The Phoenix Wright series has been quite successful, which is heartening in an age of 50-million-dollar triple-A 3D shooters. Now obviously, the series is a bit dated. Why bring it up now, you ask? Well.
I bring it up now, because I only recently played the games, and it reminded me of a lot of things, that I needed off my chest. So we’ve already established that I’m writing for mostly personal reasons.
In hindsight, it is (and was) surprising to see such a text-driven game hit so big, when the competition is so, well… shiny. Is the story just that compelling? Are the investigation and debating mechanics just that much fun? Or is Phoenix Wright simply filling a niche in handheld games where there is not much competition?
The purpose of this article is to look more closely at the Phoenix Wright series, to try to deduce what has made it successful, and maybe even take a look at the current market for games like it. I’m going to take kind of a review-approach, in order to gauge where the quality of the game lies… Let’s dive into it.
Graphics and audio
I’d like to get the basics out of the way first, since it’s easily covered, and sets the stage for more in-depth discussions to come.
The graphics are basically identical throughout the three games, with the exception of some new sprites per new title. This is not an understatement – even the recurring characters (the spiky-haired protagonist included), are pixel-identical to the first installment. The interface is identical. While this is not terrible (but certainly not good value for money either), the graphics as a whole are pretty unimpressive. The main characters are endearing, and the cast grows steadily as the series progresses. Most characters only have about 20 frames of animation to their name however, and about 4-5 stock expressions that they can do. It’s not exactly extravagant. The style is anime with no spice to speak of.
The music follows the same pattern – about 10-15 60-second loops of audio ranging from recognisable to annoying. Much of the music is reused throughout the games without a note of difference. I can count the total number of sound effects in my head. Again, it feels pretty budget, which is not terrible, but not a selling point either.
The gameplay is divided up into two phases – an investigation phase and a court phase. During investigation, the game plays like a point-and-click adventure on the text-heavy side. You travel between locations with a pretty cumbersome interface, examine stuff you see, and talk to the person there, in order to gather clues for the next phase.
In the court phase, you talk to witnesses and try to find holes in their testimonies by presenting the evidence you’ve found during the investigation phase.
There really isn’t much more to it than that. You don’t choose when to switch phases, so you always start a certain phase with the right amount of evidence etc. You don’t choose which witnesses to call to the stand, so there is no strategy to it. The experience is entirely linear, which is obviously the easiest way to tell a story, but somewhat disappointing in an interactive setting. My biggest problems with the mechanics however, are these two things:
- You cannot skip text, even if you have read that text in a previous playthrough.
- It is possible to lose the game.
Now, on the surface, these might not seem like huge problems, but given the context of this game type, they quickly grow from annoyances to outright design flaws. Bear with me for an explanation.
Text skip was probably left out of the games, to ensure that the player does not skip crucial information. While understandable, this is also annoying, since the text is written out gradually, word for word, making reading very slow. There is no setting to change the writing speed (actually, the games don’t have any settings what-so-ever). You can actually skip text that you have seen in the current playthrough, but this will generally not happen very often, and does not ”carry over” if you get game-overed… which brings up the second point.
It’s understandable that the designers of the game wanted to give the player a sense of risk in the courtroom, so you don’t default to just random guessing. The problems with this are two-fold.
One, if you go and ”die”, you will most likely have to wade through about 30 minutes of non-skippable text to get to where you were, and that does not even help you in making the decision you failed before.
Two, decisions are often (not just occasionally) very difficult to figure out, not because of the deductive skills necessary, but because it’s difficult to say what you want to say in a game that relies on presenting evidence items as a form of conversation.
During my playthroughs, I regularly had situations come up where I knew the answer to a question, but simply could not answer it as a result of not knowing which piece of evidence to present, in order to say what I already knew. There is a disconnect between my knowledge, the interface and the character I am controlling. Having to literally tap the screen blindly for 30 minutes to get to the same decision did not exactly ease that frustration. On top of that, some of the decisions you have to make are 1-in-30 wild guesses, where you (and your character) have no knowledge to support the decision – the game even points this out to the player by emphasizing Phoenix’ tendency to throw around evidence like machinegun fire in a pitch black room. And with some decisions, you only get a single shot to get it right, no matter your previous success rate. For god’s sake, does it take a genius to see that there is a huge problem here?
As mentioned, the story is 100% linear, which is not a problem, just a fact. If the game can take home some points, it’s here, and sure enough, some of the stories are pretty interesting, with a fair amount of characters, plot twists, interesting situations and investigative details. That being said, it’s not exactly great writing, and it’s obvious that a lot of the humor was lost in translation from the original japanese. Conversations feel too lengthy without much content, and you can easily play the game for 15 minutes without stumbling across even a single clue. The grand finale tied a lot of threads together, and fairly elegantly, but many parts of the games don’t really connect with the central storyline.
Overall, the story will not win any literary prizes, but it is clear that effort has been put into it, albeit with less than stellar results. Mediocre localization does not improve this.
I hate to bash on such popular titles, because they must be doing something right, right? On the other hand, this game could be vastly improved by very simple means, and it’s pretty far from perfect as-is. That’s disappointing, considering that there are three installments in the main franchise alone, plus spinoffs.
This leads me to believe that there is a strong demand for well-told, text-based, and possibly investigative games like this on the handheld market, which honestly could be met by pretty meager means. Given entry into the console market (which can be a bit exclusive for non-specialized indie developers), this is basically only a notch above fan-fiction! Even the exclusivity of handheld consoles is not a big deal anymore, when Flash games can run on Android devices (and PC’s of course), and the Appstore is a strong contender for handheld gaming. Surely someone is missing out here? Or am I the one missing something?
An easier, more player-friendly interface and mechanics, a great story and half a million bucks, and I predict a huge win. Developers looking for a good investment, give me a call, we can work something out!