Critical Chicken
Best ofAce AttorneyFeatureWednesday, 27th February 2019 by

Point-and-Click Syndrome and the Tomb Raider Conundrum

Hold it! This post contains some moderate spoilers for the Ace Attorney games but doesn’t spoil any significant twists or puzzle solutions.

The cast of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy

The Ace Attorney series somehow never crossed my radar when it first came out. I was really into Nintendo consoles when I was younger, but I feel like I never even heard of the universally lauded lawyer-‘em-up when growing up.

Imagine my surprise then, 14 years after the release of the first game, when I met a man I would go on to call my boyfriend, who spent literal months berating me to play them. In case you haven’t noticed from the rest of the content on this blog, Mike is obsessed — seriously obsessed — with the Ace Attorney franchise.

And I admit, I didn’t go into the series with much hope. In my long video gaming history, I’d never been a fan of visual novel games. But, eager to stop the boyfriend from going on about it if nothing else, I dived headfirst into the long, complicated, and decidedly Japanese lore of Ace Attorney.

And I loved it.

A screenshot from the Ace Attorney Investigations trailer shows Miles Edgeworth looking moody. Text in image: "Boldly emblazoned! New tales of adventure in the book of Ace Attorney lore."
Law lore.

We played the first few games on an emulator (the DS being too small for me to hold and play while Mike sat watching, grinning, from the side), and then picked up the newer games on iPad. Though some of the games are clearly very dated — particularly the original trio of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Justice for All, and Trials and Tribulations — where they do still hold up is in their characters. It’s really a remarkable thing to be drawn into the life and wellbeing of a handful of pointy-haired pixels on a screen, and yet there I was doing just that. I genuinely welled up inside when Miles Edgeworth stepped out of his car in Dual Destinies. I felt Apollo Justice’s heartbreak in the final chapter of Spirit of Justice. I loathed the loathable characters, I groaned at the recurring idiots, and I loved the lovable heroes.

Even in the strangest moments, the characters shone through. Ace Attorney suffers from (or benefits from, depending on how you look at it) what I call the Tomb Raider Conundrum — both franchises’ developers and writers created worlds where, despite the perfectly reasonable, realistic setting, batshit insane things continually happen. It’s quite odd imagining someone thinking, “Let’s make a game about the legal system in Japan. But you know what would really spice that up? Spirit possession!” It shouldn’t work, but it does.

It’s written in such a beautiful, skilled way, that it feels ingrained in the world. The characters react to crazy things happening in just the ways you would expect of them. One of my favourite examples of this is Edgeworth, going out on a limb to help the protagonist, learning the skill of seeing the locks on people’s souls that hide the truth: He’s understandably sceptical about the whole thing, and continually forgets what the mystical locks are even called. It fits his character perfectly and makes an oddity of a plot device feel like something people just have to deal with in the world of Japanifornia.

Incidentally, you can experience the series from the beginning in the remastered Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy, when it comes to Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on 9th April.

It’s a shame, then, that you can so quickly be taken out of those moments by weak logic. Ace Attorney also suffers (and definitely doesn’t benefit) from Point-and-Click Syndrome. Point and click games of old were notorious for requiring leaps of logic that would astound even the most unhinged of individuals, and Ace Attorney does not fall short in this regard. Even my partner, who has played the games more times than I could possibly count, gets frustrated at the logic used in some places in the game. Where you’re either held back and made to “solve” very obvious mysteries one step at a time, or expected to jump to wild conclusions that don’t even really make sense once the characters have spent a chapter explaining them.

As jarring as these moments can be though, the series does also deliver some brilliant twists. In the later games, in particular, the developers have worked to address these odd leaps of logic so that the player keeps up better with the flow of the narrative (I’m looking at you, you beautiful, beautiful Thought Routes, you). And, all in all, it’s worth the frustration of a few confused minutes to experience over a decade and a half’s work of well-woven narrative.

I think it’s easy to be put off by the Ace Attorney series. There are so many games, so many spin-offs, so many characters, so many things going on, that to a newbie (like me, back in the day) it can seem overwhelming. But if you, like me back when I was an innocent young flower, never got the chance to try Ace Attorney, make some time for it.

It might just surprise you.

Best ofAce AttorneyFeature