What I want to talk about with this entry is another old game I'm playing lately, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attourney, and contrast it with the demo that was released for Ace Attourney Apollo Justice, a later entry in the series.
I missed the Phoenix Wright boat by several years. It seemed like a lot of people were talking about this game in my circle of friends, mostly for the characters and dialog, but I kind of missed the cutoff point for getting an original copy of the game. When "Apollo Justice" came out for the DS a couple of years ago, a free demo in Flash, on the official web site, was available, so I thought this would be a perfect time to give the game a try and see what people were talking about. The demo still technically exists: you can play it here at Destructoid. After playing this on-line demo I was pretty convinced that the whole series was overratted: that's how much of a misstep the demo design was. It took a lot of convincing (from my brother) for me to give the series a second shot. I just purchased Phoenix Wright: Ace Attourney on WiiWare last week, and was pleasantly surprised by the game. As a fan of adventure type games, I'm enjoying it a lot.
Now while I admire that Capcom did something as neat as releasing a free Flash demo for a handheld game, this is a really crummy demo if you're trying to get new people interested in the game series. It really did the opposite of drawing me in to the characters and the world, and cemented my decision not to buy the game at that time. I'm writing here to explore why the game itself is fun, but why the free demo was such a huge turnoff for me when it came out.
More after the jump, just for space saving...
You may want to check out the demo linked above, but it's not required as I will explain everything, or at least try to! Note that I'm only really discussing the original game in this segment. Though I'm given to understand there is another new mechanic in Apollo Justice introduced later, it's not represented in the demo version of the game. So broadly, here is how the Phoenix Wright game is played. In the game, there are two main game modes, a Courtroom mode, and an Investigation mode where you act a bit like a detective.
During the Investigation segments of the game, you have the option to move around between different in-game locations, and talk to people who are involved in a high-profile court case (murder trial). During these segments Phoenix Wright behaves a bit like an old school menu-driven adventure game. Your options are to Move, Investigate (which is like the Look command, and allows you to select different objects or areas in your location to look at), Talk (to a person who is present in that location, provided there is one), and Present (which is just like the Give command in an adventure game). Your inventory, both in investigation and courtroom modes, is referred to as the Court Record, and provides small descriptions of items you may be carrying or simply items you have seen which may be useful in or out of the courtroom. The most tedious part of Investigation mode is moving from location to location, since the locations are oriented in a branching fashion and there is no fast travel, but the logic puzzles are your pretty standard adventure game faire. Depending on how used to adventure games you are, these sections may be frustrating, or easy; I'm fairly used to tortured adventure game logic and they're certainly simpler than the puzzle solving in a game like Myst.
During the Courtroom segments of the game, the game has two basic mechanics, and these are the ones I want to discuss in more detail. The first mechanic, which is mapped to the "Minus" button on the Wii and I assume the left trigger in the hand-held adaptations, is the "Press" or "Hold it!" mechanic. A witness gets up and talks about the current case on the witness stand in court, giving his or her account of the events that took place. The first time that the witness speaks, you just read the comments, but after that, the comments will repeat, giving you the option to press for more information. When you Press, Wright will shout "Hold it!" and the witness will be forced to provide more information about a certain segment of his testimony. Sometimes the Press segments also have some back-and-forth between Wright and the witness or other people who are in the courtroom with him.
The second mechanic during court is the "Present" or "Objection!" mechanic. With the "Plus" button on the Wii (or right trigger?) you can open up the Court Record inventory screen, select an item, and then present it to the court. If the item's descriptive text contains a fact that is inconsistent with the current witness's active on-screen claim, the witness essentially takes a hit and is forced to revise his or her testimony. Almost nobody gets charge with purjury in the world of Phoenix Wright, and all witnesses lie somewhere in their testimonies, so this is the primary method of problem solving in the game. If you choose a correct item and point out a flaw at the exact right time, Phoenix continues to the next step of the case until the case is won. If you choose an incorrect item, a "strike" is removed from your score. If you get five strikes during a case segment, the case is lost, with a Guilty verdict for Phoenix's client, and the game returns to the title screen.
So "Objection!" is really kind of fun, but the Press or "Hold it" is a very weak mechanic.
While Presenting the wrong evidence costs you a strike in the court scenes, and can even cause you to lose the game, there's no penalty at all for Pressing a witness on every single statement he or she makes. This seemed to be the case even when the game told me otherwise: my helpful partner in the game warns me not to press a witness too much, but I do in fact have to press her to proceed, and the judge doesn't seem to penalize me ever for doing this. Pressing a witness very rarely results in any decisive blows being made, but does spit out a lot more text, sometimes irrelevant text. It's kind of difficult to tell which statements will actually yield helpful information when the witness is pressed, so sometimes I'm "stuck" pressing a witness on every single screen of text that he provides while I'm looking for the contradiction.
