The devil's advocate.
Capcom loves their versus battles, and so do we. Whether it's Ken battling Ryu, Megaman blasting Dr. Wily, or Leon exploding some scary T-zombie, they have an almost unhealthy fascination with watching sworn enemies go for each others' throats. They even adapted their vicious predilection to Tetris, so you'd think a game starring lawyers would be right up their dark, scary alley.
As it turns out, Phoenix Wright lacks the usual Capcom punch, preferring instead to talk things out. But rather than solving puzzles, piecing together clues, playing mini-games and ripping your foes limb from limb, Phoenix Wright has you reading dialogue. A lot. While this “interactive book” approach is novel, you probably had plenty of things to read on the pot before you paid $150 for your Nintendo DS.
Then again, there are likely some books on your shelf that aren’t nearly as well written as this video game. The story focuses on Phoenix Wright, a spiky-haired attorney straight out of law school who quickly finds himself in the middle of court cases scandalous enough to make Michael Jackson blush. The overarching plot involves the relationship between Phoenix and his undead boss, Mia. They kind of have a thing, but only when Mia is able to inhabit the body of her 17 year-old sister. Talk about nailing two birds with one lawyer! This game is kinky with a capital "Why?!"
Instead of strictly translating the Japanese, Phoenix Wright’s localization team was seemingly given free reign to rewrite the text for each scene along the basic framework of the plot. The result is MXC funny, with enough clever running gags, one-liners and puns to keep the game worth playing, er, reading for hours.
While the dialogue writers took their game to the next level, the designers took the day off. Phoenix Wright's gameplay unfolds in two parts: the investigation and the courtroom battle, just like on Law and Order. You investigate by moving between areas, examining them for clues and interviewing whoever is at the scene. Sounds simple, but the process is needlessly complicated by the fact that many witnesses want something in return for their information, and that means errand quests.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the last twenty years, errand quests see you trudging around every area in the game, meticulously searching for the one item you need to advance the story. Good games mix these suckers in with other types of quests, giving you something else to do while searching high and low for the missing baseball card. Phoenix Wright does not. Even worse, it’s strictly linear, so your current delivery quest becomes the entire game until you find what you need. Now where did I put that receipt?
Fortunately, finding the stuff you need is pretty easy. You’re usually given a clue that ranges from explicitly obvious (“Check the trailer!”) to overtly implied (“I think I might have seen it in the trailer!”), and you simply have to head over to the specified area and examine things. Selecting the 'examine' option brings a picture of your surroundings to the touch screen. A symbol lights up any time your cursor goes over an item of interest, so you know exactly what to look at.
In most adventure games (such the recent Trace Memory), these examination bits act as segues into mini-games and puzzles. In Phoenix Wright, they simply lead to clues, which lead to people, which lead to more clues and so on and so forth until you have enough evidence to go to trial.
Trials are as easy as they are entertaining. Most of the game’s cleverest moments take place in the courthouse, even if the least interactive part of the gameplay transpires there. In a trial, a witness takes the stand and gives a testimony. The testimony is broken up into about five parts, and you can either “press”(ask for more detail on a given segment of testimony) or "present" a piece of evidence that contradicts the testimony. Present enough pieces of contradictory evidence and the witness will inevitably break down and tell the truth, because for some reason, the witnesses in Phoenix Wright are always lying. And guilty.
This simplistic gameplay is made even easier by the fact that your undead boss regularly manifests in the body of her 17 year-old sister and prompts you to enter a piece of evidence. At the end of the second chapter, for example, I lost a case after running out of options. Then my boss manifested and told me to present a receipt. I did, and subsequently won. The frustrating thing is that I knew something was up with the receipt, but the game wouldn’t let me examine it closely or present it until I had lost. There was only one way to win, and that was to let the game do it for me. I’m sorry, but that is not playing, that is reading.
Still, reading Phoenix Wright is more fun than playing a lot of games thanks to its excellent writing and generally awesome presentation. The characters are well-drawn, animated and silly, and the searchable environments are rendered clearly so that you’ll never miss anything you were supposed to spot.
Phoenix Wright has the look, feel and sound down, plus it uses DS features like the microphone (You can shout “Objection” if you’re feeling really obnoxious) and the touch screen. But a great presentation and even better writing can’t compensate for the fact that the game practically plays itself. This is a good comic book, but a below average adventure. The prosecution rests.