Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice Review
From prisoner prosecutors to astronaut defendants, the Ace Attorney series has built a reputation on turning legal proceedings into over-the-top battles for the truth. You’d think after five games, three spinoffs (two of which we’re unlikely to see in the West) and one crossover, every possible plotline would be played out, but the writers behind Ace Attorney just keep coming up with new scenarios, new gimmicks and new memorable characters. In fact, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice proves the franchise still has a lot of life in it yet, and ranks among its best entries.
While the game is called Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, it’s really more the story of his protégé, Apollo Justice, closing out the loose trilogy of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney and Dual Destinies. At the game’s start, lawyer Phoenix Wright travels to the eastern kingdom of Khura’in, to visit his old assistant Maya Fey. Unable to stay out of trouble, he soon becomes caught up in the kingdom’s twisted legal system, where sentences are handed out based on supernatural ‘Divination Séances’ and lawyers are all but extinct, and hated by the population. Figuring out how things got so bad in Khura’in, the ins and outs of the country’s religion and superstitions and how it all unexpectedly ties to Apollo Justice’s past, forms the crux of the game’s main story, told over five cases.
Spirit of Justice has been marketed as doubling down on the supernatural aspects of Ace Attorney, but that’s not necessarily its defining theme. Spirit of Justice isn’t compelling because you can witness a victim’s final moments or cross-examine a ghost – it’s the way that the stakes are consistently raised higher than they ever have been before. In Khura’in you’re not just defending your client – their laws state that if a defendant is found guilty, their lawyer shall be as well and suffer the same punishment. This time around, Wright isn’t just battling for the truth, but for his very life.
This increases your investment in the proceedings, and in turn makes the game very engrossing to play. Of the five cases, only one feels like filler and it’s a fairly short jaunt into Japanese culture that’s saved by the appearance of the past game’s prosecutor, Simon Blackquill. The final case is such a rollercoaster of twists, insane developments and high drama that it makes for one of the wildest rides we’ve seen in the series yet.
However, beyond the drama there’s also a ton of the comedy and heart that the series is known for, as well. Slimy TV producers, metal-head monks and drunken deliverymen are among the many memorable characters you’ll come across, and inevitably end up cross-examining. They bring with them many laugh out loud moments and plenty of punny names, but if there’s one character who disappoints, it’s unfortunately the latest prosecutor, Nahyuta Sahdmadhi. While he has a lot of potential as a strict, serene monk, with a penchant for casting spells on his prayer beads mid-trial, his cool head and downplayed inner conflict ultimately make him come across weaker than many of the series’ past rivals.
As always, gameplay is divided into two main halves – investigation and trials. After feedback that Dual Destinies was too easy, Spirit of Justice has returned many gameplay features of the older games in the series. You can now examine every environment for clues, even rotating around them for more angles in some areas, and in general banter more with your assistants. Speaking of assistants, Spirit of Justice has a rotating roster that I think features some of the best chemistry yet, although to say any more would spoil too much of the fun.
Trials focus on listening to witness testimony and finding contradictions with the evidence on hand, like usual, although there are now also multiple gimmicks at play. The newest one, the Divination Séances, actually stands out as an ingenious concept. These sequences allow you to view a victim’s final moments through their eyes, before being given a biased interpretation by the self-important Princess Rayfa. Shooting down her ‘Insight’ with evidence and observation is a great mechanic that requires you to sometimes think outside the box and allows for several neat twists as a case’s mystery unfolds.
By comparison, older gimmicks like Wright’s Magatama, Apollo’s Bracelet and Athena’s Mood Matrix don’t work quite as well. While the evidence-based gameplay of Wright’s Magatama is fine, it’s only used once throughout the whole game. Apollo’s Bracelet sees more use, allowing you to observe nervous tics in witnesses, but Athena’s Mood Matrix also sees a fair go and often interrupts the flow of trials as she must pause to give a witness a ‘therapy session’.
Nevertheless, the game’s presentation is very strong, as the series keeps on polishing its visual novel roots. Anime cutscenes introduce each case, while adequate voice acting highlights key moments. Character models are bursting with personality, and backgrounds are extremely detailed – like the game’s concept art come to life in three dimensions. There are even moments where the game breaks out of its static character-portrait dialogue to actually animate in-game 3D action scenes to highlight key moments. Animation is across the board pretty great, although some actions (like Nahyuta’s head-shake, or Rayfa’s tantrums) appear to be motion captured, which doesn’t quite match with the rest of the exaggerated anime-like animation.
Overall, I’d personally rank Spirit of Justice fairly high up on the series’ ladder. It’s certainly the best game Apollo Justice has starred in, and it makes for a nice soothing ointment on the fact we’ll likely never see an official Western release of Ace Attorney Investigations 2 or The Great Ace Attorney. Spirit of Justice isn’t perfect – it’s let down by some wonky old gimmicks and a half-hearted prosecutor, but it certainly provides a spirited defense for why this series deserves to keep on going.