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February 24, 2017

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (Part 1)


Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney - Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Gonna try to keep this relatively short, because if I go over every single little detail in every case in each of these two games, I’ll still be talking about these in May. Thankfully, the plot patches its own holes most of the time, in such a way that the player needs to see these plot hole-solving details for the story to go forward, so there isn’t much to say about plot holes and inconsistencies. Not that there’s much to say about gameplay, either, as it is fairly simple. All that matters… is the plot.

And God are there complex stories in these games.

Unfortunately, a lot of online visual novels seem to be
only about romantic relationships. Love ain't everything,
folks!
Visual novels can make for very interesting games. There are the ones that go solely for telling a good story, then there’s those that add a certain puzzle aspect to the whole thing. And what better way to include puzzles and logical deductions than a game about investigations? The old film noir aesthetic, the web of secrets to untangle, the mysterious ally who mysteriously disappeared- Oh wait, no, that last one is Hotel Dusk: Room215, which I reviewed back in 2015.

However, today I am discussing one of the most famous visual novel franchises: Ace Attorney. The series is known for its intricate storylines, its memorable and endearing characters, its off the wall humor, and its investigations that frequently go to dark places despite the bright world. Not to mention the wide range of expressions on the large sprites of every character, It’s a quirky franchise that hides some deep truths about justice (especially the Japanese system), life, and the zones of grey in society, and in each of us.

But hey, they’re murder mysteries, what else did you expect? There is a lot of ground to cover plot-wise, let’s get into it right away.


A bleeding statue. A woman on the ground, with a head injury. Someone, off-frame, who asks “Why me?” I just said it, the cases in the Ace Attorney games are murder mysteries, therefore the opening scene, revealing the murder, will usually have enough ambiguous elements to leave the player guessing. Not so much the case here, as we immediately see the killer, who decides to pin the murder on the next idiot he sees. Guess it makes sense as a Tutorial case of sorts to have a mystery in which we already know the answer.


Cut to the district court, where we “meet” our main character. Only through text, mind you, since most scenes outside of the courtroom are  from Phoenix’s perspective, in first-person. So we only see the people he talks to at the moment. This scene seta up that this is Phoenix Wright’s first case as a defense attorney. He is visited by his mentor, Mia Fey, who states that very few attorneys start their career on a murder case. But hey, it’s alright, Phoenix knows the defendant: Larry Butz, one of his childhood friends. Some down-on-his-luck guy who can’t keep a job, can’t keep a girlfriend, and can’t keep himself out of trouble. If it smells trouble, it’s usually Larry. When something smells, it’s usually the Butz. I will be quoting a lot of famous phrases from the franchise in these reviews, so expect them. This is just one of them.

Butz is devastated and wants the death sentence, as it turns out the victim was his girlfriend. Can’t get much out of him just yet though, it’s time for the trial. The Judge is there, although we can all hope his deduction skills didn’t go on vacation today. The prosecutor, Winston Payne, AKA the “Rookie Killer”, is ready… and so is Phoenix, who we finally see. Wa-how, that’s some spiky haircut right there. Is he secretly a Sonic fan? To, ahem “judge” whether or not Phoenix is ready, the Judge asks him a few questions about the case; the defendant’s name, the victim’s name, stuff like that. Phoenix has Mia on his side, so he has some help. She helpfully instructs him to check his pile of evidence, where he is certain to find any info he might be missing. We find the victim’s name, Cindy Stone, in the court report.

While on the topic of controls in the WiiWare version:
Yes, you can do the finger-pointing like Phoenix
when presenting evidence!

Check the evidence, and check it often.
It's the key to turning every case around.
You can use it to hit heroes and superheroes, too.
I should mention that this was at first a Game Boy Advance game that was later ported to WiiWare (this is the version I’m playing, so it uses Wii remote controls – you check the evidence with the + button, and save at any moment with the 2 button). It has since also been ported to the Nintendo 3DS virtual console.

I’d better explain something right away about the franchise, especially for the readers who have never played an Ace Attorney game: The various cases of the franchise are said to take place in America – Los Angeles, to be precise. However, that’s an effort on the part of the translators, an attempt to disguise the very Japanese original setting of the series. This Los Angeles seems very connected to Japanese culture, that’s all I’m gonna say. Maybe the series takes place in San Fransokyo, and the Big Hero 6 are a common sighting.

