It is quite safe to say that the Ace Attorney series remains a landmark gaming franchise that I will always regard quite highly as one of my favorite series of all time. Over the course of six mainline installments alongside a spinoff featuring the titular Phoenix Wright, it was exhilarating to take the opportunity to experience the growth of his character alongside a wonderful cast of personalities by his side, solving the simplest and most convoluted of cases. In light of another Ace Attorney installment later in the future, I have decided to reflect on my thoughts regarding the franchise and rank them from my least favorite to favorite, in hopes that I can fully appreciate the highlights of the series while reckoning the inherent flaws that I hope can be cleared up as the series moves onward.
*For this list, I will be focusing on the mainline Ace Attorney games as stated before, but will also include Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, as it features elements of the series prominently to warrant its inclusion. Also, I’m trying to keep it spoiler-free, but one section did need plot details disclosed, so I highlighted it in red.
Well, if there aren’t any objections, I’d like to move forward with the first title:
7. Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney
Ranking this game at the bottom, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney is by far the most polarizing title in the Ace Attorney series. There are fans who loathe the direction the series took by introducing a new protagonist, and plenty others enjoyed the breath of fresh air and felt the game was fine (pun intended). Therefore, it might be no surprise to some of you that my opinion on the series might seem extreme, as I peg it as the worst in the series. However, let me make it abundantly clear that I do not hate this game, nor believe it to be anything abominable. I generally enjoyed playing through the cases and the driving mystery regarding Phoenix Wright’s disbarment from law kept me playing through, and even the new mechanics, despite feeling like mini-games or distractions, were compelling nonetheless.
However, it was this plot point among MANY illogical inconsistencies, unfocused storytelling, pacing issues, and baffling scenarios that dampened my overall enjoyment of the game by the final case’s end.
Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of Apollo Justice is that it features Phoenix Wright and the events surrounding him over seven years so heavily that our main character feels unimportant. I guarantee you that apart from a few small connections to certain characters discussed throughout, there is nothing about him besides his constant yelling that is memorable or justifies his existence. By rooting itself too deep with the previous lore of the franchise, what should have been a step in a new direction turns out to be a lacking introduction to a potentially intriguing character.
Unfortunately, I believe that Apollo Justice has the worst batch of cases that the series has seen, which is disappointing considering that I found its first case (Turnabout Trump) to have a clever twist that sets up the foundation for the impending narrative. Specifically, Turnabout Serenade is one of the most asinine cases to play through, filled with plot holes, melodrama, and a strange depiction of our rock star Klavier Gavin, who seems to enjoy visiting the tanning booths before his performances.
In short, the circumstances surrounding the murder and the sequence of events that occur make no sense, and I found myself questioning the competence of EVERYONE involved. This carries over to the overarching story of the game, also hindered by similar issues, and as a result, leads to an anticlimactic showdown that comes off lazy in its execution and depth.
However, the most damning nail in the coffin is the depiction of Phoenix Wright himself. After he lost his attorney’s badge for allegedly forging evidence, he essentially becomes a bum, relying on his poker skills and title as a pianist to get by, while doubly investigating to get revenge on the true culprit featured. While all seems fine, Phoenix undergoes a dramatic personality shift that forgoes everything the series has established up to that point, as he engages in acts (one of them illegal) that are out of character and unrepresentative of the Phoenix Wright that I know, and perhaps that lingering frustration contributed to the negativity I hold.
Despite this, the fact that I still enjoyed this title is a testament to the overall quality that the Ace Attorney series has managed to uphold. The technical upgrades overall (excluding the music video), especially with the pixel animations are impressive and bring new life into characters like Klavier Gavin.
6. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright
The elusive crossover between the Professor Layton and Ace Attorney franchise was an interesting one indeed, transporting both the protagonists and their partners to Labyrinthia, home to witches and the all-powerful Storyteller, whose words translate directly into reality and loom over the population, as they hope to discover the truth behind a young girl named Espella accused of practicing witchcraft alongside the hidden secrets behind the world itself.
After playing the entire game, I would say that Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright features some of the most compelling gameplay mechanics of the entire franchise. From my perspective as someone unfamiliar with the Layton franchise, the puzzles featured truly alleviated some of the tedium found in the investigations of a typical Ace Attorney title, which are indisputably the less endearing portions of an Ace Attorney game. In this sense, I was fully invested all the way through and enjoyed the banter the quartet would exchange frequently between and during the witch trials, which are equally compelling. You will often have to cross-examine multiple witnesses at once to deduce the truth, and the scenarios presented for each trial were interesting, complemented by an amazing soundtrack that amplifies the tense, rage-induced courtrooms and atmosphere found in Labyrinthia.
