Here we are. I’ve been eagerly anticipating the day we’d finally get to Trials and Tribulations, the third and final game in the original Ace Attorney trilogy. For me, this was one of those games where, once you finish it, you immediately track down some poor sob to listen to you gush about how great it was. I can count the number of games that made me feel that way on one hand. And I’m not the only one - while Justice for All is, in the eyes of most fans, a let-down with a handful of good moments, Trials and Tribulations is the long-reigning heavyweight champion. It showed us that future Ace Attorney games could do more than copy the success of the first game.
Welcome to the fourth article in my “A Lawyer Revists” series! As with my prior posts, the objective of these articles is to address a question that I frequently get asked as a lawyer who plays video games: “Is Ace Attorney like being a real lawyer?” Even though most people know that the answer is no, there’s much more to say about these games and the issue of their “accuracy.” If you’re new to this discussion, I recommend you check out the introduction, first and second posts before reading this one.
However, you’ll see that this article is not as in-depth as the last two, and that’s mostly because I am making it a priority not to spoil this game. Spoiling Justice for All is no big loss, but this one? No, no, I wouldn’t do that to you guys. So while I’ll be touching on the plot and characters, I won’t be getting into what actually happens or talk about any of the big reveals. This is more like a wrap-up article, touching on a few points I’ve missed up to now and hopefully leaving you all with a better understanding and appreciation of both Ace Attorney and the legal profession.
That being said, let’s begin. Pretty much everything about this game is better than both PWAA and JfA. It’s a return to form after the underwhelming Justice for All, but it tells a more complex and character-driven story than PWAA. It takes advantage of a mystery that’s been open since the first game to transform the original series into a true trilogy with a beginning, middle and end. And not only is it an excellent game, but Trials and Tribulations nails the final point I’d like to make about how these games are or aren’t accurate to the real legal world.
Strong Writing in a Series That Lives or Dies on Story
We’ve already talked about how the Ace Attorney games are visual novels, and how story is the most important aspect of a visual novel. It’s story that made the first game such a hit - and JfA’s sub-par cases and lack of a strong overarching story were the source of its failings.
Still, my internet sleuthing has indicated that JfA sold very well, even if it wasn’t that great in hindsight. It’s probably thanks to that financial success that we got Trials and Tribulations. T&T abandons the direct sequel’s requirement to replicate the success of the original and pushes the series into newer, fresher territory. Instead of rehashing themes we’ve already explored and falling back on fan favorites, T&T shifts some of the focus away from the main cast of characters, spends more time fleshing out underdeveloped characters, and basically just gives us an experience that’s more fitting as a sequel to the first game.
On top of that, the writing itself is better. They really did an extra round of edits with this one. The jokes are funnier and the twists and turns are more unpredictable. T&T has the strongest story out of all three by far, and the most economic writing to boot. As you progress through each case, you’re slowly being fed important details and characterization. Characters are introduced only to unexpectedly return later. Small quips and off-hand comments during earlier cases become important puzzle pieces later on. The finale sets itself up without you even realizing it. Neither PWAA or JfA utilized their early cases as well as T&T does.
A “Low” Point that Lands Somewhere in the Middle
Even the weakest writing in T&T - its third case - is better than most of JfA. The third case in each game has been assigned a specific role: a bizarre, excessively outlandish mid-game distraction that helps pad out the play time. They have virtually no impact on the overall story of each game, and due to how weird they are (perhaps in an effort to make them memorable in spite of being skippable), they can feel like Big-Lipped Alligator Moments in hindsight.
But I think that ignores how important they actually are. These cases aren’t essential to the story, yes, but they help us feel like Phoenix really is a lawyer. You know, a guy who accepts cases as part of a job that he does every day in order to make a living. If we didn’t have these middle cases, he’d just be constantly dealing with disputes involving the same core group of main characters. I mean, Ace Attorney already does that a lot - involving the same people in tragedy after tragedy, soap-opera style - but a few side cases in between helps dampen the effect. For that reason, it’s important that we have these padding cases.
Out of the trilogy, the best of these is the samurai one from PWAA. Even though it has little to do with the plot, the story is good and it gave us some great reoccurring supporting characters. And it’s sort of in its own league, because it was written before the “third case has to be weird and random” pattern started, and it’s not nearly as batshit as cases 2-3 and 3-3.
The worse of them is That Case We Shall Not Name. You know... the circus one.
That leaves “Recipe for Turnabout” in the middle - not as good as case 1-3, but not a disaster like 2-3. I’d tell people to skip this case, but I won’t, not only because the game won’t let you until you’ve played through it, but because there’s one small, inconspicuous moment that becomes very important later on.