Why is this important? Well, the franchise is actually attempting to make a point about the Japanese trial system and the “culture” around it. Courts in the Ace Attorney series follow a guilty-before-proven-innocent mindset, something you may recognize as part of America’s own justice system. Many other things differ, though: There is no Jury to weigh in on a case. Everything revolves around what the defendant and the witnesses say on the stand. Everything lies on the defense and prosecution’s efforts to seek the truth through the possible lies, in order to get the true culprit arrested.

I mean, this guy wouldn't have gotten arrested if he had
nothing to hide! It's not like someone could ever have
schemed to pin the blame of a murder on him, right?
Oh wait, that last part is idealistic little me again. Getting the true culprit arrested? Bah, humbug! That guy who got arrested has to be guilty! Who’s that no-good defense attorney claiming to be, defending that criminal? Blah! He’s siding with the killers! And you know what, it’s frequently what happens. A defense attorney is there to try and defend his client, and life isn’t a beautiful fiction where said attorney will always, as if by luck, be picking defendants who truly are innocent of their crimes. A justice system will always give the accused a way to defend themselves in court. In cases where said defendant is really guilty, the defense attorney’s option may be to demand a shorter sentence, or show the grey areas by questioning the witnesses or other major actors of that crime, to prove that this is not a situation as simple as “here’s a good guy, here’s a bad guy”. Life doesn’t work that way.

However, if the franchise and numerous reports are to be believed, Japanese culture had for a time this odd relationship with the actors of the justice system. Defense attorneys were thoroughly despised, while prosecutors were revered and adored. And this, precisely because prosecutors are trying to put the accused person in jail for good while the defense attorney is trying to save them from it or diminish the sentence. Trial by jury was not established in Japan until 2009, and this game was first released in 2001. This was also a time where 99% of people arrested for crimes and put on trial ended up convicted. Judges are unsympathetic, prosecutors seem to care less about the truth than they care about getting “that damn criminal into jail”, and some Japanese defense attorneys have never seen a single victory. That 99% statistic includes, of course, any innocent person accused through false allegations.

Use all of your evidence to catch the culprit! Sometimes,
the court record's pile of evidence will get pretty
damn weird. Especially in Apollo Justice.
Of course, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and its numerous sequels feature an exaggerated version of this system, where the burden of proof lies on the defense attorney’s shoulders. What’s more, it’s not just enough for Phoenix to prove that his client is innocent, he must also find the real culprit. Oh wait, no, that’s still not enough, he must get the real culprit to confess, right there, in court, meaning that the evidence needs to contain all the elements necessary to make the true murderer break down on the witness stand. Oh yeah, did I mention that each trial can take place over a maximum period of three days? That’s pretty important too. After three days, you lose your chance to save your client if he’s truly innocent. Hell, even if you do have all of the evidence with you, the prosecution will still withhold missing critical information and only reveal it once you seem to have a lead that would prove your client’s innocence. Most Ace Attorney prosecutors care more about having a perfect track record and never letting a single defendant roam free than they care about finding the truth. And of course, as a defense attorney, you battle impossible odds from the very beginning, since your client has likely already confessed to the crime, for any reason.


Winston Payne, as the “Rookie Killer”, has been the ender of many a defense attorney’s careers in the Ace Attorney universe. And he is indeed competent – just not nearly enough to be a real threat past the Tutorial case. He already has a strong case against Larry, explaining that Cindy had dumped him before the murder and had started seeing other men. Being a model, Cindy had left for Paris for a photo shoot, but it wasn’t paying enough, so she would spend some time with sugar daddies to make ends meet. Gee, first case, and we already discuss this sort of topic! I foresee a great game here! Payne says that someone witnessed Larry running away from Cindy’s apartment, and thus calls that witness to the stand: Frank Sahwit. Not making that name up, this guy has a name that doomed him to be a witness someday. He saw it. Couldn’t know at birth what he saw, but with a name like this, he saw it, that’s for damn sure.

