Review: Justice for All (DS)

[ editorial ]
If you're going to create a game that hangs its hat on its story, the most critical thing you need to pay attention to is the writing. A game like this can live or die by its writing. Even the most innovative of gameplay is dependent on the words that the player reads—and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All isn't exactly critically innovative.

Justice for All is probably best described as a point-and-click adventure with hit points. You, as the titular attorney, progress through an almost entirely linear adventure, traversing dialogue trees, getting/showing/giving away inventory—learning about the story as you go. Pretty standard stuff. Justice For All's hook is its courtroom sequences. As witnesses (all called by your opponent) testify, you have the opportunity to cross-examine them by pressing them for more details on statements they make or presenting evidence from the Court Record (your inventory) to demonstrate their testimony is faulty somehow, and prove your client innocent. Presenting the wrong evidence, or making the wrong choice in court will damage your "health", as it were; running down to zero means your client is found guilty and your game is over.

New to Justice For All to set it apart from the first entry in the series (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney) is a feature called Psyche-Locks—mental blocks on information that Phoenix must break—which takes the cross-examination outside the courtroom and into the otherwise bog-standard investigation phases of the game. Trying to unlock these with bad evidence will hurt Phoenix's via his life bar; but successfully unlocking a character's block is the only way to restore life beyond starting a new case. It starts off rather lame, but by the end of the game you'll be dealing with more complex and far more interesting Locks, driving the story quite well.

Your witness: the loud-mouthed ventriloquist dummy.

Unfortunately, the series so far has one key flaw. Often, you'll have a clear idea of how to proceed, but be unable to figure out what the story expects you to do next, especially in court. Because you're sometimes not even sure what Phoenix will say if you present a particular piece of evidence, and you'll be penalized if you go the "wrong" way, quicksaving often or having a game guide handy is almost a necessity. Without a compelling story driving me to press forward, there were more than a few times I felt like throwing my hands up and giving up entirely—but I wanted to know what was coming up next.

What really propelled the first entry in the series to cult hitdom was just that: its story and writing. At its core, it was often preposterously funny, sometimes tense, and always full of character. The original entry in the series had the distinct advantage of an outside translation by famed game translator Alexander O. Smith. For the sequel, Capcom opted to use internal teams instead, and the results left me wondering at first whether I would be able to stomach playing through the entire game.

Characters established in the first game suddenly took on bizarre traits (most notably Phoenix himself), critical dialogue seemed out-of-place and weird, but worst of all—bad punctuation and a clear attitude of "spell check is good enough, no need to actually read the dialogue" made the first half of the game feel like some bizarre Phoenix Wright fanfic instead of an official entry in the series. Whether all the blame can be laid entirely on the feet of the translation and editing is not something I can say for sure; it merely seems likely given the overall feel of the story.

Send in the clowns.

Fortunately, it got better. Once I'd plugged through the excrable writing of the first case and into the gradually-improving writing of the second, it became apparent Justice For All was finally starting to find its voice. It felt like whoever was writing had finally learned how to write the game—or, perhaps, that someone else had taken over to save the project from disaster. (Whoever it was, thank you very much for your understanding of the English language.) Either way, it simply got so much better that the fourth and final case in the game is clearly one of the best in the series so far.

It's a shame that the first part of the game is so badly done, really; Capcom seems to have failed to fully appreciate the importance of the writing when producing this title. Thankfully, it does improve later in the game, and by this the game is saved from being an all-around poor experience and propelled to merely average. I hope someone sits up and takes note before another entry in the series meets the same sad fate. After all, how can you expect to be able to tell a good story without good writing?