Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2001) – GameBoy Advance (JP), Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, Android, iOS, PC, PlayStation 4, XBOX One

Ace Attorney Hub | Games | Nintendo

Like I mentioned in my Paradise Killer review, I am equally as in love with video games as I am mystery fiction. So, naturally, I’m always looking out for those which combine my two loves: mystery video games! Unfortunately, very few games seek out to take the spirit of the Golden Age and encapsulate it faithfully in video games (and even less succeed…). If I were to hedge my bets, however, for the country to have the most consistently successful efforts it would be without a doubt the nation of Japan. The Golden Age is just a distant memory for us, but in Japan it’s one of the competing modern standards for how to write crime fiction! It’s in their literature, it’s on their television, in their anime, and their comic books. And, naturally, it is just as well in their video games. What would be a better jumping-off point for members of the Golden Age Detection community than the perennial favorite Japanese mystery video game?

Ace Attorney originally released only in Japan back in 2001 onto the Nintendo GameBoy Advance system as Gyakuten Saiban (逆転裁判). The franchise got two sequels, Justice for All and Trials and Tribulations, both of which never left Japan until four years later when the original trilogy saw its American release on the Nintendo DS handheld system. Three more sequels, two Sherlock Holmes crossovers, a crossover with the series’ Sherlockian mystery co-star Professor Layton, two spin-offs featuring a major antagonist of the franchise, a full anime adaptation, and a few novellas later, the series seems to have been finally laid to rest. However, with remakes for modern-day consoles and a data leak suggesting a new game is right around the corner, it’s never been a better time for fans of the Golden Age mystery to get into Ace Attorney.

In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, players take the role of a novice defense attorney whose clients have all been falsely accused of murder. In order to prove their innocence, you’ll navigate Phoenix Wright through crime scenes, investigating clues and shaking down witnesses. You then take to court, where you use your evidence to spot lies in witness testimony that slowly unfurl until you not only prove your client’s innocence… you also find the real killer in the process!

The game is split into five episodes, almost all of which feature three investigation segments and three trial segments that are played intermittently. Investigations are presented in a traditional point-n-click interface, where the player talks with witnesses, asks them about clues and finds evidence at the crime scene. After any given investigation, the player goes to trial, where the prosecutor will summon witnesses to share what they saw on the day of the crime. During these testimonies, witnesses are all hell-bent on seeing your client put behind bars, and they will lie or stand by their mistakes as fact! In order to combat this, the player has to find statements that contradict the facts of the case as you know them, and present evidence to expose the lies! The player will then be asked a series of questions where they have to explain what the contradiction means, and why the mistake was made. Eventually, by swapping between investigating clues, finding contradictions and explaining your reasoning, you’ll find the real killer and prove your client innocent!

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Part #11 - Case 2 - Turnabout Sisters - Trial  (Day 2) - Part 3
A typical question as it’s presented to the player in Ace Attorney

The insightful reader will probably notice that no less than half of the sentences in the previous paragraph ended with an exclamation point, which I think is possibly the best way to sum up the energy of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. What’s important to consider is that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a mystery game for teenagers, with an anime aesthetic, so naturally the series does not turn on calm, gentlemanly debates in a cozy English parlor. All of the debates are framed in the most melodramatic, almost warlike way the writers could manage. The series’s trademark is for the characters to shout out “OBJECTION!” whenever they disagree with something the other side says. Along with this, characters will go on long monologues about why the other side is so pathetic in their attempts to worm their way to victory, and there are frequent, but admittedly witty, jabs and pop-culture references thrown every which way. The legal battles are portrayed like genuine battles between good and evil! The series is comical in a way that doesn’t quite veer into parody, able to avoid being self-serious and have fun while still writing dialogue that can resonate with you emotionally and engaging in genuine storytelling.

Ace Attorney unabashedly taking liberties in its presentation of our world, the legal system, and criminal investigation, is something that heavily inspires the way the series approaches GAD-adjacent mysteries. The world is presented as ours in almost nothing but name; the idea takes priority over the authenticity, and in a way that’s strangely refreshing. Anachronistic technology, such as flip-phones well into the years smartphones existed and weirdly archaic security systems, and absurd laws, like cased needing to be solved within three days of their first time, are just some of the ways Ace Attorney’s franchise builds tension and creates mysteries in a way no “authentic to reality” mystery would ever get away with.