I seem to sing so much praise for this installment, so why would I possibly have it ranked as the second-to-last game on this list?
To say the least, I often don’t let the ending of a game impact my overall impressions of a title, but a particularly ludicrous plot twist in the final trial of the game completely flips the events of the narrative on its head, and the attempt to logically explain how this new information remains consistent with the rest of the story is nearly impossible.
For those with no knowledge of what occurs, it is revealed that the world of Labyrinthia and its lore is not real: it is rather a government-run experiment in which citizens willingly volunteered to be brainwashed into thinking they lived in a medieval society populated by witches in the shadows. The government keeps the population in check through hallucinogenic water and black cloaks to disguise machinery that allows the “magic” to happen. While a novel twist, it was a terrible slap-in-the-face in the grand scheme of things, considering the clear inconsistencies and plot holes that exist with the newfound information known to the player. Attempts to explain some of the “supernatural” elements early in the game can be found in DLC episodes released later, but it is clearly the developer’s artificial attempt to tie up loose ends once they realized they existed and come off as equally ridiculous.
However, I did legitimately enjoy whatever cases I had played before the grand plot twist, and cannot deny that I was compelled by the life breathed into Labyrinthia and the personalities that could be found by exploring its towns and outskirts. The setups for the cases were clever and nuanced, and it retains the charm of what makes Ace Attorney games fun through the great scriptwriting while correcting some of its shortcomings through the integration of puzzle-solving.
5. Phoenix Wright: Justice for All
I’ve often found that the original trilogy games often had the driving thematic message hidden within the title itself. Even with the original game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney tells you that the character arc of Phoenix Wright will be explored as an attorney, and possibly his backstory. Likewise, Phoenix Wright: Justice for All centers around the perception of justice among individuals and the collective society, and how they believe it can be achieved. It is especially prominent in the case, Farewell, My Turnabout, which places Phoenix in a hopeless scenario: one where he must reevaluate his own morals and values regarding justice and how he should approach the overall trial when a fateful decision involving a traitor and his friend Maya will impact Phoenix forever. Such attention to detail successfully raises the stakes even higher than any case preceding it, and potentially afterward, as I had never experienced such despair playing through a portion of a video game up to that point.
Now if only the REST of the game had lived up to the higher expectations, the entire package of Justice for All could have been a real treat.
To put bluntly, the cases featured lack the same sophistication as other entries, most likely due to the uninspired Franziska von Karma, a suitable but one-note prosecutor who attempts to advance the legacy of the late Manfred von Karma and holds a particularly sour attitude towards Phoenix Wright, However, this conflict isn’t explored enough to make her more than a circus performer in court.
And speaking of circuses…
Turnabout Big Top is also one of the worst cases in the entire series, due to the inane circumstances and coincidence of murder, the unlikable and annoying characters featured that have no understanding of pain and loss, the muddled motivation for the murderer to commit the act, and an amusingly strange encounter with Money the Monkey as a chase ensues and the Pursuit theme plays…
The soundtrack does not quite live up to other installments as well, but it is still quite good and the second and final cases of the game do more than enough to cover for the faults this game has and keep me hooked all the way through. What makes an Ace Attorney game entertaining still exists here, and is surely worth playing, if not for the callbacks, great script, and humorous interactions.
4. Spirit of Justice
The most recent entry in the Ace Attorney franchise, it earns a safe spot in the middle of the pack on this list, albeit with an asterisk. This title is by far the most dependent on previous titles to fully enjoy the lore that it pulls from and appreciate the advances the narrative makes, especially with Apollo Justice, pulling heavily from his introductory game (although strangely retcons parts of his established backstory). Regardless, it also sees Phoenix Wright traveling to Khura’in to meet Maya, but he soon becomes tangled in the authoritative court system which solely relies on divinations of the royal priestess to bring down judgment on its defendants.
The game shares elements with its predecessor Dual Destinies most heavily but clearly takes inspiration from every single installment up to that point, from the naming scheme to the characters to the overall theme, explicitly exposing the inherent flaw in a court system rigged against the defense and for the prosecution. For the most part, Spirit of Justice does a successful job establishing the history of the kingdom and bringing it to life, and it offered something new aesthetically that hasn’t been present in the courtroom in previous installments.
