I love 80’s aesthetics. Especially things like neon, Armani blazers, and synth based music. Or, to put a finer point on it – I love the 80’s of Miami Vice and its Japanese counterpart City Hunter.
So, Devil’s Attorney caught my attention right from its intro cinematic, which wears its influences and tone right on its sleeve. The game, which is available on IOS and Android for about 3 bucks, is a fictional courtroom drama game with a humorous tone. It’s outwardly similar to something like Phoenix Wright, especially in its mildly comedic storyline, but the gameplay is significantly different. I’m going to cut right to the chase here – there’s a lot of interesting aspects to this game (keep reading to learn more) but it’s absolutely worth buying.
In Devil’s Attorney you play as up-and-coming defense attorney Max McMann, taking on defense cases and earning money to improve yourself. Cases play out using a mechanic which feels like a board game version of JRPG combat. There are enemies (witnesses and evidence) which do damage at the end of each round, various “experts” who either cause enemies to deal additional damage or block some of the damage, and several prosecutors who each have their own special effects. Meanwhile, Max has a range of attacks which each do a range of damage, in addition to several skills to protect himself or decrease enemy damage. But he only has enough points to do a couple actions each round, and using more damaging or useful abilities will cost more action points.
Nearly every time I failed a case, it was because I was thinking through my steps wrong.
It does get slightly more complicated, however. Only cards that deal damage directly need to be eliminated to win the case, but some experts can make a single enemy strong enough to defeat Max if not eliminated. So most of the gameplay is really about figuring out which threats are the easiest to eliminate versus which are most dangerous, and how to control damage. It distills the concept of crowd control into a very straightforward design. Nearly every time I failed a case, it was because I was thinking through my steps wrong. Once I looked at all of my options and thought through the order properly, my next attempt went smoothly. In fact, this game is one of the few that really forces players to break out of merely attacking large threats by often making it necessary to use damage mitigation to stay alive for just one more turn.
Much of this can be pinned directly on the battles being small – enemies usually have 3 to 6 HP, and most attacks do a random amount between 1 and 5, so it’s simple to see options and threats in very direct way. All relevant information is directly visible at a glance, which allows for strategizing in a very precise manner.
Outside of the courtroom, Max gains skills by buying new furniture, and he eventually gets further bonuses by buying new clothes and accessories. Each piece of furniture will add a point to one of three skill trees (Materialism, Vanity or Decadence), which grant skills such as ‘Reverse Psychology’ – which causes an opponent to attack himself, or ‘Deep Voice’ – which makes the next attack always do its maximum damage. There are enough points that a player could max out 2 of the three trees, but I preferred to spread the points out a bit more, and had no problem doing so. It feels like a player can get the skills they want without feeling like they’re being held to a specific play style.
The game’s look and sound really captures the feeling of the 80’s. Everything has a sharp hand drawn look, with lots of bright colors and highlights. Characters have exaggerated features without seeming ‘cartoony’. The apartments and furniture look like actual 80’s objects that were made only slightly more over-the-top than their realistic counterparts. And the music in the menus is a muzak version of the main theme.
The game also has good writing. Before each case, the prosecutor and McMann have a little banter back and forth. While not all of the scenes hit, most of them at least elicited a chuckle, and a few of them were genuinely funny. Additionally, you get a short summary of each defendant and their case, and some of those are clever.
One noteworthy aspect about the defendant summaries is how the game handles its referential humor. Unlike many games, in which the references are their own self-contained jokes, Devil’s Attorney makes the references “part of a balanced breakfast”. On top of that, the references are somewhat oblique. Requiring the player to use a little bit of effort to figure out what ‘Parker Ventermann, library vandal’ is referencing is more interesting than just showing a picture of Ecto 1 and saying “Get it?” It makes you feel smart, and it’s less obnoxious. There are definitely games that could learn from this.
Devil’s Attorney makes references “part of a balanced breakfast”.
The biggest problem with the game is the confusing way that it handles its multiple endings, which makes me wonder whether the person designing the game actually understands the purpose of having multiple endings at all. When I finished the final case (which was actually a really fun “boss battle”), I was presented with three options for my ending cutscene – essentially ‘bad end’, ‘good end’, and ‘true end’. However, it not only told me which ending each was, I could not understand why it was just offering all three to me.
Typically, in games with multiple endings, you are either locked into an ending by choices made earlier in the game, or the bad ending is tied to failing to achieve a particular goal. Now, it is possible that had I not won and received the bonuses for every case, I would have been locked out of selecting the better endings. But at that point, still being allowed to select the bad ending seems wrong. In fact, it led me to pick what the game explicitly told me was the worst ending, assuming it was actually a trick. It wasn’t.
The only explanation I can come up with for this is that there’s no way to go back into the game and replay the final boss fight. So, is it to provide you with an incentive to play three times to see all the endings? I’m not sure.
The game is quite easy early on, while the last half dozen cases had me restarting several times. More than that though, the way the game works meant that I either completely failed a case, or beat it quickly enough to get the bonus. There never seemed to be a situation in which I felt like I was just eking out a win. This isn’t necessarily a problem. (Even I enjoy being awesome occasionally.) It was just a strange phenomenon.
Devil’s Attorney is a great little game that I devoured over the course of a weekend, simply because I didn’t want to stop. However, each case only takes a few minutes to play, so it could easily be played a case at a time over a couple weeks if you wanted to. I’d estimate that it took about 4 hours to beat the whole thing.
The gameplay does great things with simple mechanics and open information, and the fun writing made me excited to see what the next case would bring. There are a few minor complaints, but for the price being charged it’s really hard to complain.
I’ll close much like I opened- this game tells you what it is right from the intro. If that isn’t your style, you may not find much here. But if you aren’t a fun-hating ogre, there’s a decent game here hiding some clever design ideas that I’d love to see informing other designers.
Mechanics: A Few Good Ideas
Aesthetics: Miami Vice
Verdict: Totally Worth It, Dude!