As I mentioned, this case is T&T’s weak link. Its biggest fault is that it’s too predictable. What really happened is obvious almost immediately, and the case starts on a bad foot by asking the audience to buy into an unusually implausible premise that goes a bit too far. (That guy looks nothing like Phoenix.) Its characters aren’t that fun or memorable, with the exception of a pretty offensive queer-coded character that would absolutely not fly in the sensitive gaming environment we have today.
But that’s it’s biggest sin. It doesn’t go on forever, it doesn’t have a suffocating cast of unbearable characters, it doesn’t pull any batshit twists that nobody would ever have a reason to guess at blindly, and there aren’t any egregious leaps in logic. It’s just acceptable enough for you to get through it and move on. A bruise on a $300 Japanese melon.
Case 3-3 is just sort of okay, and in comparison to Justice for All, this is a good thing. If Ace Attorney must have some low points - I understand that not every case is going to be home run - this is as low as it should go.
Better Characters = Better Game
But what really sets T&T apart from the other two games in the trilogy are its characters. Trials and Tribulations is particularly character-driven, much moreso than the previous two games - the conflict arises chiefly from the clashing of wants, needs and flaws of the people involved.
Three characters form the core of T&T’s story. One of these is Mia Fey, Phoenix’s post-mortem guidance counselor. While she’s not a new character, she’s practically a new character considering how much development and focus she gets in Trials and Tribulations. Until T&T, she mostly showed up to a) provide Phoenix with a deus ex machina solution at the last second, and/or b) flash her cleavage. While she was an important character and helped get Phoenix out of a lot of sticky situations, her contribution to the overall story was actually very minor. If anything, she was Phoenix’s in-courtroom hint hotline, not a major player in the goings-on of the universe itself.
But in T&T, the entire story revolves around Mia. Mia is the vehicle through which we begin T&T in the first place. Case 3-1 features a young Mia Fey behind the defense table - and I’m happy to say that it’s more interesting, more realistic case than JfA’s first case. This is not only a genius way to give us the “tutorial” case, but it’s an early signal that T&T is going to deliver where JfA did not. Even as you are finishing case 3-1, you know that it wasn’t really resolved - not even close - and the game appears to promise you more if you keep playing. It delivers on that promise.
I really love Mia Fey. She’s cool, calm, and patient. As Phoenix’s superior and mentor, Mia fills an Obi Wan Kenobi role that’s rarely given to a female character, and almost never when the mentee is male. And while they killed her off almost immediately in PWAA in order to kickstart the story, Ace Attorney completely subverts the problematic “fridging” trope because Mia doesn’t actually go away. She’s simply in spirit form, and frequently shows up to save Phoenix’s barely competent ass. Rather than being sacrificed for the sake of manpain, she stays relevant and present, and her male underling respects and relies on her even more.
Imagine if Franziska von Karma was given this much care and attention.
Once you complete all three games, you can look back and see how most of it was spurred forward by Mia. She is the common thread woven into all three games, the glue that brings all of these people together. And she is awesome. I wish I had the figurative cojones to walk into a courtroom rocking that much cleavage.
But I said three characters, and as awesome as Mia is, it’s the other two who make Trials and Tribulations a classic.
T&T’s rival prosecutor is known only as “Godot.” He fills the space left behind by Edgeworth and Franziska, who are in the game but not in the spotlight anymore. Unlike the prior two rivals, who were already legal geniuses before they could buy cigarettes at a 7-11, Godot tells Phoenix up-front that he’s never won a case in his entire career as a prosecutor. And yet, Godot’s claim of ignorance is immediately suspect thanks to his obvious competency in the courtroom - and his explicit, unexplained grudge against Phoenix, despite Phoenix having never met him in his life.
How could he be a noobie when he has so much obvious baggage, and what could the story behind that be? This is a basic but very effective set-up to get us interested in who this guy is and where the game will be taking us.
Godot is a great character because he is just so entertaining. He fits into the eccentric Ace Attorney world perfectly. He has shocking white hair and lazy stubble, wears a bizarre toaster-like visor over his eyes, and chugs dozens of cups of coffee during trials, leading me to nickname him “Sexy Breakfast Guy” during my playthrough. You could say that he encapsulates the series’ very specific, very carefully constructed mix of campy comedy and pathos.