Divination séances are the biggest introduction to the gameplay, where you will be tasked with pointing out inconsistencies and holes in the final visions of the victim. Words reflecting the five senses will pop up with varying emotions and intensities that must be identified to construct an effective argument against the prosecution. Overall, it was a harmless inclusion that was rough around the edges. Literally shifting the perspective of the visions provided to the player was bold, but pointing out contradictions could become annoying, especially if a perfectly logical answer in the context of the case is not accepted by the game’s script to progress. It also isn’t featured very heavily: I believe it is utilized around six times total from my memory.
And for once, I can safely say that the third case (The Rite of Turnabout) is my absolute favorite of the bunch. It features a clever twist that smoothly brings together the fascinating implications of the ruling court system and its impact on the citizens of the country and quickly teases the instigation of a rebellion rising within the country. It also happens to feature Maya Fey, a classic character from the original trilogy, whom I was ecstatic to see return alongside Phoenix Wright
Unfortunately, though, my praises for this case cannot be sung for Turnabout Storyteller, which is the worst filler case I have played through, merely for its sheer irrelevance and abhorrent cast. Even Prosecutor Blackquill can’t save this case from the depths of boredom.
Speaking of prosecutors, the headlining prosecutor, Nahyuta Sahdmadhi, might be the worst to date. I enjoyed his incorporation into the overarching narrative, which is quite interesting and worth the playtime, but Sahdmadhi’s actions in the courtroom are baffling and uninspired. It feels as though they attempted to merge elements of all the previous prosecutors together, such as Edgeworth’s initial arrogance, Franziska von Karma’s violent tendencies, and Godot’s laid-back nature, yet he comes off as one-dimensional. A reveal late into the game partially accounts for his actions up to that point, but still leaves lingering questions regarding his personal morals.
On an indifferent note, the production of the game has seen a steady improvement. Characters are more expressive and move around more often to leave a more substantial impact on the events that occur. However, the art direction felt a little lacking: it takes on a more subdued look, which lighter line weight, in stark contrast to the thick black outlines in Dual Destinies, reminiscent of a comic book. It should be noted that the cut scenes were produced by A-1 Pictures instead of Bones, and there is a slight drop in quality with the fidelity of the artwork.
Overall, there are surprising new additions that shake up the established formula and the callbacks to previous Ace Attorney games in congruence with the new kingdom of Khura’in and its traditions were surely bring back lapsed and concurrent fans of the series. Pacing issues with the investigations and trials linger throughout, but I certainly enjoyed my time with Spirit of Justice, and I surely hope players can get as much out of it as I did.
3. Dual Destinies
Dual Destinies on the other hand centers around identity, the vulnerability of the court system to façade and corruption, and the importance of self-respect among individuals. For the first time since the original game, I felt that every case, regardless of its overall contribution to the main plot, had significance in furthering the thematic narrative. In fact, I can safely say that the breakdowns, a popular staple of the franchise, are the best the series has seen to date. When each murderer finally succumbs to the pressure of the defense, they reveal their true colors. For example, Ted Tonate might claim to be a bomb specialist, but his talents are just for show. Aristotle Means might seem to be a prestigious law teacher who believes “the end justifies the means”, but in fact is a blatant hypocrite who takes bribes and forges evidence to avoid taking responsibility.
You will be playing as three different attorneys throughout the game: Phoenix Wright, Apollo Justice, and Athena Cykes, as they represent the Wright Anything Agency. Phoenix and Apollo play a more dominant role in the actual investigations and trials, but Athena is a large focus in the latter part of the narrative to make up for this imbalance. The cases they tackle are well-rounded for the most part, and I found much more enjoyment in playing through investigations than any previous Ace Attorney game to date. With a clever plot twist at the end, I was left in shock and surprise plenty of times throughout the campaign. This may be due to the transition to 3D graphics, which looks stunning, especially when paired with an orchestral soundtrack that is one of the series’ best. It’s as if Ace Attorney had a reawakening!
The prosecutor Simon Blackquill also offers something new. He is an attorney currently serving time for a murder that he was convicted guilty of, a reversal of expectations on the player from what we expect from the rival character. His design is quite strong, donning a literal “two-faced” persona and often mocks the attorneys for their supposed incompetence.
Despite all of this, I will admit that the scriptwriting lacks the full charm of its predecessors, and it is surprisingly darker in tone than I had initially expected. For the first time in series history, an Ace Attorney received a mature rating from the ESRB for some strange reason, and while surprised at the choice even to this day, there are moments with Athena that are unquestionably disturbing. Luckily, Blackquill’s intimidatingly hilarious roots in the way of the samurai and his pet bird Taka and his provided much-needed relief during the tense moments in the courtroom.
