I consider myself an open-minded gamer - a man who will approach any game with a clean slate and willing attitude, regardless of the genre, license or critic appeal (or lack thereof). This has proved to be a double-edged sword however, as my enthusiasm has led recent clunkers such as Alex Rider: Stormbreaker and the twin mind-numbing powers of Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands Revolution to find their way into my DS, stealing away hours of my life that they refused to return - no matter how many times I threatened them with a hammer. But just as the stream of bad games appears to be breaking through my dam of patience, along comes a shining knight of innovation and entertainment to thwart their onward push. One of last year's such knights was the addictive sleuthing and hilarious litigating combination known as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (originally released at the end of 2005, Ace Attorney was truly difficult to find until mid-2006, hence the late play).
In yet another time of gaming need, Wright and company have come to my rescue again, riding the wooden desk of justice aptly titled Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice For All. Picking up about a year after the final gavel strike of the first game, Justice For All brings four brand new cases to court, bears witness to the host of new characters that accompany the returning cast, submits double the amount of presentable evidence by using profiles, and prosecutes a brand new, truth-sniffing feature known as the Psyche-Lock. None of these new features alter the point-and-click gameplay, nor do they dampen the engaging storytelling, allowing Justice For All to focus simply on providing you with a great experience that you won't find anywhere else.
Following a much needed break after the end of the first game, the spiky-haired young defense attorney, Phoenix Wright, returns to court refreshed, recharged and rid of calamity. But being the magnet for catastrophe that he is, no sooner does he prepare to leave for the courtroom to attend his returning case than he is clunked over the head with a fire extinguisher, causing temporary amnesia. This puts into motion a snowballing effect of trouble, as Phoenix fights against himself throughout the first case in the game, which also conveniently serves as the tutorial, giving newcomers on-the-job training and jogging the memories of series veterans. Amnesia may be a clichéd plot device, but it's hard to complain about its use here, as it adds a humorous twist while easily integrating a tutorial into the first case.
Don't think for a minute that the snowball runs into the end of the first case and explodes into a puff of powder though - it rolls with increasing force and girth to the very last scene of the game. Though lacking in the extensive character development of Ace Attorney, as the main characters have been fully established at this point, Justice For All's story is the mule (or since we were talking about snow, maybe mountain goat?) that carries the gameplay. Whether his client is someone he knows, such as his assistant Maya who finds herself the suspect of yet another murder, or a complete stranger, such as egotistical magician Maximillion Galactica and children's TV star Matt Engrade, Phoenix goes above and beyond the call of duty to prove their innocence in such a convincing, believable way that pulling yourself away from the DS at times becomes near impossible. There are a few bumps in the storytelling road this time around though, as the cases share some characteristics in their antagonists that give them a feeling of rehash. These aren't normal murders - to have them share similar endings is just lazy.
I would love to dig deeper into the story, but I fear that discussing it any further will lead to spoilers. So let me end with this: until the fourth - and final - case, the story proves to be solid but not quite to the level of Ace Attorney, where each case is completely different and each character received extra attention because they were still being developed. Once the final case closes, with its many twists and turns, risks and rewards, intensity level turned to max, you may find your hand shaking a little as your adrenaline level returns to normal. Justice For All closes in such an unexpected, well written way that any complaints against any earlier moments are all but wiped off the screen.
As exceptional as the story is, without the equally impressive and addictive gameplay it would be harder to push through the pages and pages of text held within the tiny DS card. For those unfamiliar with the Phoenix Wright series, the game plays not unlike the point-and-click PC adventures of yore. That gameplay is broken further into two individual parts - sleuthing and litigating. When sleuthing, sniffing out clues, evidence and witnesses, you move between areas that consist of no more than two static backgrounds, via menus. Searching an area consists of tapping the stylus on the spot in question and seeing if Phoenix agrees with you. If there is a person in the area you are in, their entire body will superimpose itself on the background and you can ask questions via a menu. Not the most complicated of game mechanics, but every action necessary to progress is tucked so perfectly into the fabric of the story that you will hardly notice the simplicity. You will only be worrying yourself with reaching the next story point or preparing for your next court date.
One of the new features seen in Justice For All is found during this part of the game, called the Psyche-Lock. While talking with others, if they lie or hold something back from Phoenix, a set number of Psyche-Locks appears over them. If you can break through all these locks using a combination of evidence and intellect then you're rewarded with pertinent information and sometimes case-changing evidence. Miscues during a Psyche-Lock break result in damage to your health bar, which isn't as problematic as it sounds. You cannot run out of health and lose your progress during a break - you will just be at a severe disadvantage during the litigation process if you don't first complete a break and receive the 50% health refill it also provides.
The Psyche-Lock is an interesting idea that forces players to use their litigation talents outside of the court, but factoring in the health bar without allowing your game to end makes the risk/reward nature of it flimsy at best. By making it so you either have to pursue every Psyche-Lock with the fact that your game can end if you fail hanging over you head, or make the completion of every Psyche-Lock optional but their reward extremely beneficial, Psyche-Locks would have had more relevance. As it, they are simply a gimmick that neither helps nor hinders the experience.