By contrast, Presenting evidence is a fun mechanic. It typically involves actually thinking about the situation at hand, doing a little puzzle solving, and pulling the right item at the right time. The fact that I'll be penalized if I'm wrong in this segment adds to the tension of the mechanic. If I pull out the right item at the right time, the music in the game stops momentarily, making each correct Present very dramatic. And adding a little pop of fun to the decisive "Objection!" shout (at least on the Wii), you can throw the Wiimote forward as if pointing your finger, which makes the action more entertaining, especially if you're throwing "the killing blow" on an uncooperative witness.
Sometimes you need to Press to get more information about an item in your Court Record, or to get the witness to elaborate on a statement he made so you can expose a contradiction. But by and large, I've found Press is tedious, while Present is fun.
The original Phoenix Wright introduces the Present mechanic first. It seems to understand that the real entertainment of the game lies in shutting down witnesses that you might dislike. It starts the game by showing me a cut-scene of the murder that I'm about to investigate actually taking place, and then brings me in to the coutroom to introduce the game. The first cut-scene that it shows is critical: when I have the real guilty party on the stand later in the trial, I already know in a meta-game context that he's the killer. All I have to do is prove it. My boss, Mia, shows me that I just need to present evidence that contradicts his statements, so, for example, when he says that the death of the victim occured at 1:00 PM, but the autopsy report states the time of death was 4:00 PM, I can present the autopsy report and shut him down. The witness is also a jerk; he has a smug expression and is not designed for me to like him very much, so shutting him down with the evidence is fun.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attourney does not introduce a need for the weaker "Press" mechanic until the second case. By then I already understand the logic of the game, so even if Press ends up being somewhat tedious, at least I know why I'm doing it and what I will eventually have to do to win.
Contrast this with the newer demo for Apollo Justice.
It also opens with a cut-scene, but doesn't give me a very clear view of the actual killer, perhaps not wanting to give this information away as the first game did. Then it opens up on the courtroom, giving me a long character study of Apollo, the new attourney for the game. Phoenix was also nervous on his first ever trial in the original, but Apollo talks a good deal and comes across as more of a whiner... this made me feel like I was reading a lot of text for the final payoff of the actual gameplay that might follow.
Once I'm in the courtroom in the Apollo Justice demo the first witness on the stand is also my own client. The client, by the way, is Phoenix himself, from the first game, a character that I already like and who is designed to be likable. He comes across as cool and collected instead of smug.
The Apollo Justice demo introduces Press before it talks about Presenting evidence, and as I've already discussed, Press is the weaker of the two mechanics. It's a particularly weak mechanic if I am just playing this series for the first time, have already suffered through a good bit of text to get to the setup for this case, and don't really want a lot more text to figure out the situation. I don't have a good sense of what kind of statement I should press yet, so I just end up pressing on every statement Nick makes.
When Phoenix finally says the contradicting statement, the evidence that shuts him down is easy enough to find, but shutting him down isn't particularly entertaining. He doesn't react with the fun expressions of shock or horror and it really feels as if he lied on the stand just to teach me how to catch the lie. Good for an "in character mock trial tutorial" as this demo is supposed to be, but, not fun as a game per se.
The humor of Phoenix Wright relies on a combination of cheap puns and fanservice. If you're playing Apollo Justice as a demo, for the first time, the fanservice will obviously make no sense to you. In retrospect, it's hilarious to see Phoenix Wright as some kind of cold-faced Poker champion, since he wears every emotion on his face on his original games, but that's not a funny joke to someone who didn't play the first few games. The prosecuting lawyer in Justice's first case is the same one as in Wright's, aged up, but... again, not funny if you didn't know, and falls totally flat.
Finally, just when you've solved just one actual puzzle, the demo ends. You don't get to play the case to a conclusion for any real payoff. This is probably designed to make me wonder what happens next, but since everyone says "it was a mock trial" even that potential tension is pretty much diffused.
In short: fun game series, if you start at the beginning, but... bad demo. The people who designed the first case in Apollo Justice seem to have forgotten what made their own game fun, and, as they did so, released a demo tutorial that also forgot what was fun. While it was probably just the ticket for actual fans of the game, who got all the in-jokes and plot twists, they were probably going to buy the new game anyway. And new potential fans like me, who wanted to try before buying, got a sort of boring free offering out of the deal.
Capcom, in my opinion, could've done this a bit better by presenting me with a stronger first witness; someone I would kind of dislike as in the first game. (The first witness in the game is also my own client, but even he is a good bit less likable than Phoenix is in the Justice demo.) They could have cut some of the introduction text that develops the new character - even if all of that discussion is present in the actual game, it doesn't do a good job of making me interested with the demo. They could've allowed me to solve a couple of puzzles in the demo to get me interested in the game's logic setup, and, they should not have tried to make me use the less-interesting Press mechanic first. The story has a happy ending for them as I bought a game on WiiWare anyway, but there may have been other newcomers who were turned off by the free demo just like I was.