Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Thoughts From the Press Conference

Monday, June 07, 2010


Ace Attorney: The First Turnabout

I've been meaning for some time now to write a review of the Ace Attorney series, but since the games aren't your typical sort of video games, I didn't want to do a typical sort of game review. Typical game reviews talk about things like the mechanics, and I don't think anyone really plays Ace Attorney because finding objects and rubbing them on people is particularly fun. We play them (and replay them!) because the story just kicks ass.

So my plan is to take these games one case at a time and talk about how they succeed or fail as stories. I want to talk about the characters, the clever twists, and yes, lots and lots of spoilers.

If you want the standard "Should you buy it or not?" game review, here it is: Yes. Buy them. Buy them all. Even when they're bad, they're still pretty good.

We'll start with the first case in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, appropriately named The First Turnabout.

The First Turnabout

The first four games all begin with a courtroom scene, which is a really good idea -- the player is instantly immersed in the courtroom gameplay, which is arguably the heart and soul of the series. Investigation scenes boil down to a point and click adventure, and there are plenty of them; what makes Ace Attorney stand apart is the idea of resolving mysteries by pointing out lies and inconsistencies in witness testimony. I've always said that it's like Encyclopedia Brown for adults.

The First Turnabout is basically a primer for the series. Things start out kind of slow and easy so you can get used to the mechanics without having a lot of story to worry about. They even open the case with a cut scene that shows you Frank Sahwit, moments after the murder, trying to figure out who to pin it on. (More on this in the later cases.) It serves as an introduction to using the Court Record and the idea of presenting evidence to point out contradictions -- they don't even get into pressing the witness or any of the investigation mechanics. The lies are really obvious too -- he was there before the time of death, a TV was on during a blackout, the murder weapon was a clock. The whole thing is basically a slam dunk.

At least, until you get to the very end and you have to prove that the clock was wrong on the day of the murder. This seems impossible; you don't have a document in the court record that states "The clock was wrong on the day of the murder." At least, not until Mia speaks up and tells you that you have to think outside the box. Assume the clock was wrong and ask why it was wrong and the answer becomes obvious -- according to her passport, she had been in a different time zone recently. And that's an introduction to perhaps the most important element of the series -- Phoenix Wright's almost magical ability to pull a come-from-behind victory (a "turnabout", if you will) by thinking outside the box and flying by the seat of his pants. Although there's not much to the story in the first case, this sudden twist at the end really helped to reassure me, the first time I played it, that this game was going to be something special.

This is also our first look at a lot of recurring characters from the series. The Judge would later become a much more humorous character, but in this case, he's so straight that he barely comes across as a character at all; he's more like the voice of the game narrating to the player. Likewise, Winston Payne barely registers; he doesn't have a speck of that "rookie crusher" bravado that he'd develop in later cases. The first time I played through the game, I saw his little end credits spiel and I couldn't for the life of me remember what he had to do with the game. And while you can see the beginnings of the troublemaker that Larry would eventually become, in this case he comes across more like an idiot who has bad luck with women.

Mia Fey has arguably changed the least -- she's Wright's idealized mentor and pep squad, urging him to keep believing in himself and his client, which is basically her role through all the games. It seems like they were trying to give her a schtick where she remembers people's names wrong -- she calls Larry "Harry" -- but that didn't last. There also seems to be a spark of attraction between her and Wright; Wright calls her "Mia -- err, Chief!" and she suggests that they talk over drinks later.

Wright doesn't seem to have changed much. He's just a little unsure of himself at the beginning, which mirrors the way a new player should feel -- this was the first courtroom game I'd ever played, and I was a little worried about how much actual legal simulation there was. But he finds his balls pretty quick, and he isn't afraid to accuse first and figure it out later: when asked to prove that Sahwit entered the apartment, he answers, "I'll do better than that! I'll prove you killed her!" That really took me off guard the first time I played; it's quite a leap to go from "His testimony was wrong." to "He was the killer."

Finally, we have Frank Sahwit himself. There's just something I like about this guy. The way he twitches back and forth when he's giving testimony, the way he cringes when he's caught in a lie, the way he gradually undergoes a demonic transformation as his story unravels -- he's the quintessential Ace Attorney witness. And throwing the toupee was a nice touch; it's always funny watching Nick get hit by something.

All in all, this case does a good job of setting up our expectations. Wright slays demonic liars in court with his mentor/love interest by his side. We feel familiar with the status quo and have a good idea of how things work in this little universe. And this makes the next case all the more effective.

Next time: Turnabout Sisters.


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