Postmortem: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Our job is to find the truth, no matter how painful it may be.

When we enter a court of law, what does it mean to fight for justice? Does it mean letting the guilty go free, rather than running the risk of imprisoning the innocent? Or condemning the innocent, rather than running the risk of the guilty roaming our streets?

Does it mean fighting for a verdict, or does it mean fighting for the truth?

These are the central questions in a series that has been overlooked by many. This series has gained a niche but energetic following among the initiated since the first entry’s release on Nintendo DS in 2005.

The story begins with you taking on the role of Phoenix Wright, a rookie defense attorney whose badge has only just cooled from being pressed into his lapel at graduation. And, as his luck should have it, his first trial is a capital murder trial. His client, the accused, is his idiot best friend since childhood.

These sorts of circumstances are typical in the series. In each of the game’s cases, there is an opening cinematic, usually involving some mysterious figure standing over someone’s freshly-murdered body. They either hastily pin the crime on someone else, or coolly walk away, confident in the execution of their carefully contrived plan. Smash-cut to Phoenix and his assistant, usually doing something immature, lazy, or both. For example, after one of the murders has been committed, the action cuts to Phoenix and his assistant, who are sitting on the couch in his office, watching a children’s show about a superhero samurai warrior. Only then does the phone ring, and Phoenix rushes off to meet his next client in the county jail.

The game plays like a graphic novel; the dialogue and action unfold as if they were written on a page.

The difference between a graphic novel and this game, however, is that you do not need to solve the murder mystery in order to proceed to the next page. In your capacity as an attorney, you will visit crime scenes, gather evidence, interview witnesses, and make your arguments in a court of law, all in the name of pursuing justice. If you can solve the crime, you will be rewarded with further story developments. As it turns out, these story developments will usually trash your entire defense, and you will be sent back to the drawing board.


The dual screen of the DS allows the action to unfold while you are able to think in near real-time. On one screen, you have your Court Record, which shows all relevant case information and evidence you have gathered. On the other screen we see the characters: the near-inept judge, the forceful prosecutors, the baffling and confused witnesses, as they drive the story forward. At times, the menus can be frustratingly clunky to navigate, but given that the record can be operated by touchscreen, a feature which makes navigation more bearable, this annoyance is minimized, and the plot is well worth the price of admission.

While the real process of law is drawn out over the course of weeks, months, or years, one might ask how the story could ever unfold in a way that actually makes sense for a video game. The writers solved this problem through exposition. In this semi-near future, the court system has become too packed with criminal defendants to be able to give everyone a full, expedient trial. As a result, an adversarial trial has been developed as an option for those defendants who are too impatient to wait. Under this system, the prosecutor and defense attorney have a maximum of just three days to gather evidence and make their arguments heard in court. There is no need for jury selection (who wants to serve on a jury anyway, amirite?) or other staples of court dramas that drag out the proceedings. Instead, a judge will listen to the prosecution and defense, and make an immediate and binding ruling after all arguments have been heard.

At first glance, it seems that all the best attorneys are prosecutors. They all appear to have perfect win records, and it appears that, perhaps, some of them might be willing to do whatever it takes to protect their win records. And you, the rookie defense attorney, are the latest obstacle to maintaining that perfection.

And, if you lose, an innocent person might be sentenced to jail or worse.

Did I mention that this is a fun game?

Each of the main characters have their own theme, from your helpful-yet-distractable assistant Maya, to the flat-footed yet kind Officer Dick Gumshoe. Each scene is perfectly set; walking into court feels like walking onto the set of Law and Order, and the stakes feel just as high.


Each character is animated and written with distinct and charming personalities, and while the emphasis tends toward awkward or sarcastic humor, there were genuine moments where I had to stifle my laughter. In particular, the judge featured throughout the game appears to be on the edge of senility and gullibility; watching Phoenix constantly battle to hold the judge’s attention and present his case against his near-perfect foil, Prosecuting Attorney Miles Edgeworth, produced some laugh-out-loud moments throughout the game.

