Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is an old-style courtroom-based adventure game for the DS. It’s set in the near future, and apparently legal norms have changed somewhat: as far as I can tell, rather than people being innocent until proven guilty, they’re guilty unless you can prove during the (at most three-day trial) that some specific other person committed the crime.

This would seem to be a bit of a tall order. Fortunately, it also turns out that the real guilty parties love to appear as witnesses in court cases, so you have a chance at catching them in some sort of contradiction, after which everything starts to unravel. At least if you don’t try the judge’s patience too much.

The mechanics of the game alternate between evidence gathering and courtroom scenes. In the former, you wander around various areas (the scene of the crime, related locations, police offices, etc.) gathering evidence (i.e. touching various parts of the environment) and talking to people; in the latter, you cross-examine witnesses, pressing them on various points, whipping out evidence that contradicts them, and the like.

And it’s fabulous. It’s witty: the characters are funny, the situations are pleasantly outlandish, but with enough internal consistency to have it cohere nicely. I inadvertently laughed out loud once during the game (at the end of the third case, for those of you who have played it), and was quietly amused many more times. There’s a plot connecting the various cases, with enough surprises to keep me interested. I liked how they (completely inappropriately) reused character sprites from the evidence gathering phase in the courtroom phase (e.g. the hotel bellboy carrying a tray with a tea set on it); I liked the over-the-top reactions to courtroom triumphs and setbacks, coupled with animations that would be in place in a 2D fighter.

The gameplay mechanics were also solid. Liesl and I managed to finish it without having to resort to gamefaqs, which is quite an accomplishment for a traditional adventure game. There were, admittedly, situations where we mostly had to guess at which piece of evidence to present – various pieces seemed relevant, and we couldn’t quite figure out which one the game was expecting at a given juncture – but there weren’t so many of those as to be really oppresive, and, in retrospect, I often felt that I could have figured it out on my own. (Fortunately, you can basically save at any time, so if you get really stuck, you can just do an exhaustive search without worrying about the judge punishing you.) There were a couple of times when cases went a bit far outside the game’s internal logic – in particular, I was a bit nonplussed by the time when the judge went as far as declaring your client guilty before a deus ex machina dropped in – but it didn’t abuse that sort of thing too often.

I don’t quite understand why it didn’t have multiple save slots – save data must take up all of 100 bytes or so. As it was, one person had to finish a given episode before the next person could try it. Fortunately, in our case, the first person trying each episode managed to finish it without needing outside help, so that wasn’t a huge barrier.

It’s now my favorite DS game. (Though I’m not sure I’d feel that way if the DS Animal Crossing had been my introduction to that series.) Which, admittedly, says as much about the DS as it does about this game: while I’m glad I got the console (I need a portable console, and the DS is clearly a better choice for me than the PSP), there just haven’t been that many traditional great games on it. Of course, games on portable consoles are by nature less ambitious than their tv console brethren, but that’s not entirely an inherit limitation: in particular, the two Golden Sun games are some of my favorite games ever.

Having said that, this game is exactly what is so wonderful about the DS, and what more publishers should take as a lesson. It’s a traditional adventure game, with a simple engine, simple artwork, and a fair number of words. A very small team should be able to pull this out: I could imagine a single programmer, a single artist, a single writer (plus help with music, playtesting, etc. as needed) pulling this off in half a year. You’d want that artist and writer to be quite talented, because they make or break a game like this, but the overall development costs for this game must have been a hundredth the costs of a top-flight Xbox 360 game, say. At that price, you don’t need to appeal to everybody: if you have a vision that’s well-executed that will appeal to a niche market, that’s enough to make a successful product. Which is apparently the case here – the series is on its fourth iteration in Japan, I believe, two of which have come out so far in the US, and other publishers have noticed and started to put out their own entries in the genre.

Those of you who think the industry is forgetting its past, or those of you who like to read, take heart. And, as I have said before: go Capcom.

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