In the end, it serves as a great comeback from its predecessor Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, and easily earns a spot alongside the fan-favorite Trials and Tribulations, if not for its significant upgrades visually and musically that elevated the experience to new heights which had not been achieved in previous Ace Attorney games.
2. Trials and Tribulations
While composing this list, I had significant difficulty determining whether I preferred Trials and Tribulations or Dual Destinies. Each game has something that distinguishes itself from the rest of the series and fully delivers on the Ace Attorney experience, albeit for reasons completely different from each other. Yet ultimately, there’s just something too special about the conclusion to the original trilogy that left the series on one of its highest notes.
“Trials and tribulations” refers to the tests of an individual’s patience and endurance. Throughout the game, Phoenix Wright encounters several figures from his past that contributed to his growth and his ultimate motivation to become a lawyer. We gain the opportunity to play as Mia Fey twice throughout the campaign, as we witness the introduction of a conflict that will proceed to last years upon end, beginning with Mia and ending with Phoenix. It encapsulates the struggles that everyone must go through to finally achieve justice and inner peace, demonstrated especially well with Godot’s beautifully tragic character arc. I refrain from discussing specifics about the main narrative, as it is something that must be witnessed to fully appreciate its intricacy.
On other notes, the game delivers on every other frontier, including the excellent scenario writing, humorous and satirical asides, thoughtful characterization, and much more that represents the Ace Attorney name well. The “filler” cases are quite good on their own and provide their own self-contained entertainment. However, it is unfortunate that Phoenix’s presence in the title is lower compared to the prior two, and I wish that Phoenix had a slightly more satisfying finale to end off the original trilogy. Nonetheless, the game impresses and serves its purpose.
1. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
For a series that became well-renowned for the fidelity of its cases and the intrigue of its mysteries and its characters, the original game hits home on all fronts, especially when I was a newcomer to the series at the time. Just the idea of uncovering the lies within a witness’s testimony and exposing the truth behind the murder mystery was enough to maintain my interest and excitement for every next moment. There was something magical that occurred every time Phoenix Wright would pull out an “OBJECTION!”, with the arm thrust out and the pointer finger aimed directly at his opponents, that felt unfathomably grand (despite the fact that he often bluffs his way through). Complimented with an outstanding soundtrack to elevate the dramatic tension, the original game established the longstanding endearment for Wright as a character that persists to this very day.
Yet most of what I just described could be applied to every Ace Attorney title. However, what the original manages to accomplish a perfect balance of every crucial element that defines a game within the series that resulted in the most memorable experience out of the other entries.
It’s the game that introduced the bubbly Mia Fey, the lovable Dick Gumshoe, and the domineering prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, two personalities whose legacies continues to permeate with every installment. It’s the game that most clearly and intricately exposes the absurdities of a court system that lacks the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. It’s the game that first gave us insight into Phoenix Wright’s history and the surrounding world that he finds himself navigating.
Compared to its successors, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is undeniably simple in terms of gameplay mechanics. We don’t have access to the Magatama or the Mood Matrix that adds another layer of entertainment to the investigations, but each interaction feels natural in a way that reveals more about the personalities of each character and forces a greater quality of dialogue to keep interest high. More specifically, the banter throughout the game is witty, humorous, and nuanced, resulting in a great foundation for the impending story and its future.
And it is these qualities that shine within its catalog of cases. While more basic in nature, they are unforgettable as a result of the aforementioned dialogue and characters, crafted with love and passion that I don’t always find in other visual novels. The final case in this game (Turnabout Goodbyes) stands toe-to-toe with Farewell, My Turnabout as one of my absolute favorite cases in the entire series, carrying the raw emotional weight and finality to confidently establish it as a landmark case that set precedence for upcoming installments, and its rightful place as a video game franchise that I will always stand behind. Even to this day, there is no other experience quite like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and in itself makes it a game worth playing.
I am not quite sure how many people reading this have actually played the Ace Attorney franchise, but regardless I hope my commentary on the series through this rankings list convinced them, or even you, to take a stab at the series.
And honestly, there are no excuses! All of the aforementioned titles can be found on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, and last I checked the games have sweet discounts that make the collection an affordable package for anyone willing to jump in, and a great value considering its content.
Of course, not everyone has a 3DS. Fortunately, with the exception of Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, all the other games mentioned can be found on iOS or Android platforms. You can even play the first trial of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for free before you commit to a purchase.
Anyways, I love the Ace Attorney franchise, and I sincerely hope others can come to love it as well 🙂