Who would be a lawyer, eh? The Bard himself (that's Shakespeare, you philistines) was most uncomplimentary of their profession in several of his plays, even claiming "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" was a most reasonable opening gambit when attempting to provoke social revolution. Well, Phoenix Wright would have something to say about that. OBJECTION!
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a point-and-click style adventure game, where you not only get to conduct the LA Law-style courtroom proceedings, but also perform a lot of gumshoe investigative work as well, finding evidence and interviewing witnesses. The game starts you off gently enough, with the first of the five cases concentrating solely on the courtroom aspect of the game, getting you used to finding the critical contradictions in the witness testimony and showing you how to raise objections and press witnesses into revealing weaknesses in their story. It's here that you'll get your first taste of the Manga graphical stylings, the outrageous characterization and the way in which you have to apply logic to the evidence to find your client's innocence. Most surprising about Phoenix Wright is the thick dash of humour that runs through proceedings. You wouldn't normally think that a murder trial would be a place to find comedy, but thanks to a fabulous script, and some wonderfully applied characterizations and plot twists, this is a game that will frequently have you chuckling away.
Mechanically, the DS is well suited to the point-and-click genre, as all interaction with the game environment (choosing dialogue, searching scenes for clues, etc) is done via the touch-screen, leaving the top screen free to show the action. Even though it's an utter gimmick, you can also use the microphone to raise objections or press witnesses by shouting "OBJECTION!" or "HOLD IT!" as appropriate. This is best left, I feel, for when you're playing the game at rush hour on the train, where you can have lots of fun gratuitously hollering "HOLD IT!" to fool twitchy commuters into thinking that they're about to get shot by armed traffic police. On second thoughts, maybe you shouldn't do that...
'You wouldn't normally think that a murder trial would be a place to find comedy...'
Graphically, the game's functional at best, though that's not really such a problem for a game in this genre. There are some nice stylistic touches and a limited, but very well-executed use of signature animations for the key characters to prevent the game from ever looking bland. The use of sound and music also adds nicely to the atmosphere, but it's the sheer quality of the script that carries the game. I won't go into details, as I'm sure you don't want spoilers in the review, but the way characters and locations are reused from case to case is pleasingly imaginative, and as you get further into the game a narrative subplot gradually reveals more and more to you about the intertwined back-story of Phoenix Wright, his associates, the Fey sisters, and his nemesis, Miles Edgeworth.
While the ongoing narrative and subplot add an extra dimension and keep you interested in the long-term, in the short-term, it's the punchiness of the script and characterization that provides your impetuous to keep playing. As with all point-and-click adventures, the game follows a strictly linear path: there is a clearly defined body of evidence, and you have to find the (also clearly defined) flaws in this evidence and apply them at the appropriate time in the trial. It could be argued that this is probably the game's greatest weakness - that it doesn't allow the player enough freedom during your time in the courtroom. The reason I didn't particularly mind being gently lead around by the nose so much was because of the way it was done.
The character artists have done a superb job with creating individual and memorable characters, giving each one a quirk or hook which the writers have then played to. The naming convention can be best described as Ronseal's 10 year wood stain: they do exactly what they say on the tin. The character called "Gumshoe" is the Inspector Lestrade-type figure - the earnest, honest, but quite dim detective. Mrs Oldbag, is... well, an obnoxious old bag, but she's probably the character with most of the best lines, or at least the cause of them. There's also a children's TV show director who speaks entirely in l33t, a prosecutor so feared he can boss the judge and even a bona fide fanboy. The joy is in the little details of how the writers have brought these characters to life: your assistant Maya's burger obsession; Gumshoe's inability to distinguish Phoenix from his first client, Larry Butz (this character name leads to possibly the best line in the game "If something smells, it's probably the Butz"); Mrs Oldbag's devotion to Jack Hammer (the victim in third case) and her proneness to long, breathless ranting.
The eagle-eyed will also spot pop-culture references ranging from the obscure to the mainstream. For example, Jack Hammer is the pseudonym of voiceover actor Daran Norris, which he uses for anime work (such as for the character of Cowboy Andy in Cowboy Bebop) and the catchphrase of The Steel Samurai is "For Great Justice!", which also happens to be the final rallying cry when the zigs are being launched at the end of the infamous "all your base are belong to us" introduction to Zero Wing.
When a game has this much attention to detail, when the script fizzes along with such humour and throws in plot twist after plot twist during the courtroom battles, it's easy to forgive the linearity. In fact, it's probably fair to say that I haven't enjoyed a game as much as I've enjoyed Phoenix Wright for a very long time - and I'm not even that fond of the adventure genre. There's enough variety between the investigative phases and the courtroom to stop you from ever feeling like the game's in a rut, and the dialogue is consistently interesting, well-written and downright hilarious in places. The only thing that prevents a perfect ten is that there is limited replay value and the linearity of how you must raise objections at predefined points in the proceedings may annoy some people. Otherwise, it's as fine an example of the adventure game genre you're likely to see this year and well worth investing in. In fact, buying this game should be made law.