A “teaser” at the beginning of one of the final cases, foreshadowing the “victim died in two places at the exact same time” impossible crime

Furthermore, as always something I deeply admire about Japanese GAD-like mystery writing is that even when, aesthetically, the series is clearly dramatized for the sake of a younger audience, the mysteries still stand on their own as genuine, mature puzzle plots without falling into the hyper-simplification trap some western teen mysteries fall victim to. The same level of cluing, and misdirection, and hyper-convoluted killer plots will be found in Ace Attorney as you’d find in any good GAD or honkaku novel. Though, perhaps well out of the scale of this review, I will note that this is the first of a dozen game franchise, and as such the formula is not as refined as it would later go on to be. Nearly every case but one is presented in some form of the locked room mystery of the “Judas Window” variety, where your client is the only person to be in a perfectly sealed environment with the victim, including in a boat in the middle of an ocean, an elevator during a power outage, and the only person on the other side of a “security gate”. The game openly acknowledges that all of these cases use a remarkably similar idea in their solutions, and the knowledgeable mystery reader will probably clue into the tricks very quickly, and this is definitely a bit less of a problem in later games. However, I would not say that this is, strictly speaking, a fault of this game. What makes Ace Attorney still engaging is that the player, more than almost any other mystery-style game, is actively involved in the solving of the case. The “contradictions” — the lies that lead Phoenix to the solution — are all still super clever, and sometimes can still even surprise the reader who spotted the solution ages ago. The game very personally involves the player with the moment-to-moment lines of reasoning, and unlike many other games, it fills in as few dots as humanly possible for the player, which forces even the “ahead of the game” player to remain keen and vigilant. In this way, Ace Attorney almost perfectly walks the line between a “whodunit” and a “howcatchem”, where the game’s hyper-fixation on the reasoning at every point in time during a case can leave the player just as engaged in finding out how Phoenix nails the killer, whether or not the player already clued into the solution.

Ace Attorney is a bit of a hard sell, I feel. It is… decidedly GAD-adjacent, especially in the way that the series approaches misdirection and almost unrealistically convoluted crimes. However, it is a video game on predominantly children’s consoles, in an anime aesthetic, with a majorly comical, teeny-bop presentation. While the mysteries themselves are maturely conceived and presented, the game itself is probably a bit much on the energetic and cartoonish side for many older fans of Golden Age mysteries who don’t have as much tolerance for the anime melodrama and unnecessarily loud debates. Ace Attorney is, admittedly, the franchise that originally convinced me to head down the Golden Age puzzle plot rabbit hole, and at first I was a bit put-off by how much I had to adjust to a different level of energy when I began to explore books from nearly a century ago, and I imagine the same kind of adjustment would have to be done going the other way. What I can promise, though, is that anyone who thinks the style of the game is pleasant or, at worst, tolerable will find here a nugget of unmissable golden Japanese crime writing, and the franchise only goes on to get better and more polished with later iterations.

Paradise Killer (2020) – Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows

Paradise Killer Cover Art.jpg

Someone who reads novels but also enjoys video games? Aghast! Shock! Horror! Perhaps blasphemy? Unfortunately, no, I do not dedicate every waking moment of my life to the pursuit of literary ascension. Despite what seems to be a somewhat prevalent idea that video games and television as entertainment are entirely antithetical to one another, I actually consider video games my twin passion to detective stories. Sometimes I’ll burn out on playing a heathenous amount of whatever indie game of the week has captured my attention and my heart and I’ll need an escape to the puzzling tale of a locked room murder, and when I’ve got a couple of those under my belt I’ll probably spend another unnatural amount of time on some OTHER indie darling. Rinse, repeat, you understand the drill.

Well, some people out there noticed the obvious benefits to taking the metaphorical game of the Golden Age detective novel and adapting that into a literal, honest-to-God game. It started with board games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, but it eventually found its way to the video game sphere. Japan, in particular, has had a field day with this concept, spawning two wildly successful honkaku-styled video game franchises in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Danganronpa. This year, however, the birth-place of the Golden Age, England, saw fit to try their hand at a mystery video game called “Paradise Killer”.

And it’s exactly the opposite of what you think it is.

Paradise Killer takes place on the 24th iteration of Paradise, an island sitting on the fringes of conventional reality, where humans simultaneously take refuge from and offering tireless worship to alien gods that granted humanity civilization and technology. Whenever some sorry soul lets these gods, or demons, into the heart of Paradise, the citizens of the island are slaughtered, and the high-ranking elites are ushered away to another reality where the “Architect” tries again to create a perfect world. Only, this time, things go awry, when on the very night the island is to be reset, the oligarchical world leaders are all murdered behind multiple, seemingly impossible-to-penetrate “Holy Seals” (puzzles) that only the victims know how to pass through. The man responsible for the fall of the island after his demonic possession years prior is soon to be executed after he escapes from his prison, and is soon found outside of the crime scene with a cocktail of the victims’ blood inside of his stomach. The impartial faces of criminal law, Justice, believes there’s more than meets the eye in this case and summons Lady Love Dies (the most normal of the names you’ll find in this game, probably), also known as the Investigation Freak and currently in a 3,000,000 day long banishment from Paradise for inviting a dangerous god into Paradise many iterations ago, to solve this bizarre murder.

