Release Date: September 6, 2006
ESRB Rating: Teen
Adventure games have always been the tragic elder of video game genres. Everyone has been sitting around waiting for them to die, having gone through the grieving process multiple times only to see them slowly rise from their beds and release another King’s Quest game. To be honest, for a while it really looked like adventure games deserved to die, considering that, for a great many of them, the core mechanic involved figuring out what sort of twisted moon logic the designer had built around a yeti and a pie or what-have-you. Around 2000, it did look like the simplistic interfaces of consoles and the rise of the FPS and RTS genres on the PC would mean the end of the adventure game. The DS changed all of this, by having a very simple yet versatile input system in the form of the DS touch screen. This allowed for the sort of range of input methods adventure games needed, and the handheld aspect moved adventure games closer towards what they had always been: second-rate novels that required you to solve inane puzzles to advance the story.
Still, I never had the patience for adventure games once I discovered games that allowed me to stab or shoot people. Not until I encountered the brilliance of the Phoenix Wright games. This brilliance was not in the sharp writing that had a strong voice and appealing characters. Nor was it in the fascinating, yet labyrinthine plots of the case that took logical twists and turns and managed to surprise you while still giving you enough information. No, the true brilliance of the Phoenix Wright games, particularly the first, is how they are framed, and how that allows them to avoid many of the common adventure game pitfalls that have made the genre a long-time candidate for forced retirement.
As I mentioned before, the biggest problem with adventure games revolved around the requirement of solving puzzles. Sometimes these puzzles would make sense, but more often than not they would involve gluing a broken car mirror to a drumstick so you could see around a corner to determine the presence of a deadly dog (Police Quest 4), saving a pie you find in a barrel in anticipation of needing it for a yeti confrontation hours later (King’s Quest V), or making a fake mustache out of cat hair and maple syrup to disguise yourself as a man without a mustache (Gabriel Knight 3).
Phoenix Wright sidesteps these common pitfalls of the genre by being very specific about what it asks of the players. By framing the game in a fairly understandable setting, a courtroom, the player already knows half of what he’s trying to do: exonerate his client while pointing out the guilty party. How does he do that? The game quickly explains: find contradictions in testimony. Already, you have a clear goal and a clear means to achieve it. To get a person to admit they are lying, you do not have to build a working lie detector out of a squirrel, magnets, and a chocolate tart you got at the beginning of chapter one, you just have to present evidence that contradicts their testimony. If you don’t, their testimony stands, and since the testimony is, more often than not, that your client is guilty of murder, then you lose. You’ve got your goal, the stakes of failure, and the means of achieving your goal all right before the player, and the whole thing is largely intuitive, because of the universality of the courtroom setting.
When the game leaves the courtroom, though, it often struggles to maintain the tension. Investigations can be entertaining and provide some nice moments, but overall it seems like their presence takes you back in time to the days of the cat hair mustache. There’s a much more traditional sense of game design in these sections, as you run around, examine everything until you find the right things, and ask people the right questions. In fairness, this section of the game is often very clear about what you need to find and when you have found it, but the only times I got really significantly stuck while playing was these sections, where I had not found the proper tiny item in one scene or had not realized that a visit to one area would trigger a totally unrelated event in some other area.
Really, though, this is a minor price to pay for what you get out of the experience. The story you go along with is that of a well-crafted detective novel, the sort where you are given all the info the detective has–which it has to, because you are the detective. It manages to synthesize the best elements of detective fiction with the interactivity of a good adventure game, and that is an experience anyone can enjoy.
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