Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations on the DS turns 20 today (although the GBA version is a few years older). To celebrate, we're reminiscing on what makes it one of the most beloved games in the series...
Massive spoilers for Ace Attorney 1-3 below!!
Anyone who's ever played an Ace Attorney game knows the score by now.
The first case is almost always some low-stakes murder, done by a total idiot who neglected to hide his tracks completely, and you — the defense attorney — have some sort of terrible memory ailment that means that you don't remember how to law, making it acceptable to need a tutorial. The second case is often a long, but throwaway story about some guy doing some thing that's entirely irrelevant to the rest of the game, but involves a dramatic murder of some kind.
The third and fourth (or sometimes, fourth and fifth) cases are the ones where it gets interesting. It's Ace Attorney tradition at this point to make these cases tie into the larger plot of the series — whether it's the ongoing drama of what on earth the DL-6 Incident is, or just the turbulent relationship between series lead Phoenix Wright and his
lover rival/best friend, Miles Edgeworth. Often, these cases sprinkle in some repeating narrative thread: Maya gets accused of murder, someone has to channel a ghost to solve the murder, a recurring character like Ema Skye or Larry Butz makes an appearance, and another family member of one of the main cast is revealed (most likely Apollo, whose family tree is more like a very bushy shrub).
You pick up an Ace Attorney game, you expect all of these elements — and because Shu Takumi and his team of writers and localisation specialists are so darn good at their jobs, they always manage to pull it off, and not make it seem derivative and predictable. I mean, it is both of those things. But it works.
Trials and Tribulations is the third game in the Ace Attorney series, and unlike most of the other games in the series, it is almost entirely concerned with one woman: Dahlia Hawthorne. Dahlia is a sweet-as-sugar young lady with gigantic doe eyes, whose demeanour is so gentle and inviting that she is constantly surrounded by butterflies, like some kind of Snow White for the insect kingdom. Every single man that she comes in contact with, from students to legal professionals, falls head-over-heels for her, ready to do whatever her bidding may be.
She is also a homicidal sociopath.
The loveliest rose can hide the cruelest thorn...
This juxtaposition of sweet and scary isn't new, and Dahlia certainly didn't invent it, but the moments where her mask slips and her expression changes from innocent to murderous are thrilling — but used sparsely to maximise their impact. Even Dahlia's breakdowns (she has two!) are pitch-perfect for her character: her butterflies burn up, signifying that she doesn't care about anything, unless it's for her own benefit; and, like a vengeful ghost (which, at this point, she is), her skin turns pale white, her hair turns blood red, and she looms murderously over the court before being exorcised mid-scream.
But her violent side is hidden most of the time, and it becomes the driving force behind Trials and Tribulations to finally expose her for the monster she is. Ace Attorney is often at its best when you (or Phoenix) know something that you have to prove, because, you know, you can't just say that someone's a big fat murderer without some evidence. That's when the law is most exciting, because there has to be some tiny little loose thread somewhere, and once you find it, the whole case unravels. The problem with Dahlia is that she's very, very good at snipping all those little threads before you get to them.
Dahlia's manipulation is in the background of almost every case in Trials and Tribulations, even if you don't know it immediately. From her tangle with a much younger Phoenix Wright to the mysterious origins of the new cybernetically-enhanced prosecutor, Godot, she's got her fingers in almost every legal pie. DL-6 and the Fey family drama haunt the court and its participants just as Mia Fey does, but Dahlia Hawthorne is an active poltergeist that pursues her victims like an aggressive tailgater.
Not only is she constantly present in some way, but much like many of the games' villains and characters, she's actually part of the Fey family, tying her to Mia, Maya, Misty, Morgan, Pearl, and Phoenix, filling out the lore of the family as a whole, and keeping the game together like murder-glue.
She provides a target for Phoenix's determination to find the truth, for Mia and Maya's revenge, and a reason for Godot's entire backstory. She brings out the worst fatal flaw in everyone: Phoenix's unwavering trust; Godot's dogged pursuit of revenge without ever questioning his motives; Maya's willingness to help despite the cost to herself. The answer to almost every question in Trials and Tribulations is "Dahlia Hawthorne", and it's still a surprise every time.
From the day I was born to the day I died, I never helped anyone! I lived for myself and, in the end, I died for myself. I thought that was obvious.
For the player, she's a compelling, likeable villain — not likeable as in, "what a nice girl!", but likeable as in it's a joy to come up against her in court. Every time she's summoned as a witness, or discovered in disguise, it's a thrill — she's the Moriarty to Phoenix's Sherlock Holmes, a real foil that's almost as good at hiding her tracks as he is at revealing them. So many cases feature a villain who's wily and cunning, but they're always revealed in the end; very few cases feature a repeating villain who's managed to escape persecution multiple times.
And the best part is that, in the end, no one wins. Yes, you've proved Dahlia guilty at last, even though she's already dead, but everyone has to live with the scars she already inflicted.
Terry Fawles and Valerie Hawthorne are dead. Phoenix is left to realise that he dated and aided a murderer, and that he has been powerless to save the Fey family from misfortune on multiple occasions. Maya has lost her sister and her mother, without even knowing who the latter was until it was too late. Pearl has lost almost her entire family. Iris — Dahlia's twin sister — is imprisoned, and has lost the man she loved, both because she was too much of a coward to challenge Dahlia. And poor Godot is blinded, and he's in jail, and he couldn't save his girlfriend, and he killed her mother. It's an utterly tragic ending, and it's all down to one woman and her relentless, merciless need for revenge. Ace Attorney is a series defined by murder as a regular occurrence; to raise the stakes, you have to make the murder mean something.
I love a lot of things about Ace Attorney, including its goofier cases and its self-contained stories with villains that are just complex enough for a few hours, but Dahlia is a highlight of the series for a reason. She's irresistibly evil, yet not comically so; her story involves basically every plot twist possible, including a late-game "they were twins the whole time!"; and in the end, she actually gets what she wants. She kills without mercy, and she makes the Fey family miserable. Sure, she's dead — she's double dead, really, since she can't be summoned again — and the Fey family is to thank for that, but she's still victorious in most of her evil aims. Misty Fey is dead. Mia Fey is dead (even if that wasn't really her doing). Maya is alive, but mentally scarred. It doesn't get much more revengey than that.
But at the end of it all, Dahlia is perhaps the most tragic character of all. She was born to a mother who didn't love her, as part of a long plan to seize power through her daughters. Her father resented her as the unsuccessful spawn of a powerless wife, and proved himself heartless through abandoning one daughter at a temple. Dahlia is consistently involved with men much older than her, who love a version of her that isn't real. No one truly loved her, even if she didn't exactly make it easy.
As Iris says late in the game:
"I felt sorry for her. She was abandoned by our mother and never got any love from our father either [...] at least I had Sister Bikini, who was like a mother to me. If only Dahlia had come with me to Hazakura Temple..."
The best part of Ace Attorney, in my opinion, is not when you win a case. It's when everything comes together to make a perfect tragedy, even despite the fact you always win. This game is about the trial of catastrophic inexperience, and the tribulation of imperfect revenge. Hence the title of the game: Trials and Tribulations.
Is Trials & Tribulations your favourite Ace Attorney game? Is Dahlia Hawthorne your favourite villain? Tell us in the comments!