November 28, 2007Glenn Turner

Warning: The following contains slight spoilers concerning Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Phoenix Wright: Justice for All.

If, within the span of two years, you were charged with murdering your sister only to be acquitted and tried for a separate murder, and then kidnapped shortly after a 'not guilty' verdict, you'd probably think it's time for a lifestyle change. Perhaps you'd go looking for a job that won't have you annually ensconced in murder allegations. But unfortunately, if you're Maya Fey, it's already too late because you're already enduring another year of life-threatening challenges and trials in Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations.

And Maya's not the only one with bad luck. Practically everyone surrounding ace attorney Phoenix Wright in his series of courtroom-based games have either been charged with murder, have had a close relative or lover murdered in front of them, or have been murdered. And while our plucky protagonist has previously been mostly immune to his own unlucky aura, the third, and final, chapter in the Phoenix Wright investigative courtroom saga finds him in court, albeit slightly younger than we're used to, as his future mentor Mia Fey fights to prove that he innocent of murdering a fellow college student.

The repeated murder charges these characters endure are the bread-and-butter of the series and while the game's superficial tone is light and comical, with prosecutors gleefully cracking jokes (and whips) and courtroom psychics fantastically transforming into their dead relatives, it's tough to disguise the solemn nature of willfully plotting someone's death, much less an innocent man or woman being charged with such a crime. The prior games have put their primary characters through the emotional and judicial wringer because the stories and players have been so meticulously constructed that the absurd surroundings and circumstances fall by the wayside. Instead, the crimes act as foils to drag the main characters' fears and passions to the surface, to place them (and, on occasion, the player) in a morally difficult situation and see how they fight their way through it. When Phoenix is forced to represent those dearest to him, concerning cases that hit close to home, he has to question his past and present actions and the repercussions of his choices, instead of simply being a bull-headed, ignorant cog in the system like so many other procedurally-based works.

The only problem is that it's hard to sustain that sort of emotional intensity. Look at all poor 18-year-old* Maya Fey's been put through and it's difficult not to imagine that she'll eventually crumble under the unending charges, lies and deceit. These characters aren't super heroes. They're relatable folks, even if some of them are endowed with psychic abilities. They fret and weep and mask their insecurities, just like we do. Members of the Fey clan can't bear the strain of even more murder allegations or needlessly lose another sibling, which is why I'm glad that this is the final installment of the Phoenix Wright series (although the 'fantasy courtroom' series continues with his relative, Apollo Justice). Developer Capcom, in a rare bout of restraint, is pulling the characters from the limelight instead of endlessly milking them and putting them through a litany of new and undeserved trials. Since this is the final set of 'proper' cases for Phoenix and company, it's not surprising that they're also the most emotionally grueling for all involved, but what is surprising is just how deftly they peel away the layers of the character's back story and intentions while propelling the story forward through all five cases.

Trials and Tribulations brings Mia Fey back into the fold by revealing how she and Phoenix first met, which fleshes her character out substantially. Through her cases, we learn about Phoenix's youthful naiveté and his romantic entanglements, while also finding out more about her passion and her family. Without revealing anything concrete, a number of questions are answered in this installment that never even occurred to me were missing when I completed the previous game, questions that mostly concern the Fey clan. Their plot threads are all beautifully entwined, and bravely encompasses a wide range of time, blanketing the entire series. Characters young and old make sensible, grounded appearances on the witness stand, imbuing the game with intermittent bittersweet moments that nicely offset the normal wackiness.

While Trials and Tribulations doesn't quite reach the poignant highs of the first game, and even if the less-pertinent cases drag a bit, this game revels in its characters, even as it puts them through hell. It reflects on the times we've spent with them as they've suffered and learned, grown and mourned, and exalts their idiosyncrasies (Gumshoe's unrequited crush, Maya's leaps in logic, Pearl's unfettered belief in romance between Maya and Phoenix, Franziska von Karma's soft nature, masked by a bullwhip) as each familiar face suffers through the trials. The end of the game reveals a filling amount of back story and character relations that leaves little to long for and, while not one single bit of the game is terribly memorable from an interactive standpoint – it's the same inventory management, dialogue-tree based game as the last one – it's still an experience that resonates, simply based on the human element this absurd courtroom drama contains. It's a great send-off for what have been three engrossing and memorable games.

Will I miss these characters? Certainly, even if I grew somewhat impatient with them at times. But they feel depleted and exhausted. In the process of unearthing their secrets, they (especially the Fey family) have had to endure quite a bit, and to force them through another set of even more astounding and impacting trials would almost certainly shatter the delicate balance these three games have maintained. The ridiculous would swallow the soulful, the characters would become hollow, and the game would lose its charm. No, I'm pleased that Phoenix's motley crew were received one last outing to bare it all, but it's time to let them go, to retire and lead a well-deserved life of token cameos in other Capcom properties. And while Phoenix isn't quite being sent out to pasture yet (word has it that, in the upcoming game, he'll encounter a number of his own hardships), he'll at least be free of the additional burden of the attorney's badge. Yes, it's time to present the next set of courtroom youths, hungry for justice and ready for the accusational beatings waiting for them, and hope that Apollo's cases result in as much sensational fruit as Phoenix has provided us.

* That is, according to the manual. She acts several years younger than that.

Masthead image background by midiman, image concept courtesy of Mr. LeFeuvre.

2 comments for ‘Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations - Closing Arguments’

#1 D. Riley Dec 14, 2007 02:09am

As I understand it, the creator didn't WANT to make another Ace Attorney game at all, and the creation of Apollo Justice was sort of a compromise between him and the big wigs that wanted it to keep going.

That being said, I would've been happier if they ended the series after their first shot. I never beat the second game, and only forced myself to play the third for review. Each one gets progressively longer. What's worse: each game's interminable "investigation" sections seem to get MORE interminable. I've put up with the cutesy antics for long enough, and I didn't feel the same sort of strange bond with Godot that I did with Edgeworth. How much do I wish they'd slice out anything of this game that didn't involve the courtroom... but I know I'm in the minority.

#2 Elyse Jan 20, 2008 12:15pm

I did not know the creator did not want to create a fourth game. Though I am slightly disappointed with the creation of Apollo Justice, seeing as I wanted Phoenix Wright back.

The creation of Apollo Justice seems ridiculous to me. Introduction of completely new characters, getting rid of Dick Gumshoe as head detective, getting rid of Maya, Mia, Pearl and Edgeworth. All the characters they are getting rid of have become many of the players favorites is slightly upsetting. I surely find it upsetting.

And the creation of Phoenix Wright, a murderous, piano playing hobo with an adopted daughter! That is ridiculous. I mean, getting rid of the Phoenix we all know and love.

I find the creation of Apollo Justice and not the continuation of Phoenix Wright to be saddening.