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Power of attorney
A winning verdict for Phoenix Wright

Your honor, the peopleís charges against Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney are grave indeed, and not often brought against video games in this court. The evidence is clear and will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Phoenix Wright is guilty . . . guilty of being awesome.

Phoenix Wright first distinguishes itself by the premise. Phoenix isnít a cyborg attorney from the future, or an attorney cum hitman. Heís a regular defense lawyer, and he instantly becomes one of the most engaging video-game protagonists Iíve seen. A novice just out of law school, he indulges in wild gesticulations and some of the most aggressive finger pointing since the McCarthy era. Privately, though, he doubts his legal ability and chafes when people make fun of his spiky haircut. His integrity gives welcome gravity to a game that features a giant inflatable samurai.

There are two phases of gameplay. Phoenix spends much of his time investigating the scene of the crime, picking up clues, and interviewing witnesses. Although you play in the first person, Phoenix offers only static screens that you can search for significant information with the DSís stylus. In this, itís reminiscent of classic PC adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island. After acquiring evidence in one place, you can show it to witnesses to elicit more information. Or simply save it for the trials ó which is where the rest of the game takes place.

Some might think text-driven gameplay couldnít be terribly exciting ó but then, an awful lot of people think Mike D from the Beastie Boys is Screechís brother, so you canít put a lot of stock in the general populace. The trials provide some of the best gaming moments of the year. Your fundamental task is to reveal contradictions between witness testimony and the court record. If a witness says he found the body at 1 but the court record puts the time of death between 4 and 5, you present the contradiction and put the bastard on ice.

The plot unfolds with twists and turns befitting a prime-time legal drama. Almost all the witnesses are hiding something. Watching them begin to crack under the pressure provides a thrill quite distinct from usual video-game fare like merciless alien slaughter. Not that the game is bereft of dramatic flourishes ó when a witnessís testimony crumbles, Phoenix leaps from the bench in front of a streaky, anime-style background while music starts pumping that sounds like a Mega Man boss battle. And the best part is knowing that youíre shoving it in some smarmy prosecutorís sneering face.

The choose-your-own-adventure style of play sometimes seems to be leading you by the nose (when Phoenix wonders whether to press a witness further, the answer is always yes), but the puzzles offer some genuine head scratchers. The way you tease contradictions out of witness testimony is sometimes telegraphed from the start of a trial and sometimes dependent on your noticing a single misspoken word. Fortunately, you can page forward and backward through testimony without penalty. Still, the urge to consult a walkthrough can be strong.

A game that rewards logic and reasoning without sacrificing excitement or humor is a rare treat. Based on all the available evidence pertaining to the case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, the court of public opinion must rule that this game rules.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Issue Date: December 9 - 15, 2005
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