Point-and-click adventure games had been around for decades before the Phoenix Wright series took off in America, but they had faded into obscurity sometime around the late nineties. This genre was a method of telling more engaging narratives, but the actual gameplay commonly fell into moon logic territory. By telling the story of a haggard defense attorney gathering evidence, the Ace Attorney series made the narrative and puzzles act as one. Many games treat their stories like window dressing, even if those stories are high quality. Here, understanding the narrative is key to progression.
All of the Ace Attorney games beside Apollo Justice are great, but the third game goes a few steps beyond. The key element is consistency. Most games in the franchise have at least one weak case, but every case in Trials and Tribulations is strong in its own way. The first two entries had thematic consistency, but Trials and Tribulations was the first game in the franchise to really feel like it was telling a single large story throughout all five cases.
Later entries would follow this format, but none have quite matched the quality. Stories like this are all about the characters, and Trials and Tribulations contains two exceptional antagonists. The game opens with a flashback case showing how Phoenix Wright and Mia Fey met. Unlike earlier games where the first case was little more than a tutorial, this is actually one of the best cases in the series. The obvious antagonist of the case is Dahlia Hawthorne, a beautiful young woman dressed in white and carrying a parasol. She’s so perfectly innocent that butterflies surround her like some discount Disney princess. Her transformation into a caustic sociopath is predictable based on the common format of the first case, but what makes her special is that Mia clearly has history with this young woman.
The other key antagonist (though far from a villain) is Prosecutor Godot. Each game in the franchise has a rival prosecutor, usually with their own personal connection. Prosecutor Godot starts off as a total unknown. Despite this, he despises Phoenix Wright with a fiery passion. His appearance adds to the mystery, with him wearing a robotic mask with three red lights which covers the top half of his face. Who is this coffee-chugging jerk, and how does this all connect?
One of my favorite elements of Ace Attorney is the expressive animations for the characters. Part of the fun of proving someone wrong for the first time is seeing their exaggerated reactions. Godot has many classics, with some unknown person sliding a cup of coffee down his bench like he’s in a game of Tapper. He’ll even chug a glass now and then just to do a spit take. Many visual novels settle for stationary sprites, yet Ace Attorney puts in enough effort that the designs themselves are a large part of the draw. The finale of the game’s devastating fourth case would have lost a lot of its punch without these evocative images.
The series effortlessly juggles a few atmospheres. The first case stands out because the outcome is obvious; there wouldn’t be an Ace Attorney series if Phoenix Wright was found guilty. Thus, it’s a rather lighthearted experience where we get to see the generally serious protagonist as a love-struck young man. But most villains in this series disappear immediately, yet Dahlia casts a wide shadow over the following events. The middle cases are more straightforward in their goofiness, which feels necessary as they lead into a rather dire finale. This could be a bleak criminal procedural throughout, but it’s those moments of humor and humanity that give Ace Attorney its undeniable charm.
The gameplay operates more as a logic puzzle than a series of button inputs, but anyone who criticizes this experience for not being enough of a video game is speaking nonsense. This experience would not work in another medium – no one who watches a let’s play will understand the thrill of finally connecting the pieces of evidence. During the trials, the player must sift through testimonies and point out where statements are contradicted by evidence; sometimes, the player must press for more information before the witness slips up. It’s that ‘a-ha’ moment where Wright shouts “OBJECTION!” which really drives this series.
To really highlight these moments beyond the killer reaction sprites, this series consistently has phenomenal soundtracks. The cross examination music carries an introspective ambience, while the music which plays during a successful objection really gets the blood pumping. These central themes have a few variations, getting more frantic as Wright gets closer to the final truth. The real highlight in Trials and Tribulations is Godot’s jazzy theme, “The Fragrance of Dark Coffee.” The prosecutors are great antagonists because they always act so smug – part of the fun in being right is wiping the smiles off their faces. When you first encounter Godot, this piece helps exaggerate his overconfidence. What’s truly wonderful about “The Fragrance of Dark Coffee” is how absolutely somber it becomes once you truly understand his character.
The Ace Attorney series helped to showcase that mysteries are one of video gaming’s strongest suits. The fact it has been successfully imitated in the tonally-distinct Danganronpa series shows this was more than a few lucky elements coming together. Ace Attorney paved the way, and hopefully more developers will push the genre in new directions. Outside of horror, no other narrative genre is improved quite as much by putting the audience in the central role. Few mysteries have ever hit the raw emotional depths of Trials and Tribulations.