Which makes him perfect to helm this game - T&T is, essentially, Godot’s story. He’s a good person whose passions push him to do questionable things. He’s shouldering a suffocating tragedy on his shoulders, the kind that you can’t ever forget because it irreversibly changed you. The tragedy stares back at him in the mirror and comes out of his mouth every time he has to introduce himself. While you’re wondering why Godot is such a jerk to Phoenix, you’re also wondering what his story is - and later, you’re wishing he had the perspective not to make the decisions that he does. (I swear, so many Ace Attorney characters need to go to therapy so they can learn how to communicate their feelings.)
And then there’s Dahlia Hawthorne, the other antagonist. She smiles beautifully at you in her immaculate white dress and lacy parasol as butterflies flutter around her, but her shocking red hair is braided around the sides of her head like demon horns. While she makes her first appearance in the tutorial case, you’re promised that there’s more to her... and boy, is that ever true.
In a way, this character type - the wolf in sheep’s clothing - was already done in Justice for All with Matt Engarde, which I talked extensively about in my last article. However, it’s executed much better in Trials and Tribulations because we get to see Dahlia’s evil in action. We’re shown that Dahlia is a terrible person who’s hurt many people around her, instead of being told as such, like in Matt Engarde’s case. This also feeds into the development of other characters with a connection to her: we can better relate to both their preconceptions of Dahlia, and later, their vendettas against her. Showing, rather than telling, is always a more powerful way to build character and get your audience invested in defeating a foe, and it’s why the climax of Trials and Tribulations is so epic and memorable.
It’s so hard for me to talk about either Godot or Dahlia without spoiling anything. (Gah! I just want to gush!) If not for Godot and Dahlia, T&T would not be as excellent as it is. But I will share this with you: one of the happiest marriages I can think of between music and story in a video game.
Everyone always focuses the objection or cross-examination themes in Ace Attorney as its best music, but “Distant Traces of Beauty” is one is the series’ woefully underappreciated masterpieces. Depending on what’s going on at any given point, this song represents everything from innocence, tragedy, mystery, gloating, love, despair, hope, and malice. If I haven’t convinced you yet to play these games, I hope that this song makes you feel intrigued enough to try it out.
Dr. Gregory House liked to say this a lot in between swallowing Xanax, but I always thought it was a weird theme to have in a medical TV show. It’s more fitting for the legal world, and it’s a central theme within the Ace Attorney series.
I have a confession. As much as I thumped the legal ethics bible in my last article, I gotta be realistic: a lot of attorneys don’t respect those rules. The bad apples are a small minority, but they’re still there, and they are a problem. Their behavior ruins the reputation of the profession and undermines our confidence in the legal system. I love the nobler aspects of being a lawyer - I grew up admiring Atticus Finch (fuck you, Go Set a Watchman) - but none of us can pretend that every lawyer sees the profession that way. I am aware of the bad behvior, trust me.
But dishonesty doesn’t just come from the lawyers. Every legal dispute is basically just an argument between two persons, to be settled by what other people can tell us about the argument. So the practice of law is the practice of managing and dealing with these people, and with people come flaws, mistakes, bias, skewed priorities, and everything else that helps fuel our species’ pervasive self-loathing. Some of us lie or twist the facts. Some will straight-up ask their lawyers how to manipulate the situation. Some will attempt to protect others. Some will take advantage of the system in order to get what they want. Some will hide their true motivations, or conveniently fail to mention important things because the right question was never asked.
Of course, I think everyone is aware of this. There are shitty people in the world, and sometimes they sue people. And legal fiction is full of villains trying to game the system, so this concept is well-rooted in people’s minds. But “not telling the truth” doesn’t just mean intentional dishonesty, and this is what I think most people don’t recognize about the justice system.
As human beings, sometimes we just get things wrong, even when we’re trying to be as honest as possible. We can misinterpret what we see, or fill in the gaps with assumptions, or forget important details as time passes.
If you see two people arguing from far away, what is it that you’re actually seeing? Are they strangers? A couple? Family? What visual cues would make you interpret their argument as something harmless, versus something dangerous, even if you couldn’t hear them? To what degree do these inferences become fact within your mind as time, and media coverage, chugs along? Exactly how reliable are those cues for you to draw a conclusion from in the first place? And how smart is it to resolve huge legal disputes, especially crimes, on the reliability of what those witnesses remember seeing, usually at a trial that takes place years after the event in question?
