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Review – Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations

posted on December 5th, 2007 by jay

I recently went through some effort to prove that most games are entirely about play mechanics and that story and characters are mere dressing. This concept is echoed by some great designers. In On Game Design, Chris Crawford describes interaction as the key to all games — more, deeper interactions make for a better game. Judging by his designs, Miyamoto agrees.

Don’t look at this picture. Too many spoilers.

With this in mind I face a problem. The Phoenix Wright trilogy stands among my favorite games despite their being little more than books on DS carts. And not even Choose Your Own Adventure books that create the illusion of control; there is only one correct thing to do at all points in Ace Attorney, and often you will be forced to run through all items in your inventory in hopes of showing the right someone the right something. Still, the game is compelling and probably would be if there were no interaction at all.

What does this mean? As far as I can tell, it’s an indication that anyone who says games should be this or that is wrong. Much like in other, more proper arts, the boundaries of what a game can be are fuzzy (I look forward to the game equivalent of Duchamp’s Fountain).

Great games can borrow the structure of movies, be full of passive cut scenes, with human voices reciting every single line. Equally excellent titles can focus entirely on interaction, ditching all semblances of character and narrative. Finally, wonderful things can be done by simply creating a mildly interactive book. None of this should be particularly groundbreaking. We have played amazing games of these three types and more.

The other piece of wisdom to be garnered from the Phoenix Wright games, which reach their titillating conclusion in Trials and Tribulations, is that immersion is not dependent on great graphics and sound. That’s not to say those things can’t make a game immersive, but the dramatic and funny stories of Ace Attorney prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that characterization and well written prose will pull you deep into a game’s world.

There is very little animation in Trials and Tribulations and the technical sound quality is no better than an SNES game. To be fair, the limited character sprites are all charmingly drawn and the tunes are almost as excellent as those in the first game, Ace Attorney. Excellent craftsmanship and artistry have met harsh technical limitations head-on and come out victorious.

While the presentation allows Trials and Tribulations to tighten its grip over you, it is really the narrative and dialog that lure you into Capcom’s palm. This game continues the series tradition of convoluted crimes, crazy characters and last second turnabouts. It is also the most cohesive both internally and externally. Three of the five cases are directly related and many plotlines and characters from the first two games reemerge.

The second screen is clearly put to good use.

I am possibly alone in that I find the fourth case of Trials and Tribulations to be the most dramatic of the entire series. The fifth case is a barn burner and focuses on Phoenix finally confronting the end boss (if you will) of the game. It also integrates so many pieces of the world’s past, reveals the identity of awesome coffee junky Godot, and ties everything up in a neat bow. Still, the fourth case is powerful due to its short length, simplicity and shocking climax. It’s been a long time since a game left me feeling depressed.

Two of the other cases in Trials and Tribulations are one offs. They are very solid but don’t surpass my favorite one off cases, such as the circus related case from Justice for All. Some of the new characters work smashingly, but a handful feel underdeveloped — oddly enough both of these extremes fill case three.

If you don’t find reading to be an exciting basis for a video game, that’s ok. Not everyone needs to like all kinds of games (about seven people enjoyed Electroplankton). What’s important is we accept that games do not need to be any one thing. Yes, Final Fantasy haters, I’m talking to you too. Games exist in all the space between books and movies (and elsewhere now and then), and range in extremely interactive to almost entirely passive. Done well, all types can entertain.

2 Comments

  1. christian said on December 5, 2007:

    I don’t have to accept Final Fantasy.

    In fact I won’t.

    And here is why – Phoenix Wright may inspire a few games, and will continue to be quality. That’s fine.

    But Final Fantasy has helped ruin an entire genre by making the vast majority of Japanese developers believe that its form of interactive fiction and representation of physical traits and abilities via arbitrary numbers is the somehow the right way. It is not, but so long as Square and its fans delude themselves into thinking so, we have a genre stuck in the 8-bit era in terms of gameplay. That is sheer bullshit, and if Phoenix Wright was powerful enough to make, say, a flood of adventure games just like it, I would be pissed at it too, because I know that games like Grim Fandango and the later Monkey Islands looked and sounded better, and at least played as well.

    The moral of the lesson? Interactive Fiction is fine with me, so long as it doesn’t cross into the wrong territory. Games like FF and Xenosaga do just that, and I will continue to protest them until they know their place in the world of gaming.

  2. chris said on December 5, 2007:

    Dungeons & Dragons has helped ruin an entire genre by making the vast majority of pen & paper RPG designers believe that its representation of physical traits and abilities via arbitrary numbers is somehow the right way.
    :)

    Much as I dislike the FFs I have played since 7, I believe that numbers certainly have their place. Xenosaga went too far into the “fiction” and the gameplay died, while FF fell into ruts that the series itself dug.

    On the other hand, Persona 3 is the best recent RPG I have played in years; it still used numbers for stats while still feeling original. Even the best Western RPGs I have played(Baldur’s Gate & co, Arcanum, Fallout) have used entirely numbers-based systems. They stick to gameplay-aided storytelling, though, which I do prefer.

    I don’t disagree with your assessment of FF or Xenosaga, but as a math double-major I feel the need to defend my numeric friends. They’re easy to digest quickly; it’s far better to say your strength is 88/100 than to figure out from some sort of vague description, even if it feels more mechanical.

    I think the reason I don’t like storytelling at the cost of gameplay in RPGs is because the genre is usually fairly indirect as it is. Unless it’s an action game, you feel a disconnect with the characters. This disconnect only increases as the storyline moves on without your input; instead of regarding the story as something you create or participate in, you start to think of the main character as someone entirely separate instead of a person you can relate to.

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