The case (har har) of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is an interesting one. It’s the first entry in what has become a long running series for the Nintendo DS (though the original game was actually on the Game Boy Advance in Japan) and even created a couple of spin offs. Calling it a “game” doesn’t quite describe it fully; I’d probably go with something closer to “interactive fiction” because anything where 98% of the gameplay is tapping anywhere on the screen to progress endless dialog boxes doesn’t seem like a game to me.
The gist is that you play as fresh faced attorney Phoenix Wright who inherits a struggling law firm and an overly enthusiastic assistant. Phoenix tries to make due sticking up for (presumably) innocent defendants in murder cases. Each chapter in the game involves a court case and alternates between two modes of play: investigations and courtroom testimony. In the investigation bits you move around to different locations and research your case by hunting around the screen for the “hot” pixels and tapping on them to bring up sub menus with labels like “Talk” or “Examine” or “Present.” Phoenix and his plucky assistant Maya can converse with other wonky characters and present to them items and data in your inventory. In the courtroom investigation bits, you have to listen to (well, read) witnesses’ testimonies and then cross examine them by either presenting evidence or choosing from different dialog options to reveal inconsistencies in their stories that will eventually prove the innocence of your client.
As a game, I think Phoenix Wright fails pretty miserably. There’s WAY too much mindless tapping and pixel hunting, and the single solution nature to all of the puzzles limits the fun factor pretty much. What’s even more annoying are the times when you KNOW you see an inconsistency or want to investigate a certain fact, but the game’s rigid structure prevents you from doing it until you can find the right branch on the dialog tree. Alternatively, I was occasionally baffled by stuff I personally hadn’t pieced together, but the game’s script called for Phoenix to suddenly and miraculously comprehend. On top of it all, moving between locations in the investigation phases is stupid clumsy and painfully slow. I should just be able to bring up a city map and go directly to wherever I want, but the game insisted on making me do yet more repetitive tapping and loading.
That all said, though, I have to admit that when taken more as a piece of interactive fiction, Phoenix Wright does a lot better thanks to its own weird brand of charm. It’s definitely got a strong Japanese flavor to it, what with all the overly cute characters, weird puns, and emotional slingshotting that takes place on the witness stand, but it really worked for me. It’s endearing. I just wish I could watch someone play it rather than have to play it.