One of the best things about the Ace Attorney series is the way it depicts this fallibility. The trilogy has its share of conniving villains attempting to frame the defendant, but it’s also got witnesses who testify against the defendant without being in collusion with whatever plot may be happening in the background. The player still has to point out the contradictions and inconsistencies between the evidence and their testimony - after all, your only hope is that the witnesses did not actually see what they say they did. But unlike the malicious witnesses, these bystanders were simply wrong about what was going on, or jumped to conclusions based on their own bias, or only had limited facts to give from the beginning. In other words, it’s possible for honest people to be wrong about what they saw.
The story, the gameplay, and the appeal of these games all depend on this assumption - that witnesses can be wrong about what they think they’ve seen, and we can be wrong for drawing conclusions from their statements. But the thing is, this isn’t actually an assumption. We’ve known for decades that eyewitnesses are way less reliable than the general public - you know, the people who make up juries - seem to realize.
The amount of research supporting this stuff is staggering. Not only are the accounts of eyewitnesses subject to distorting psychological phenomenon like reconstructive memory, the misinformation effect, confirmation bias, and the phrasing of questions posed by law enforcement during investigation, but mock juries aren’t capable of distinguishing “misremembered” testimony from true testimony. Rather, studies show that juries tend to believe someone as long as they sound confident enough in what they’re saying - which is going to be the norm if you’re simply reporting on whatever you remember, even if that memory has become distorted.
While it’s normal for us to judge credibility based on confidence (Rockstar made an entire game based on this), it’s nowhere near an accurate method of sniffing out lies. After all, if someone’s memory of an event has become distorted, that becomes the truth as far as they remember it - so when they give their testimony, they’ll sound confident.
Plus, have you ever met someone who could completely convince themselves that something untrue is true, or something that never happened did happen? Have you ever met someone whose fish was always THIS BIG? Yeah. Imagine that person testifying in a murder case. It’s not easy to tell when these people are telling tall tales, either.
Of course, some of this stuff wouldn’t apply to Ace Attorney. Don’t forget, we gotta have a trial in three days! A person would still have a pretty good memory of what they saw only three days after it happened. However, that’s not really the point. When Ace Attorney depicts eyewitness testimony as something that can be wrong, even when the witness isn’t intentionally trying to deceive the court, it’s showing its audience that such a thing is even possible, and thus, influencing the audience’s opinion of the legal system in a good, truthful way (unlike that ethics malarkey with Matt Engarde).
And it’s especially important to see this in a video game, which has unique storytelling power compared to passive media. Unlike a TV show or book, Ace Attorney is interactive, giving the audience a chance to experience the unveiling of the truth firsthand. If someone sees this stuff in a TV show or reads it in a book, there may be a temptation to pass it off as one of the more fantastical elements of the legal fiction genre. But when you find yourself being fooled by the evidence and testimony in Ace Attorney, only to have a eureka moment when you notice a major contradiction, it becomes more real. You experience the phenomenon of jumping to conclusions and suspecting an innocent person based on faulty assumptions.
In other words, I think Ace Attorney does a great job teaching its audience not to take everything at face value, including innocent witnesses who just want to tell the court what they thought they saw. Lawyers can appreciate this recognition, because the falliability of witnesses is something we’re very aware of, despite usually not being able to do anything about it. Maybe for us lawyers, Ace Attorney can be an even more satisfying wish fulfillment fantasy. Ridiculous procedural rules and everything!
I saved this point for the last article because it’s so relevant to the plot of Trials and Tribulations. Two of the best individual examples are the old man and nun to the right in the image above. I’m not gonna spoil it, though. GO PLAY THE GAME.
“The only time a lawyer can cry is when it’s all over.”
Back when I wrote about Justice for All and its limp attempt at inspecting the moral ambiguity of criminal defense, Kinja user MajesticHart left a great comment in which they said:
The second game just tries too hard in a way and its flaws are highlighted from that. You’re right though the last case really tried to highlight a moral dilemma. Which is interesting because the last case (5, not 4) of the first game did the same thing. [...] I think the last case of the first game got it right though because there wasn’t a fully happy ending; Lana is assumed to do time for her crimes with Gant, Ema loses her sister right when she reconnects emotionally with her, and Edgeworth is shattered. But the last case of JFA just wants everyone to feel good about what happens.
This is absolutely true. I’m happy to say that Trials and Tribulations is not a game where you’ll feel good about everything that happens. And, maybe, this is the main reason I love it so much, not only because I like more thematically complex stories, but because it’s a more accurate depiction of how the legal world actually feels.
Legal cases often - no, usually end in a way that isn’t ideal for either side, no matter who wins or loses.