Did I mention that this series actually happened in the future? In this 2001 game, the autopsy report for Cindy Stone states that she died on July 31st, 2016. Don’t you ever find it odd when you suddenly realize that life has gone past the “future time” in which an older work of fiction is set? It’s jarring since the first case involves a “cordless phone” not working properly during a blackout… in 2016, era of the smartphones.

Wanna press on this? Or you want to present something
to shut him up?
We get the first Witness Testimony of the franchise, from the smiling Sawhit. His description includes the time of day, the location, a sighting of the defendant running away… it all seems too good. What follows is the defense attorney’s cross-examination, where the attorney will pick apart every statement in the testimony, with the famous “Hold It!” yell from Phoenix. Following this, three things will usually happen:
-One statement will not include anything meaningful, aside from perhaps clarifications or a few more details;
-The witness will bring some clarifications that are so important to the case that the Judge will ask said witness to add these as a new part of their whole testimony;
-The witness will say something that contradicts one of the pieces of information gathered through evidence, and Phoenix will call out the lie with the no-less-famous “OBJECTION!”

In the WiiWare version, you cross-examine a person on the stand either by pressing the – Button or by waving the Wii Remote to replicate Phoenix’s famous finger-pointing pose. That’s a pretty neat touch, even if chances are you’ll resort to sing the – Button in no time. So, in Sahwit’s testimony, he claims he found the victim dead at 1:00 PM, when the autopsy report says she died between 4:00 and 5:00 PM. When this is pointed out, Sahwit explains that he probably heard it from the television – like maybe it was a taped program or something. But that couldn’t be, since there was a blackout at the time of the murder! Or at least, let’s hope so, let’s hope the apartment block didn’t have a safety electricity generator…

Get ready to see witnesses change a lot when their web of
lies is pierced through.
So, of course, Sahwit tries to explain that he heard the time from the weapon of the crime, a table clock… never mind that the murder weapon was actually a statue of the Thinker. This guy’s web of lies are bigger than the lies in the journals he’s selling door-to-door! Also, someone selling paper journals in 2016. I couldn’t believe a game from 2001 could end up so dated. Well, as admitted by Payne afterwards, the statue is indeed a clock, one that states the time when the head of the Thinker is tilted. But of course, the “witness” couldn’t know about any of that unless he had entered the apartment and heard the time from that statue! Quite the lot of coincidences, don’t you think? And after using the clock to reveal how it tells the time, it turns out to be three hours late – hence why Sahwit heard 1:00 PM when it was 4:00 PM.

Yes, but, how to prove that the clock was three hours late on the day of the murder? Well, turns out, the victim was coming back from Paris, which is a nine-hour difference with Japa- er, I mean, Los Angeles. Thus, there is a three-hour difference, if you take out the AM/PM part of the equation to focus only on numbers. You might also notice that, with this final logical conclusion, all the items in the court records have been used at least once – all but Phoenix’s attorney badge, obviously. That’s what happens most of the time: All the pieces of evidence find their way into the solution, no matter how long it takes to get there or how many counter-arguments the prosecution brings up. The writing in the Ace Attorney series is simply brilliant. Cornered, Sahwit foams at the mouth and faints. That’s a pretty tame breakdown by the series’ standards…

Gotta love a good old freak-out from a bastard we corner
outside of the safe space realm of his lies.

I like to think that Phoenix Wright's multiple victories
in the Justice Court made them go through their budget
for confetti for the year in a matter of weeks.
Larry is declared Not Guilty, Phoenix scores an impressive win on the Rookie killer, Sahwit is arrested. To thank Mia, Larry gives her the Thinker statue, that same one that served as a murder weapon – surely that won’t have any unforeseen consequences. As for the motive, Sahwit is just a burglar who took the opportunity of Cindy’s door being open after Larry’s visit to snoop in, and when she showed up, he just attacked her with the closest heavy-looking item he could find.

Well, that’s one case down, three more to go. And perhaps more. Don’t worry, I won’t spend every part putting so much detail into describing every case. I don’t want this to become a 9-part review for each game. However, I will try to still correctly detail every “story” the best I can. Today, it was just an example of how things work in the courtroom. See you in Part 2 for the next Turnabout!