And it is from here the player takes control of Lady Love Dies, running around the island of Paradise and investigating suspects and gathering evidence. As the player collects information, clues are automatically organized under files associated with the characters they implicate as well as the individual smaller mysteries that make up the crime, such as who is really responsible for the demonic possession years ago? Who is responsible for the suspect’s escape from prison? Who killed the Council? Whenever the player is satisfied they have a case, they return to Justice whereupon they can start the trial. During the trial, the player walks through every individual sub-crime, name a culprit and back up their accusations with the evidence they have on file

“Paradise Killer” is a weird hotpot of conflicting ideas, with its freedom of investigation undercut by the automation of evidence sorting. The game is angled as a deconstruction of the notion of “Truth” versus “Reality” in the classical detective story, whereby the detective isn’t presenting an absolute, infallible argument but simply their interpretation of the most likely scenario. This is handled by allowing the player to “Build-a-Murder” their own “Truth” by mixing and matching different interpretations of the different sub-crimes into different permutations of plot, so that, while there is a single canon solution, multiple other solutions can become the “Truth”. However, because every piece of evidence is automatically sorted into files for the characters they implicate, and so few characters (three or, usually, less) ever have any clues associated with them for any given crime, it isn’t as free as you’d think, with all evidence interpreted for you by the game. While you can accuse any character with evidence you like, the game also lays an overwhelming amount of evidence on the “canon” culprit of any crime that, if you investigated at all, you’d have to mess up on purpose to not get the proper ending.

The solution itself is suitably complex in its order of events and alibis and the actual goings-on, but as far as trickery goes there is nil. There will be almost no surprises to anyone remotely familiar with the genre, and the evidence almost invariably has a single viable interpretation that the game itself feeds to you. The locked room mystery, despite being a huge part of the set-up and even mentioned as, specifically, a “locked room mystery” is also nothing special and such a minimal part of the actual experience that I had to reconsider whether I wanted to give this post the “impossible crime” tag to begin with.

As for the investigation itself, the open-ended nature of it is super fun… at first. At first there’s a wealth of information and evidence and clues just lying around, so there’s constant feedback. The player has the freedom to direct the investigation however they please, follow whichever leads they think is most important or most interesting at any given time, and get whatever answers they feel they need. However, as the information becomes sparse, often as it will in a real investigation, you end up just beating your head against the wall. Some clues are hidden in totally out-of-the-way places, but because the world is so overlarge and empty, you have almost little reason to explore every little corner of it. And worse yet, it’s almost impossible to know where you have and haven’t already investigated, so that all of the little clues can go missed even after passing through the same area at least a dozen times. Perhaps the greatest fault of the format is that the investigation also plays into the world-building and lore, so that even though the narrator has this information ready it is still up to the player to figure it out, leaving the early hours of the game needlessly confusing and disorienting, especially with how damned odd the writing is.

The aesthetic can be described as something like vaporwave satanism meets Austin Powers. The funky, jazzy presentation of the world, and characters, helps keep long segments of dialogue fresh and interesting. However, the setting is just so weird, to the point that I shudder to think how many people may be put off by it. It’s surreal and bizarre and a weird mix of theology and cyberpunk, modernity and the 70s-80s, that at least a few purists will be put off by that alone. The game also can be crass a times, and while it isn’t gratuitous and simply a natural, well-handled part of the aesthetic, some people may not be comfortable with the frankness with which the game handles topics of sex, drugs, religion and government. It’s hard to consider it very conducive with the Golden Age sort of mystery it’s going for, and it ends up walking the line between GAD and neofuturistic neo-noir more than I’d like.

“Paradise Killer” admirably set out to combine open-ended investigation with a bizarre fantastical world, and in places it absolutely succeeded. Anyone who had a power fantasy of leading their own investigation, and getting frustrated with the detectives for not following the obvious leads in a classical crime novel will find a good few hours of fun here. However, the open-endedness also lends itself to a lot of tedium and thickness in storytelling that detract a lot from the overall experience. The plotting also suffers from the fact that you’re only ever presenting one of a few potential solutions at any given time, making tricks minimal, evidence simple and resolutions straightforward. The good news, however, is that you can essentially end the game at any point you’re bored and feel like you’ve got enough to nail any suspect with the crime, which can save you from the game’s longer, less fun stretches.

The nonlinearity didn’t serve to make the game more fun than the typical mystery game, and to my friends who love a good mystery I have multiple other video games I’d sooner recommend to them than this. Only check out Paradise Killer if you have $20 to spare and a hankering for something more experimental. Otherwise, give it a pass.