A prosecutor might go to trial on a violent crime and win, but it doesn’t undo the crime itself. The victim and witnesses still had to get on the stand and relive what happened. Maybe the prosecutor wanted to charge the defendant with a harsher or second crime, but he knew he didn’t have enough evidence to prove it, thus letting him get away without the public acknowledgement that his actions were worse than what his rap sheet shows.
The defendant himself can be another casualty. All of our actions are influenced by the circumstances of our lives, including criminals. Too many crimes are the end result of a number of different factors coming together to give someone the motivation to do something illegal: untreated mental health issues or personality disorders, anger management problems, drug addiction, whatever it may be. These things rarely justify a crime, but personally, as I’m working on a criminal case and reading everything that happened, I’m acutely aware of the privileges I grew up with that helped put me in law school instead of a halfway home.
Even civil disputes produce incomplete solutions. You might win the driest, most impersonal contract case, but your client still had to spend thousands (or millions) of dollars on legal services. It still took years for the conflict to get resolved. Everyone involved still had the extra stress in their lives that came with the situation. The business itself may have been partially paralyzed while awaiting the outcome of the case; maybe its brand has been damaged or its employees laid off.
And speaking of civil disputes... just because you win a huge award of damages against someone doesn’t mean you’ll ever actually get paid. Nicole Brown’s parents won a civil suit against O.J. Simpson, but they were still trying to collect their judgment years later by garnishing the profits made by his creepy confession book.
This is not to say that these legal battles are meaningless. It is to say that they are extremely complex affairs that rarely, if ever, have fairytale endings. More often than not, lawyers get compromises for their clients, not victories. Usually this is because a pure victory is unattainable in the circumstances, or because a fully litigated case would be too much of a hardship. Compromising means that you don’t get everything you want.
The ending of Trials & Tribulations is a compromise. There are casualties in this story; there are decisions and events that can’t be undone. And yet, you come out of it feeling as though the characters grew as people, helped others and managed to prevail over adversity, even if the victory wasn’t flawless. For all the technical inaccuracies inherent to the series, Trials & Tribulations does a great job evoking the spirit of the legal world, and manages to put some faith in its audience again in the process. We can take a li’l sadness, Capcom. A more complex ending is better for Ace Attorney, because legal cases themselves are complicated, ambiguous things.
Buying Into the Fantasy
It took me about two months to write this article after finishing my prior one about Justice for All. When I began to work on my revisit of T&T, I ran into an unexpected problem: somehow, I didn’t have a whole lot I wanted to say, despite this game being my absolute favorite. This was partially caused by my decision to keep this article spoiler-free, but even then, I didn’t have much criticism to levy at it in terms of accuracy or inaccuracy with real-life lawyers - which was the purpose of these articles from the beginning. I only wanted to talk about how much I loved it.
Thinking about it now, I’ve realized something: I am now on board with Ace Attorney. I have bought into this crazy, ridiculous world of three-day trials and procedureless courtrooms. Of course, it’s not that T&T doesn’t have its own share of completely implausible moments. For example, I can promise the readers who have played this game that law enforcement would never transport a murder suspect without plenty of security and guards, and certainly wouldn’t leave her in the custody of a single employee of the prosecutor’s office, of all people. (Because, you know. That’s how suspects escape.) Even Dahlia Hawthorne, the crux of the whole game, is a pretty gaping problem when you look at how the law would have dealt with her from the beginning. Let’s just say she wouldn’t have made it out of the courtroom in case 3-4 without handcuffs on.
Rather, with Trials and Tribulations, I find myself more able to let that stuff go. When I look back on it, those silly elements aren’t at the forefront of my mind. They aren’t even in the backseat. T&T was so good, it didn’t suspend my disbelief, it scrubbed it away, leaving me to enjoy its characters and story without feeling the disconnect between its story and my day job.
We cool now, Ace Attorney. You crazy convoluted bastard.
That’s pretty unusual for someone like me, an over-analytical skeptic. The reason I started writing for TAY was to tear these games apart while championing their good points. Now, I’m mostly just another happy fan, laughing affectionately at how ridiculous it is. Have you seen some of the stuff fans have made for this series?
I’ll leave you with this, Phoenix’s parting words in Trials & Tribulations:
It’s only natural for living creatures to fight to protect their own lives. But what makes us human is that we fight for others. But who do you fight for? How hard must you fight...? That’s the true measure of what human life is worth. We defense attorneys are warriors who are constantly challenged by that question. Even when the battle is over, and the bonds that connect us are severed... We always return... Time and time again.
Fuck yes, defense attorneys are so cool.
Join me next time when we take a close look at the last case of the first game, “Rise from the Ashes”! Thank you for reading, and please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!