Litigating consists of the same menu-based progression but asks different things from you. Here you listen to testimony from witnesses and discover the flaws within to aid your cause and prove your defendant not guilty. After a witness gives their testimony, you can push them for further information and if you think you have found a contradiction you can prove your theory by showing the court evidence that supports your claims. There are also points in the trials where you are asked questions, such as which direction the court should take or how much further you should pursue a testimony. Submit the wrong piece of evidence or answer a question improperly and the same health bar used in the Psyche-Lock portion takes a hit; empty it and the judge rules in favor of the prosecution and your game is over. Again, just as the sleuthing part of the game, this may read as basic and boring gameplay, but you couldn't be any further from the mark - most actions in this game have a counteraction and it is in the limiting of negative counteractions by figuring your way through a maze of extensively clever puzzles that provides a visceral reward not generally seen in a video game - one of the intellectual variety. Veterans of Ace Attorney may have realized that the "five strikes and your out" rules have been scrapped; now every action is potentially damaging to your health and varies in damaging power - there are even moments where no matter how much health you have, one wrong answer depletes the entire bar. Be sure to thank your lucky stars that you can save your game at any moment!
In Ace Attorney, evidence was limited to physical items in the court record, but Justice For All nearly doubles the amount in any given trial by allowing profiles of every person involved in the trial to also serve as presentable evidence. This can lead to unnecessary confusion with grilling a witness, as you may think the proof that the court needs to see is an item when it is really the person connected to the item, or vice versa. Your assistant, who should be there to help at all times, either scolds you for your ignorance when you mess up or congratulates you when you succeed - there is no middle ground, other than the obligatory cryptic clue at the end of most testimonies. But these don't always help you decipher which piece of evidence is the best one (a trick also employed by the D.M.V. in their written driving exams!), neither will they help when you are just shooting blanks into the sky, attempting to bluff your way through. Before you know it you're eye-to-eye with the title screen and still have no idea what to present next.
An easy way that Capcom could have corrected this problem - even one the localization team could have implemented with little disruption to the source material - would be to have introduced a "hot and cold" system when it comes to your assistant's responses to your presenting failures. Letting you know how close, or off-base, you are with any piece of evidence would have put the brakes on frustration and wasted time, as well as adding to the engagement of the player, making it feel more like a real court room battle. I am not sure if this feature has made its way into the two currently Japan-only sequels, but one can hope.
As you can see, there are no real time elements here and neither is there any direct control. This is a deliberate, slow-paced game that demands a sharp mind as opposed to a quick trigger finger. There are plenty of times where Justice For All will bust your chops with one confounding puzzle after another, asking you to break nearly airtight testimony or recall every line of dialogue spit in your direction during an entire trial. At times it can be quite taxing, especially when you find yourself saving after every single inch of progression you make in fear that you will blow the whole case at the next turn. Being an attorney is not walk in the park, but thanks to an awesome story and well-planned puzzle-based gameplay, you will at least enjoy the job shadow.
Just as Ace Attorney before it, Justice For All is a port of a Game Boy Advance title and with that distinction comes certain downfalls, the most notable of which is in the presentation. As a game that hardly pushed the limits of its original system, coming to the DS with no upgrades hurts the package. The anime-style graphics are as detailed as they can be and though lacking in animation variety, are animated realistically, reacting in a choreographed manner to every situation and line of dialogue. A problem does crop up for those who played Ace Attorney though, as many of the character graphics, as well some of the backdrops, have been reproduced with little to no change, making for some avoidable déjà vu.
The rehashing also hits the sound department, as many of the sound effects and music have also made the transition between games. This is less troubling, as familiarity in music and sound effects is important in engraining certain feelings and moments. The main sleuthing song, Phoenix's "I just made a valid point" theme and the courtroom theme have now become classic songs in the gaming world and their repetition just further cements their place in the minds of every person to play the Phoenix Wright games. The same can be said of the sound effects, as the sounds made during an "exclamation moment", when Phoenix slaps his desk in objection or when the light goes on in someone's head, are ones that I could identify with the game nowhere in my sight. All the new music and sounds that are added to the series' repertoire are high quality, despite having the metallic texture that all Game Boy Advance titles have.
If there is one trait that Phoenix Wright titles carry that could turn off gamers interested up to this point, it's their lasting appeal. The game is extremely linear and there is almost nothing that cannot be seen with a single play through. There are no side quests, or additional hidden cases. There are also no DS-exclusives this time around, unlike the exclusive case added to Ace Attorney. I am willing to bet that if you enjoyed your time with Justice For All, much like a great RPG or book, you will hold onto it just to experience the world, and the feelings it provoked, one more time.
As Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice For All entered the final case, I was feeling slightly let down. The gameplay had become more complicated and in turn more frustrating, and the story wasn't nearly as strong as Ace Attorney's. Those feelings were completely wiped away by the end of the final case though, as the geniuses at Capcom brought to life, through digital stills no less, a wondrously complicated, furiously nail-biting story that has all the makings of the top gaming conclusion of 2007 - on any system. I now find myself that much more invested in the exploits of the spiky-haired attorney and his companions, salivating my days away in blind adoration as I wait for an announcement of a DS port and localized version of Phoenix Wright 3. Will Phoenix ride his desk of justice once more? We can only hope.