It is not quite accurate to say that the Ace Attorney series is what made the DS for me, but it is not exactly inaccurate either. There are too many great games on the DS to credit its legacy to any one game or series. From a cartload of Dragon Quest and Pokemon games to quirkier stuff like Professor Layton or Trauma Center, the DS library is stuffed with great games. No game did more to sell me the system than the original Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The series kept me enthralled throughout the life of the system, even if they never quite recaptured the magic after the original trilogy. The final game in that original set of games, Trials and Tribulations is the glorious culmination of the series to that point.
I refrained from calling any of these games the best in the series as I’ve played through them, but having finished Trials and Tribulations I am confident calling it the best. It has the strongest set of cases and an excellent finale that brings the whole trilogy full circle. It starts with the strongest intro case, one starring Mia Fey as a rookie defending a hapless college age Phoenix. It not only introduces gameplay concepts, it also introduces all relevant characters and sets the stage for the big finale.
What sets this game apart is how strongly its central theme comes through. It is a game about identity. The first case has Phoenix’s girlfriend, Dahlia, playing an obviously fake role. At least, it is obvious to everyone save Phoenix. The next case has a dual layered secret identity, with two people claiming to be a famous thief and establish their alibi. The third case brings in a fake Phoenix. The prosecutor in this game, Godot, is a complete unknown. When the game finally builds to its epic final case, they whole thing is a mix of secret identities and hidden agendas. None of the other games use an idea repeatedly like hidden identities are used in Trials and Tribulations. It don’t know what, if anything, the game is trying to say with them, other than a general quest for the truth. Phoenix is constantly faced with chameleons in this game, and each time he is able to untwist their lies and false faces to get to the truth.
The last case in particular is a triumph. It is the perfect conclusion to this trilogy. It’s completely ridiculous, but in a completely Ace Attorney way, managing to combine Phoenix’s story from this game with the trilogy long story about the Fey family to create a story that ties up nearly everything in a complete bow. That case also somehow has time to put something on a capper of the stories and Edgeworth and Franziska von Karma as well. That is a case is personal for everyone involved, concluding with the series trademark tragedy-tinged optimism.
Coming out of this game I can see why Capcom chose to move on from Phoenix after this game. His story was over; they were not going to top this. The obvious next step, which ended up as something of a side-step, would have been games starring Myles Edgeworth. He was still a character with plenty of stories to tell. The route they took with Apollo Justice was probably the worst possible one. They didn’t go back to Phoenix for inevitably diminished returns, nor did they go for a clean break. Instead they brought back Phoenix in a smaller role that all but ignored these three games. The fact that Maya is not a part of that game is telling as to how far wrong it gets Phoenix.
There are no weak cases in this game. As I’ve already written, the first and last cases are excellent, but the middle two and a half are also good. The second case is likely the weakest, if only for that whiff of missed opportunity. Its two connected cases and complex blackmail schemes are fine, but none of its characters leave a strong impression. Mostly because they aren’t given the opportunity to. The game spends a lot of time with the client and the culprit, but other characters are kind of left by the wayside. The next is a complex puzzle that happens to feature this game’s embarrassing stereotype. Still, it is an altogether excellent case. After that is a return to Mia and the origin of the villain from the opening case, it exists solely to set the case for the finale.
While all of the main characters get plenty of development, none grow more in this game than Mia. Due to the unfortunate murder in the first game, Mia was never more than a small presence in the game. She was a character that quite literally didn’t have a life outside of the case. In Trials and Tribulations she truly develops into a character worth caring about.
That is the beauty of the Ace Attorney series. A positive development like learning more about Mia is tinged with sadness because she is already dead. It is true in characters like Pearl, whose cheerful innocence belies the tragedy of her upbringing and situation. Trials and Tribulations is only possible because of the games that came before it, but it is a wholly satisfying conclusion to Phoenix Wright’s story.