If you haven’t played Ace Attorney before, you should probably pick up Ace Attorney Trilogy.
That isn’t normally something I would say in a Playtest. A Playtest is a place for critique, analysis, and occasionally consumer advice, not shilling for some uncaring corporation’s product. However, that experience I had when I was 14, of discovering Ace Attorney almost by accident and being thoroughly impressed by a type of game I had never played before… it was an important experience for me. It fundamentally altered how I view violence in games, visual novels, and it even made me think I wanted to be a lawyer for a spell.
If you’re reading this and never tried an Ace Attorney game before, I want to share that experience with you. I believe in the quality of this product so much that I’m just issuing a blanket statement: You should try Ace Attorney, and Ace Attorney Trilogy is the best most cost effective way to experience the games.
Writing about a visual novel is different than most videogame writing because although it’s still a game on a videogame player, discussion of mechanics and difficulty and the technology in play isn’t helpful to anyone. Really, it needs to be approached as a story and critiqued by those very different standards. So, saying Ace Attorney is a visual novel isn’t actually saying anything at all. It’s like saying that Don Qixote is a book. What matters is genre, perspective, plot, and for Ace Attorney in particular, characters.
Ace Attorney games are crime dramas not entirely unlike popular American network TV shows like CSI or Castle. Every episode has a new crime and a new criminal to put behind bars, but the real draw is the drama between the characters within the justice system that we follow week to week. Ace Attorney stars a defense attorney named Phoenix Wright, his assistant Maya Fey, and his childhood friend/nemesis/courtroom foe Miles Edgeworth (it’s complicated). Other characters phase in and out of various episodes, but those are the central three who appear in every installment of the trilogy and have development arcs that continue from game to game.
Phoenix Wright begins the series as a rookie lawyer taking on his very first case. He’s skittish and eager to please in the early episodes, and frankly not entirely likable on his own. The player ends up rooting for him despite that because of the overwhelming odds stacked up against him. The courts in this universe can have a very loose understanding of “innocent until proven guilty” which frequently places Phoenix into thoroughly unfair situations where he’s forced to think fast or even intentionally misdirect the trial just to buy some time.
As the trilogy extends, that underdog effect starts to wear thin. There are only so many times Phoenix can beat the odds before it starts to feel routine, after all. Fortunately, the character grows in confidence with his success and starts to exhibit some of his own personality which gives the player a much better reason to root for him. He’s a really great guy! He’s a stick in the mud grump who never wants to do anything fun, a man burdened by too often being the last sane man in a crazy world. He’s a loyal friend and an excellent lawyer and has a thing for stepladders. He’s not just “good for a videogame,” he’s a plain old great character.
Every straight man needs someone bouncing off of him though, and that element comes from his assistant Maya Fey. Maybe my favorite thing about her is that somehow the writers resisted creating a “will they won’t they” romance angle like so many of these dramas embrace. Maya is Phoenix’s pretty female secretary and they have zero romantic interest in each other. It’s fantastic. Instead, the writers aged this traditional sidekick role character down to somewhere in the teens and use her as a bundle of energy to be excited and sad and to get into trouble and (very occasionally) be helpful.
Maya is more than just a foil to Phoenix though, as she has her own significant character arc. As a person at the tail end of her teens, Maya is dealing with that fun transition into adulthood. She was born into a family with some supernatural powers and is expected to grow up to be a respectable seer acting all mysterious and regal. Maya is unfortunately more into anime. There’s a lot done with the dichotomy between who Maya is and who Maya is expected to be, and it’s immensely satisfying to see her find a way to become who she needs to be without losing who she is.
As for Miles Edgeworth… like I said, it’s complicated. While Phoenix is in the business of defending accused people, Edgeworth is a prosecutor in the business of getting the accused put behind bars. At the beginning of the trilogy he’s set up like a villain, a wicked prosecutor who will stop at nothing to reach his guilty verdict. He’s incredibly intimidating. The first game is as much Edgeworth’s story as Phoenix’s, as several secrets from his past slowly play out leading to no small amount of personal trauma.
Miles Edgeworth disappears from the series for a spell after that, and it seems like his arc was resolved. He was an adversary, his problems were solved, and now he’s out of the picture. But at the conclusion of the second game he comes back in a big way. Taking Miles Edgeworth out of the story once he and Phoenix settle their differences would have been the easy way out and it is to the great credit of the series that they didn’t take it. When Edgeworth returns he is still a prosecutor and just as intimidating as before, but for different reasons. Because of the faith Edgeworth has in Phoenix he knows that he can throw everything he has at Phoenix’s client and if that client is indeed not guilty, Phoenix will secure that verdict regardless.
So, even though they develop a friendship, the courtroom battles between them don’t lose intensity. It’s a strange relationship for sure “I trust you therefore I will do my utmost to make you lose” isn’t the foundation of many friendships, but it’s the strongest relationship in the series. It’s small wonder that Edgeworth went on to get his own game (which is also fantastic, by the way).
The way these three characters develop across all three games is really remarkable, especially since the franchise wasn’t originally planned to be a trilogy. Add in that the games boast best in class localization and manage the tricky balancing act between drama and comedy and really there’s remarkably little to complain about. I understand that I’m gushing here, there are flaws. Even with consideration given to the frequent reuse of assets and an occasional hole in the logic accepted by the court though, I think that these games tell a story that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the best our fledgling medium has created.
1. The nitty gritty for fans who already own the games: The resolution upgrade is nice, but you quickly cease to notice it once you’re inside the game. The download size is pretty small if you want to fit it onto an SD card, and the front end is entirely functional. There isn’t much along the lines of extras, but frankly I don’t think there’s much need for it either.
2. I once emailed Capcom because I was looking for Ace Attorney merchandise and they had Phoenix’s name spelled “Pheonix” in their banner graphic on the store. They never emailed me back, but it did get fixed within the next few days so I guess SOMEONE saw it. I feel like there should have been some sort of reward for that.