And those moments are needed more as relief than for laughs, because there are some tense, dark, and difficult moments in this game. Despite the characters’ impish and “kawaii” anime appearance, there are real, raw emotions that are conveyed through careful art and music direction. This doesn’t just make the game enjoyable; it makes everything believable. For example, in a particular case, your client is exceptionally difficult to deal with–she considers choosing to plead guilty rather than prolong the trial, even if it costs her life. She is not without her reasons, and at pivotal moments the pain and turmoil she feels as she wrestles with her inner demons are plainly written on her face and in her mannerisms. Years after playing this game, I still remember how she would chew at her thumbnail, sweat beading on her brow as she refused to look at Phoenix–at me. This scene, among many others, will stick with you long after you set the game down.

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The plot of this game seems to have been written by the masterminds behind some of the best crime and film noir dramas. The influence of classics in the genre are clearly there, with clever asides supplied by Phoenix to himself (and, of course, the reader) as he stands in as narrator of the plot. Each character you interact with logically leads to the next, like breadcrumbs through the woods. However, because of how the story is crafted, you’re never sure whether the breadcrumbs will lead you back home, or to the mysterious house that Hansel and Gretel found in the forest. And, as you try to figure out which way the story will take you, you might hear Willy Wonka’s voice echoing in your mind, saying, “The suspense is terrible! …I hope it lasts.”

It is when there is a key finding that every element already discussed works strikingly well. Years after playing the game for the first time, I can still vividly remember when a critical piece of evidence was brought to light, and all sound from the game was suddenly and sharply cut. Then, a very tense, fast, low-pitched rhythm underscored the importance of the revelation, and how it could change the trajectory of the case at hand,whether it was good for your client, or damning.

The writers had to walk a careful tightrope; as they were developing each case’s details, they had to leave enough breadcrumbs such that you can solve the case, but leave you as few legs to stand on as possible. You will be made to feel like an attorney. You will know your client’s struggles, you will know their innocence, and you will be tasked–almost to an impossible extreme–to prove their innocence beyond doubt. The writers expertly navigated this with their punishment mechanic. During each trial, they allow you to make mistakes, owing to the fact that you are a rookie attorney. However, they do not let you make too many poor arguments before your client is declared guilty by virtue of the prosecution’s case. As it so happens, all of the prosecution’s arguments seem to be airtight… until you can find the thread that unravels their entire case.

And there is rarely a more satisfying moment than hearing Phoenix shout “Objection!” when he (that is, you) finally finds the flaw that brings the prosecutor’s case crashing down.

I must resist discussing any plot specifics, as every turning point in each case is a puzzle that must be solved, and each of the four main cases, while seemingly separated and disjointed, are all set up to tell one over-arching story. It is almost as if the writers started with the solution and worked backwards, trying to diverge on as many tangents and dog-legs as possible, all while making the final problem still-solvable with one dramatic revelation. The game must be played in order to understand just how brilliant the writers were. The fifth case in particular, which was not included in the original Japan-only Game Boy Advance release, can feel as if it has more twists and upsets than the entire rest of the game.

If there is only one true downside, it is that this game has limited replay value; the game plays out the same way each time, and if a second play of the game is started too soon after the first, all of the puzzles’ solutions will likely remain fresh in your memory. As a result, I find it best to wait at least a year before revisiting this game, if you like to replay your games. But even when you come back, all of the emotions, drama, triumphs, and tragedies come flooding back as if for the first time.

While the writing is occasionally plagued by hokey dialogue and the menu system can be somewhat clunky, the experience made me question whether I had made the correct choice in career paths. After fighting alongside Phoenix Wright to bring the truth to light–to fight for what is right even to the point of pain–I very nearly considered registering for law school to become a defense attorney. This game wasn’t going to be, and never was, a world-changer in video games. What it is, however, is a masterfully-woven, carefully-directed game that will take you on an adventure where you never would have looked to find one: a court of law.

If you are looking for a game that challenges your view of the justice system, while also being unafraid of sophomoric fart jokes, you have found the perfect game for you. Find this game in the used bin or online, or even in the Nintendo e-shop. Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

I rate this game 5 newly-minted attorney’s badges out of 5.

Martin Offerman lives in the eastern US. Besides gaming, he also enjoys
astronomy and playing his guitar, when not spending time binging on
Netflix with his wife


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