Ace Attorney series is, at its heart, a visual novel. You progress through the game by reading walls of texts and dialogues, sometimes stopping to make choices that may (or may not) affect the story. But with a simple twist it becomes a much more interesting take of the genre.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a game about being a defense attorney. There aren't many games that deal with courtroom drama before which is, admittedly, a lot more boring than exploding enemies right and left. The series covered its inherently boring premise with simplified defense process, over-the-top cases and contradictions, and a colorful cast of characters you'll love and hate.
You are Phoenix Wright, a rookie defense attorney, and you are tasked to defend innocent people in court. Putting players in a rookie role was a perfect choice, as it is a good way for the game to explain the mechanics of the game itself and makes Wright a more relatable character. Wright is a kind-hearted guy who, at first, relied too much on gut feeling rather than facts. Over the course of the game he grew more cleverer and began to notice the little details around him--and so is you. With Wright's growth in his ability to see contradictions come your growth. Both you and Wright are linked in this way.
The game's main cast is a collection of colorful personalities with its own background story and motives. Take your assistant, the ever-energetic Maya Fey. Maya is sometimes childish, often overshadowed by her sister Mia. She was a spirit medium in-training, but she admitted she rarely trained. She realized she knew nothing about defense and any courtroom proceedings. Even so she tried really best to help Phoenix, and Phoenix know he couldn't lose her. The game being a visual novel means there are more than enough interactions for her and Phoenix to help build their relationship. And this is only one character. Over the game you will learn the characters deeper than you initially know--Detective Dick Gumshoe is more than a loud incompetent detective, and rival prosecutor Edgeworth is more than a jerk.
It's important to note that the game took a comical route in representing itself. The game deals with murder in all cases, but it's surprisingly lighthearted in tone. The courtroom process was not the most accurate depiction of the real one, but it was designed to keep you at the edge of your seat during trial phase. Character designs are exaggerated and comical, each one have a distinctive gimmick. It helps set the game's comedic tone, but more importantly, it helps the player's suspension of disbelief regarding throughout the entire game since it steers away the player's mind from reality.
Some cases and evicences do need a very high suspension to believe. One case, for example, relies on the fact that nobody can cross a road blocked by a fallen tree--something that somebody with a leg can do. Another evidence relies on a character having a bullet in his shoulder for years. Your mileage may vary, but those things (particularly the blocked road) is where I drew the line.
The game is divided by two phases--exploration and trial. In exploration phase, you search the scene of the crime for evidences or talk to people to learn more about the case. It's a fairly straightforward process.
The next phase is the trial phase--and this is when things get a bit more realicomplicated. Your goal is to prove the innocence of the defendant. You do this by pointing out contradictions in the witness' testimony, either by pressing the witness to go into more detail, providing evidence, or both. This might get tricky as the contradiction might be hidden from plain sight. The challenge is to understand the holes in each statement the witness gave and show evidence that contradicts it. It's an exciting mind puzzle, especially combined with the drama that always happened in the courtroom that makes the trial phase unpredictable in terms of twists and turns.
The trial phase is where the game shows its shortcoming. Due to the game being script-based, there's sometimes a disconnect between what you wanted to show with a piece of evidence and what Phoenix did--resulting something you already know, but Phoenix didn't. Or the reverse--you show an evidence to show what you think it is, but Phoenix said another thing. You can theoretically brute force through every statement in testimony using every evidence (and this takes the fun out of the game). You can't skip texts, even previously read ones. You can fast-forward it, but it uses a weird mechanic where you have to hold the next button where you have to read the first two sentences in a conversation with normal speed anyway. Text speed is not configurable, making replays a pain.
This is, however, an inherent shortcoming of the genre. There really is no way to circumvent it other than making an extra effort to handle every situation, and we can't realistically *expect that. One way is to cover this weakness by introducing another strong point--something I hope the sequel have.
The game also sometimes offer choices that doesn't affect the outcome of the trial, nor does it put any weight into Phoenix's character, making the choice a pointless one.
The game lives or die by its writing and translation. But the script, written by Shu Takumi, was great. More applause was given to the translation team, who did a terrific work in a game full of Japanese text and context. The team took the route of translating the jokes and puns into a new one, resulting in "westernized" names ("Ryuichi Naruhodo" into "Phoenix Wright") and puns with names like Wendy Oldbag, Lotta Hart, and Jack Hammer. This is one game that needs such translation. Also the translation was perfect that nothing is lost--remember that something that is lost in translation will make the player feel cheated by the game.
The series is definitely worthy of the praise it gained in the last decade. I haven't played the sequel, but I hope it touches something I really wanted to see--what if the defendant is, for once, guilty?