The Ace Attorney franchise is well known but, when considered in isolation, it's a bit of an oddity. With its exaggerated characters, stilted animations and a tendency to be as wordy as a Tolstoy novel — not really, but there's a lot of reading — we'd have perhaps expected it to be a one off release in the West before being relegated to a history of Japan-only games. Yet here we are, with the IP still thoroughly recognisable and alive to a worldwide audience, even if market realities made its most recent release — Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies — an eShop-only game. That same fate hits Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy, which is download-only in the West despite having a boxed release in Japan.
While collectors will understandably bemoan that fact, what's not in doubt is that this is a retail-value download. The title tips you off, naturally, but let's spell it out for the court — this game includes the Game Boy Advance and DS releases Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice for All and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Trials and Tribulations; they were the first three titles in the franchise. With all three they're the DS versions — making use of the dual screen setup and the portable's features — and can be tackled in any order you choose; with a single save profile for each game, you need to unlock cases but can, ultimately, play whichever game you want. When you consider the fact these were once retail games on an individual basis, you have an idea of the volume of content; this trilogy will keep you busy for many hours.
For those unfamiliar with the series, it's best described as an interactive novel, as long stretches involve following the plot through extensive dialogue, in particular. You become active in two distinct ways, with one being investigations that require you to move between areas searching for clues and talking to potential witnesses. Each segment may only have a handful of locations — in the form of still scenes — to explore, but you're often required to examine clues, find others and extract information from important characters. The mix of gathering information for the court record and triggering progress can occasionally be driven by quirky logic — as you 'present' items to move conversation along — but there's always justification. Sometimes you need to think unconventionally, but that's a good fit within the peculiar Ace Attorney world.
Court scenes are the core of the experience, and certainly those for which the IP is most famous. It's here that you'll quickly learn whether you've been paying enough attention, as progress is sometimes tied to spotting and remembering small details from court record evidence or even previous conversations. Again, most time is spent reading and following the story, but in cross-examining witnesses to seek contradictions you have key moments that you must get right. You're allowed five mistakes before you 'fail' a scenario and your client is found Guilty, but these can disappear quickly if you're not diligent. There are some genuinely head-scratching moments, too, especially if you've not immersed yourself in the game's bizarre logic; due to the lengthy gaps between save checkpoints — and the huge amount of text — failure brings the punishment of a lot of lost time.
That's not a criticism, however, as not all games have to make life easy for us. That tension is necessary, to a degree, due to the nature of the genre and long spells without truly engaging with events — this is a franchise for long, relaxed gaming sessions, and those unsure of whether an interactive novel approach suits them should beware. On the flipside, if you're a fan of the concept this Trilogy offers terrific value and entertainment.
The strength of this series is in the writing, and despite these games going back a decade and more they've aged relatively gracefully, albeit the protagonists will rock some pretty old technology. It finds a unique balance between light-hearted nonsense — accentuated by repeated but entertaining animations — and some pretty dark scenarios, with some genuinely grisly crimes and sequences. While designed so that gamers of any age can enjoy it, the brief moments of serious story-telling do well to accentuate and heighten the relief of joke segments or happy resolutions.
As mentioned above, too, these are the DS versions of these titles — they were also on Game Boy Advance. That means extra content and, with progress, greater use of the touchscreen and microphone in activities such as dusting for fingerprints or 'checking' evidence; you can even yell "Objection!" instead of tapping a button, if you like. The simple dual screen setup works nicely, while it's also helpful to know that you can speed text up by furiously tapping A. If you fail a court case near the end, you'll need this option.
Ace Attorney Trilogy provides a faithful version of these three DS games, then, with enhancements being relatively minor. It's true that the visuals on the top screen have been touched up, though they maintain the general pixel-based style of the originals; stereoscopic 3D also looks rather nice and helps to add a little extra vibrancy to the graphics, albeit we saw one example where the layering wasn't executed properly. Overall, Capcom has done a solid job, though it's important to note that these games haven't been remastered to utilise the engine used in Dual Destinies; that's a vital distinction. Sound is perhaps a minor disappointment, too, as it's lacking the orchestral class of the latest title. Ultimately, though, as a compilation this does a fine job of improving the general look of the DS titles.
Overall, the greatest appeal of this Trilogy is the opportunity to either relive the beginnings of the IP or experience them for the first time. The wacky cast and scenarios are a treat, so it's little surprise that Capcom is keen to celebrate these last-gen classics.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy is an excellent package, delivering hours and hours of entertaining and quirky interactive novel gameplay. It remains unique in the market, at least in its consistent levels of quality, and for those new to the franchise — or recent fans of Dual Destinies — it's a must buy. If you've played the originals to death, it's a trickier sell — the enhancements are minor enough that they're not worth buying as opposed to simply firing up that old DS cart. As an isolated product, however, this is a wonderful addition to the eShop; surreal, funny and huge value, it's definitely Guilty of being an excellent download.