Out in Japan this year and coming to America in 2010, Ace Attorney is a return to crime-fighting and lawyering on the Nintendo DS, with maybe the best mechanics in the series... if that's what series fans are looking for.
I believe that Ace Attorney games - which I can't help still thinking of as "Phoenix Wright games" even when they don't star Capcom's star
prosecutor defence lawyer - are best judged by how many times they make a gamer laugh. These games might involve murder and desperate claims of innocence, but they're also comedies. Their charm is their absurd characters in absurd situations.
In the courtroom of comedy, however, I cannot yet judge Ace Attorney Investigations a success. Last night and this morning I solved the game's first case, one that involved a gut-shot murder victim found in the office of series regular and Investigations protagonist Miles Edgeworth. I can't credit the game, so far, with more than one chuckle, which I got when a rival prosecutor/jock swallowed his gold medal.
The better comedy, which the game's jovial and hilarious developers assured me in September is in the game - because it is an essential ingredient - may lurk later. (Note to series fans: If you, unlike me, are into series fool Dick Gumshoe then you will be chortling during the first case.)
But what is indisputable from my play time with the first murder investigation is that the series' oft-criticised gameplay mechanics are well improved for the new adventure. They allow for more interactivity and more reasoning by the player, diminishing the percentage of time a player might just be watching virtual lawyers sort things out themselves.
The new game plays better in part thanks to a thematic shift away from courtroom argument to crime scene investigation. The series already depicted both sides of Law and Order, but Edgeworth is given both licence and the gameplay tools to keep both the decision-making and the action of the game all at or near the scene of the crime. (Oh, but maybe we won't see the judge, my favourite character of the series, then?) Using either the Nintendo DS' d-pad or touch screen, players can move Edgeworth's top-screen avatar through the murder scene and surrounding areas, pressing a button or tapping "examine" to investigate clues.
The game's new logic system allows Edgeworth not just to do the familiar job of collecting evidence and profiles of people he has met. It allows him to gather his thoughts onto a lower-screen display of his ideas related to the case. It is the player's task to connect these thoughts to each other to spot contradictions and connections, which trigger new Edgeworth ideas.
In the murder case that I played, the game held me by the hand, teaching me the logic system and refreshing me on collecting evidence as well as cross-examining witnesses. While we never stepped into the courtroom, the case ultimately played out as if we were there, arguing as Phoenix Wright. I had to listen to comments from witnesses and the accused, press for more details, challenge statements, present evidence and so familiarly on.
The game doesn't look or sound all that different from previous entries. The same super-dramatic music blips through the DS when an investigation is at its turning point. Failed deductions still knock energy out of an upper-left-screen meter. The characters are still hand-drawn sprites, though the animations in scenes are a little more elaborate.
But it's the humour and, yes, the arguing and the writing and the deductions, that make these games good or bad. No bad signs here yet and some nice signs of improvement. The game is out in Japan now if you speak the language. If you want Edgeworth in English, February 2010 is your date.