Release Date: January 16, 2007
Of all the excellent games for the Nintendo DS, the unfortunate winner of "Best game nobody played" probably goes to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Almost everyone who played the game fell in love with it, but by the time word of it finally spread, the title was nearly impossible to find. Even after reprintings, finding a copy is almost pure luck. It's a true shame, as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is one of the most enjoyable portable experiences I've ever had. Rather than blowing up aliens or jumping on turtles, you spend most of your time exploring and reading. While this may sound a bit boring at first, in actuality, the humorous writing and interesting mysteries make it a worthwhile game for almost anyone. In fact, even "shock rock" singer Marilyn Manson commented on his enjoyment of the game in an interview!
Like its predecessor, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2 — Justice for All is set in a strange near-future world where the law system has been completely revamped to deal with the ever-increasing crime rate. When a person is arrested for a crime, trials happen within a matter of days, and to further expedite the legal process, all trials must end in three days! Rather than being judged in front of a jury, the prosecutor and defense attorney instead present their cases in front of a judge, who determines the verdict. The largest change, and arguably the most crucial, is that all criminals are judged guilty until irrefutably proven innocent. Beyond that, the defense is left without anything but their own wits, and no help at all from the legal system. They must collect their own evidence, question their own witnesses and do everything themselves. It is, to say the least, a legal system stacked heavily against the defendants. It either takes a fool or a genius to become a defense attorney in this kind of world, and luckily for Phoenix Wright, he's a bit of both.
Once Phoenix has taken a case, there are two different parts to his job: investigation and the actual defense during a trial. Investigation is exactly that — investigating the crime. Phoenix can search the crime scene or any other area that comes under interest for evidence and witnesses. Evidence is self-explanatory: It is something that can be used in trial to show flaws or holes in the prosecutions case. Whenever Phoenix discovers something that catches his interest, it is added to his Evidence File for later use. Thanks to the illogical joys of the law system in the world of Phoenix Wright, he doesn't even have to present this evidence to the prosecution beforehand ... thus allowing for amazing turnabouts in trial.
Witnesses are something completely different. As you learn more and more about the case, the various colorful characters with whom you meet can be questioned about what you've learned. Their information can be helpful or simply colorful backstory. You can even present them with evidence that you've discovered to get a different (and usually important) viewpoint. Of course, not every person you're going to meet with will be friendly to your cause. Very often, they will try to stump Phoenix or just impede his progress, and he has to find a way around their roadblocks. Sometimes this just involves a bit of questioning or a specific bit of evidence, but particularly stubborn people may require something more.
New in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2 — Justice for All is the Psyche Lock system. Early on, Phoenix gets a magical Magatama which gives him the power to peer into the hearts of those who are hiding something. A Psyche Lock appears as a number of chains surrounding the witness, with a number of heavy metal locks holding the chains together. By presenting certain bits of evidence, Phoenix can break these locks and eventually get access to the information that the witness is hiding. However, presenting the wrong evidence drains Phoenix's health bar (more on that later), although succeeding in a Psyche Lock can restore it. While a neat theory in concept, the Psyche Lock system really felt weird to me. Instead of discovering the truth through his own skill, Phoenix ends up relying on a magical trinket, and the Psyche Lock sequences felt oddly forced and out of place.
Once Phoenix collects enough evidence, it's time to head to court. For the most part, the courtroom sequences are fairly similar to those found in the original Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The Prosecutor brings witnesses to the stand, who then provide detailed testimony on what they saw ... or claim to have seen, at least. Once they've finished their testimony, Phoenix is given a chance to cross-examine them, which takes you phrase-by-phrase through the testimony. Phoenix can choose to push the witness, asking them to clarify their statement or explain an inaccuracy, or he can present evidence showing the flaw in the witness's testimony. Diving further into a testimony requires more evidence and more leaps of logic. Choose correctly and watch in deep satisfaction as the opposing prosecutor rushes to counter your argument. Choose incorrectly, and Phoenix's life bar drops. Instead of the "strike" system found in the first Phoenix Wright game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2 has a full-on life bar.
The more important the situation, the greater the damage to your life bar if you fail, so depending on the problem, you can have a number of chances, or only a few. When the bar runs out, Phoenix is out of chances, and his client is found guilty. Sadly, one of the big frustrations not fixed from the original Phoenix Wright is that the game still forces you into a specific course of action, even if you, the player, have already made the logical leaps necessary to avoid this. Presenting the wrong evidence, not because it's wrong, but because the game is expecting something else — and then getting penalized for it — can be a souring experience, especially if you know your evidence is right. For the most part, these situations are few and far between, so they don't represent a game-breaking flaw, just a noticeable annoyance.
One aspect of the game that I really feel needs to be discussed is the humor. Gyakuten Saiban, as the Phoenix Wright franchise is known as in Japan, is a very heavily pun-oriented game. Normally, the act of translating a title like this would either change things too much, turning it into a sort of Family Guy hodgepodge of pop culture, or leave things so unchanged that the American audience misses a good number of jokes. Phoenix Wright is one of those rare games that manages to pull off a translation that is both funny and yet still close to the original. Don't get me wrong — Phoenix Wright has its pop culture references as well, but they're generally funny, and only a few of them feel particularly forced. Most of the humor comes from the characters themselves, each of which is brimming with personality and wit. From a clown who seems to speak entirely in terrible puns to a whip-wielding prosecutor out for revenge, the cast is full of life. Phoenix himself tends to play straight-man to these crazy characters, but his incredulous reactions and slightly dimwitted behavior only serve to make him a more enjoyable protagonist (even if you want to scream at him sometimes for missing what seems obvious to you).
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a heavily text-based game, so be prepared for a lot of reading — almost all of it is important. However, just because it is text-based doesn't mean that the graphics are bad. In actuality, their simplicity is rather charming. Each character has a large, nicely animated sprite that tends to "flip" between certain emotions at a whim. Be it an embarrassed young girl or a witness freaking out on the stand, however, these animations are all very well done and nice to look at. While one certainly won't be mistaking them for real animation, the paper-cutout graphical style has its own charm and quirks that really fit the game's design quite well. My personal favorite set of animations is when witnesses are caught lying; they tend to explode in the most amusing ways. The backgrounds are all busy and full of detail, which is very important while investigating and searching for evidence. Occasionally, it may be hard to see exactly what you're pointing at until Phoenix explains it, however.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney had an amazing soundtrack. Although it didn't have a large number of songs, they all fit the game's tone perfectly. When you pulled off a come-from-behind victory, the music really got your heart going. When you were listening to a cross-examination, the tense music really made one feel like there some something on the line. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2 is sadly a step back in this area. While a good number of songs do return in this sequel, they are joined by a number of new songs which are, to be honest, not very good. The new songs don't really fit the tone of the scenes and often sound like badly redone versions of older Phoenix Wright tunes. It may just be my inner fanboy talking, but I miss the old songs. What remains of them is still very good, and after a while, you probably won't notice a big difference, unless you've recently replayed the first game.
In the end, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2 — Justice for All feels almost more like an expansion than a full sequel. The changes made are very minor, with the exception of the Psyche Lock system, and those who've played the first game will be able to jump right into the second. However, rather than being a disappointment, this is a very good case of the old adage, "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." If you enjoyed the original game, Phoenix Wright 2 is more of the same funny and exciting gameplay that the first held. If you missed out on that rare gem, don't hesitate to give Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2 a shot. I've yet to meet a person who doesn't smile at least once while playing this weird, yet witty, game.