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There have been some truly epic adventure games released for the Nintendo DS thus far. Among my personal favorites are Hotel Dusk and Trace Memory. The most interesting aspect of those games to me was their intriguing settings and their fascinating stories. The Phoenix Wright games, on the other hand, never really were all that appealing to me. Ever since the 2005 release of the first DS entry in this Capcom-developed series, and despite critical acclaim and the best persuasive efforts of the game's fanbase, I just haven't been interested in the series. It was too silly looking, too anime-inspired, to really pique my interest. Plus it placed you in the role of a lawyer. Who wants to play as a lawyer? Begrudgingly, solely for the purposes of this review, I sat down recently to finally give this three-year old GBA remake a whirl -- and came away pleasantly surprised!
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Graphics and Sound
One of the major factors that initially turned me off of this game was the style of the visuals, and to be honest, I'm still not crazy about them. Obviously, a game like this features a lot of text and a lot of still character portraits. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney definitely has an anime-esque feel to it, not just in the design but also in the use of over-the-top images to exaggerate emotion (weeping rivers to express sadness, sweating bullets to convey nervousness, etc.). They're a far cry from the gritty, realistic character portraits used in the aforementioned Hotel Dusk and Trace Memory, which I overwhelmingly prefer. The game features some nice sound effects work, including pounding gavels and lawyers shouting "Objection." Unfortunately, the background music is so annoying that you'll likely turn the sound down on your DS and never have a chance to hear them.
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Unlike most point-and-click style adventure games, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney features not one but five separate story-lines, all somewhat connected to each other. Four are available at first and a fifth is unlockable. In the first one, Wright has volunteered to defend his old friend, Larry Butz, against charges that Larry killed his ex-girlfriend. It is Wight's first case, and as such, it serves as a tutorial, with his boss, Mia Fey, coaching him throughout the trial. The second involves Phoenix's attempts to clear Mia's sister, Maya, from murder charges. All of them are intriguing and require the gamer to develop a keen sense of observation and attention to detail in order to successfully gather evidence, cross-examine witnesses and eventually win each of the various cases. The writing is a little weird at times, which really goes hand in hand with the anime influence I suppose, but it is somewhat jarring. Some Phoenix Wright fans appreciate these instances of humor, but I cannot count myself among them.
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As Phoenix, the gamer must assume the role of both investigator and defense attorney in every case except the tutorial one. First, you must travel to different locales, gather evidence, speak to witnesses, and learn as much as possible about the case before it makes it to court. Once the trial begins, the player must listen to testimony, shouting their objections into the DS microphone when something is out of line or irrelevant, and use gathered evidence to discover inaccuracies in each witness's testimony. The game supports both standard and stylus-based controls, and I must say I preferred using the touch screen in most cases. It felt more natural. The game prompts you to save between cases, but you can also interrupt play at any time to save simply by hitting the Start button. On the whole, it was the gameplay that won me over. I expected a lawyer-game to be dull, but Phoenix Wright is anything but. It is immersive and addictive, and I love how it challenges your mental acumen on a regular basis.
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So then, what's the verdict? There are some games out there that you really want to love, but in the end, just can't, because the shortcomings far outweigh the good bits. For me, Phoenix Wright is exactly the opposite. Even though I've enjoyed other DS games that were similar, I was so convinced that I would hate this particular game that I put off playing it for more than three years. The character designs and the goofy style just didn't appeal to me, and in fact, they still don't. But little did I know that hiding underneath all of that was some rock-solid adventure-style gameplay and some surprisingly deep storylines. It really is a terrific game underneath all of its flaws. If you enjoyed Hotel Dusk and Trace Memory and you haven't yet tried out Phoenix Wright, you should. Case closed.