Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations | Principal Platforms: Gameboy Advance, Nintendo DS | Developer: Capcom | Publisher: Capcom | Genre: Visual Novel | Year: 2004

A characterful and inventive sequel with power enough to overcome its overly familiar formula.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Trials and Tribulations Nintendo DS NTSC-U Box Art

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations

Despite many of them being multiple decades old at this point, the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks continue to find new audiences. And this isn’t just because of renewed publishing deals or lucrative Kickstarter campaigns, it’s really down to the quality of the material.

History shows us that truly compelling tales don’t stay forgotten for long, and this is exactly the case with Capcom’s Ace Attorney franchise. Its best material is far too good for it to disappear, so the same stories are still being retold today, not just in video game form, but also in comics, movies, and on television.

If there is a perfect reason for Phoenix Wright’s longevity though, you’ll find it in Trials and Tribulations. Some still consider this to be the best entry in the original trilogy of video games, and it’s an honour well-deserved considering the strength of its storytelling.

Each of the five cases featured within are either solid or solid gold, with even the introductory trial setting up an arc that will keep players gripped to the very end. You now get the opportunity to control different characters too, not least of whom being Wright’s previously underdeveloped mentor, Mia Fey. It’s a great change of pace that gives the supporting cast a chance to shine amid fresh plots that unravel in exciting fashion.

Trials and Tribulations is adventurous in this sense. Cases like “The Stolen Turnabout” are quite labyrinthine and satisfying in their construction. The final case is similar with lots of excellent hints and added testimony detail. Even though the complete game is very long, its cases are actually a pinch shorter; a clever change that results in smoother pacing. The final case is a still a slog. Naturally. Fortunately the writers hoard plenty of late twists to keep things interesting.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Trials and Tribulations Gameplay Screenshot

The wider plot concerns Ace Attorney’s supernatural themes. Those who prefer more grounded stories will need to keep an open mind during the later case files.

Much like Justice for All, however, this threequel doesn’t fix many long-standing problems with the series formula. The wretched Confidence Meter returns, and whilst the refills for it aren’t quite as stingy, there are more instances where Wright can suffer a penalty during cross examination. This is bad because Wright already doesn’t have much health to reach the end of some chapters.

The Ace Attorney games have always been good at steadily revealing their inner truths. It’s a quality that keeps players guessing and enjoying the drama. So why punish us so harshly for incorrect deductions? It’s a common gripe that’s made worse by some confusing, interchangeable testimonies and penalties that are triggered just for Wright daring to ask a question!

The penalty system reaches its nadir during the second case where at one point players are presented with an 11-part testimony that punishes any mistake with instantaneous game over. It’s the sort of departure from reason you’d expect when attempting to play Crypt of the Sorcerer

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Trials and Tribulations Gameplay Screenshot

Several supporting characters return with revamped sprites, which is cool.

The penalties were easier to forgive in the first game, but this is the third title in a series that really should have been more accessible at this point. Capcom has often remarked on Ace Attorney’s volatile sales performance over the years, but with shenanigans like these, it’s clear that they only have themselves to blame.

As ever, good storytelling proves to be an effective salve for such wounds. We learn a lot more about Phoenix Wright’s motivations and desires, and the circumstances behind his professional relationships. It’s a through-line that also benefits from the occasional deviation in routine.

There’s a larceny trial in there for a change, an overachieving fourth act thriller, and generally more of the delicious legal satire, along with the same funny jokes and the same exhilarating moments and music that fans have come to expect.

Trials and Tribulations simply has the best of what people love the most about Ace Attorney. Patience with its long-standing design flaws and familiarity with its prequels should still be considered requirements for entry, but those who prevail with the game will find an adventure worthy of its titular hardships.