Praise the Psyche Locks, Damn the Bonus Case

11 Jan

Today, Capcom has made available the first of its WiiWare ports of the Ace Attorney series. Aside from added motion controls, the games will be relatively unchanged except for today’s release, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which is missing its fifth bonus case, a feature added during its original port from the GBA to the DS. The extra case will be made available in May for 100 Wii points, but its exclusion, alongside new motion controls, help illustrate popular misconceptions, which both reviewers and fans seem to be totally unaware of.

Majority of Phoenix Wright reviews praise the DS port’s inclusion of a fifth bonus case, which made use of the handheld’s touch controls. Meanwhile, most reviews of Justice For All and Trials and Tribulations lament the inclusion of psyche locks, a mechanic added to break up the monotony of investigation sequences. To understand why these cheers and jeers should be the other way around, it’s important to first understand what it is that makes the Ace Attorney series work.

Each Ace Attorney game is broken up into two sequences of significantly different types of gameplay. There’s investigation, where the player gathers evidence and details on the case at hand in order to piece together a winning defense strategy to use in court, and then there’s litigation, where the player uses what he’s gathered and learned in court to defend his (usually uncooperative) client. What unites the two sequences is the use of logic, or at least the series creators’ concept of logic, and a text-heavy plot. The former comprises the traditional gameplay aspect by rewarding the player for being clever while the latter offers the more substantial satisfaction that comes with reading a good book or watching a great movie. It’s the plot, no matter how bizarre and contrived it can be, that players play for. The gameplay is just there to keep things interactive and to motivate the player to press on.

When Capcom added the bonus case to Phoenix Wright to convince new players to buy the game, they shot themselves in the foot as far as the two sequels were concerned. At first glance, it makes sense. After Phoenix Wright‘s dramatic conclusion, an even bigger, more dramatic case was unlocked and featured touch controls, allowing players to manipulate evidence and look for clues in new and interesting ways. Players loved it, but when Justice For All was released without touch controls, reviewers were sure to take note. A sequel shouldn’t do away with mechanics that worked in the previous game, but what reviewers and fans were unaware of was how the added touch mechanics really didn’t work. It wasn’t until the first true Ace Attorney game made for the DS came out, Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice, that the issue of touch controls was made more apparent.

The primary use of touch controls in Phoenix Wright and Apollo Justice are in the manipulation of evidence in a 3D space to uncover hidden details and in the use of crime scene investigation tools. Instead of having the games’ characters explain that a fingerprint was found on a gun or at the scene of the crime, the player could discover this for himself through touch controls. There were other uses, some effective, but overall, these added controls only add an extra step in the gameplay process, which is only there to urge players through the plot anyway.

The only other notable addition of a gameplay mechanic in the series came in the form of JFA‘s and T&T‘s psyche locks. By presenting uncooperative witnesses with a magical stone called a magatama, players could see secrets literally locked away by the witness. These scenarios worked similarly to those found in the courtroom where the player must present evidence to point out lies and contradictions in the witness’ testimony. Presenting the correct evidence breaks a lock, while presenting the wrong evidence costs the player health. The main issue with the psyche locks was that the games never make it totally clear when a player possesses all the evidence he needs to break all of a witness’ locks, dragging out the investigation sequences. That’s a legitimate criticism, but it would appear that no review makes mention of the greater implications made by the psyche locks. Understanding their importance requires a bit of spoilers, so be warned.

The first three Ace Attorney games form a trilogy revolving around the Fayes, a family of women who practice the traditional spirit channeling techniques of their hometown, Kurain Village. While alive, the Fayes can channel the dead, and in death, they can possess the living. Both of these techniques are used throughout the trilogy for good and evil and become the driving force for the series’ unique take on legal proceedings. They even affect gameplay in that the magatama is spiritual treasure of Kurain Village.

While the magatama, makes it possible for the player to discover bits of plot and evidence through an extension of the courtroom gameplay, it adds to plot on its own by allowing the non-spiritual characters insight into the spirit world. In fact, the trilogy’s dramatic conclusion in Trials and Tribulations, which is perhaps the series’ best entry, relies heavily upon the magatama as a tool to connect the material world with the spirit world. Without it, the series would had to have found an alternate method to capture such a bizarre and intriguing plot arch.

So, perhaps its for the best that the bonus case is excluded in Phoenix Wright‘s WiiWare port. It will allow players outside of Japan to experience the game, or at least its plot, in its original form. It’ll also allow the bonus case to serve as a cheap yet epic demonstration of what the Ace Attorney series is capable of without too many heavy spoilers, since it excludes the spirit world in favor of the CSI-inspired mechanics Apollo Justice built upon.

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