve the game, you have to present the right evidence to people at the right time, which is tricky enough given some of the leaps of logic involved. On top of that, there's one bit where you have to rotate an object with near pixel-perfect precision, with little feedback on what you're doing wrong. And another bit where you have to click on the screen and wait for about five seconds without touching anything in order to progress - that's annoying because it's not a game where timing matters anywhere else. I had to resort to the solution to crack that particular bug. (I'm being deliberately vague, so there are no spoilers here). The scene examinations are tricky because you can't tell where one object ends and another begins, and so you often have to page through the same screens of dialogue to make sure you're not missing something.

The lack of artificial intelligence can be annoying. Sometimes you'll present evidence that makes perfect sense to you and seems a lot less contrived than the plot in hand, only to be told something like 'I fail to see how a key can unlock a door?' because they haven't predicted how people will want to interact with the objects at hand. Because it's basically a linear plot grafted onto a game interface with the illusion of free movement, there are some oddities, such as being deprived the ability to examine something you own until it fits the plot; or having to go through characters like game levels, getting all the information you need from one before the next one will appear.

The final case offers a lot more sophistication and introduces fingerprint powder (which you sprinkle with the stylus and then literally blow away) and the ability to zoom and rotate evidence. There are a few simple puzzles too, which makes it feel more like a game. Although it doesn't change the basic gameplay mechanism, it does make the story experience more fun. The fingerprint powder in particular is an inspired use of the Nintendo DS's microphone.

Although Phoenix Wright was sometimes frustrating as a game, as a piece of interactive fiction, it was a great experience. The characters were well written and the plots were twisted and at times moving. The dialogue was well written, although there are a lot of typos in the final case, which jarred somewhat.

It's the warmth of the characters and the quirky storyline that keeps you coming back for more, though. I'm told that the sequel doesn't use the evidence manipulation or fingerprint powder from the final chapter, which is a shame. But after taking a well earned break from crime fighting, I'm sure I'll be ready to take on some new cases, however devious the criminals might turn out to be.

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A friend lent this to me when we were on holidays - it occupied my entire Trans Siberian journey! What I liked about it best was definitely the storyline and characters... Detective Gumshoe being my favourite, with that Laurence Llewellyn Bowen lookalike being a close second. And that animated blue thing... hilarious!
Admission: I found myself in times of frustration turning the console on and off if I had too many misses during the courtroom scenes, so the game wouldn't end prematurely!
 
Alternatively, you can save frequently to avoid a guilty verdict if you make too many wrong guesses in court. The whole 'five strikes and you're out' thing seems like a weak attempt to add a game mechanism to something which didn't really need one. The whole courtroom sequence would have worked fine as a story that just unfolds, as you peel back layers of clues. Entertainment doesn't always have to be a game, defined as something you can win and lose, as Electroplankton and Animal Crossing demonstrate.

I found the Blue Badger's robotic dancing rather hypnotic, but my favourite character was definitely Mia.
 
I loved thiS game too. Mostly for the characters and plots. Aside from the rotation puzzle (grr!) I think I found fewer 'interface problems' than Sean.

I've been slowly working my way through the first sequel (FYI a second sequel just came out). It introduced new gameplay mechanics that add some complexity. For example, a 'health bar' in the court proceedings allows the penalty for an error to vary in size. At times you're warned about the size of the penalty in advance, so you can choose between a risky guess or retreating until more info is available. The questioning of witnesses outside of court also has new elements.

Though I became bogged down a couple of times in the sequel's second case, any frustations have been outweighed by moments of comedy genius in later cases. On balance I'd recommend it to Sean if you can get it for a fair price.
 
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