It’s a running joke that venerated turnabout lawyer Phoenix Wright attracts trouble—especially of the murderous variety—wherever he goes. And his luck doesn’t change when he ventures to the mystical Kingdom of Khura’in in the sixth main game in the Ace Attorney series, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice. In fact, his luck is even worse than usual: this deeply religious homeland of spirit mediums has no use for the traditional court system and holds a deep-seated grudge against defense attorneys in particular. Who needs evidence to convict a murderer, after all, when you can commune directly with the dead? Objection! The plucky crew of the Wright Anything Agency are ready to bounce back into the spotlight and to work their own brand of courtroom magic to show Khura’in what it really means to practice law.
The key to the Khura’inese legal system lies in the Divination Séances, special dances performed by the royal priestess that allow the entire court to see the last few moments of a victim’s life through the victim’s eyes. When these last few moments involve things like the accused standing right in front of the victim, holding the murder weapon, the case seems fairly open and shut— but as we all know, in the Phoenix Wright universe, cases are never that simple. A few well-spotted contradictions later, and court is now in session.
Though the Divination Séances are only a small part of each trial (most gameplay still centers around the tried-and-true method of pointing out contradictions in a witness’s testimony), they help show off a major step forward Spirit of Justice takes with the series: the 3D models. Though Dual Destinies was the first game to make the switch from sprite-based animation to 3D (but still sprite-esque) models, it didn’t do much with the new power that couldn’t have been done before.
In an earlier game, for example, we might hear about a show happening off-screen, and investigate the static crime scene later. Now, though, we can watch that entire show as a video in court, seeing the characters move and perform across the stage, and compare video from different angles to find contradictions—all while seeing the actual show instead of just hearing about it. Characters can break free of the prosecutor’s bench/defense’s bench/witness stand to stand in the middle of the courtroom. And, of course, the ever-spectacular breakdowns when you finally pin each murderer with their crime become even more flamboyant and over-the-top. The court feels much more lively, and it all happens without losing any of the charm of the original sprites.
Spirit of Justice also isn’t afraid to experiment with the other half of the game, either: the investigations. While most of your time outside the courtroom is still the same standard point-and-click, there are a few instances where it’s used in novel ways: chasing a character down from screen to screen to talk to them, for example, or having to quickly point out a place to hide.
Of course, there are still a few flaws within the game. Like most Ace Attorney games, there are cases where you’ll find a logical contradiction, but won’t be able to point it out until it’s spelled out very explicitly and the game decides it’s time. At other points—especially within the Divination Séances—it can be more difficult to figure out what the game wants you to say the contradiction is than to actually find it. If you want to point out that an item has been moved, for example, do you point to it before the move or after the move? Only one option is accepted, and the other will net you a penalty. However, it’s not much worse than other games in the series.
One issue, though, is unique to this game, and, in particular, to one specific case in the game. The English-localized Ace Attorney games have always pretended to take place in Los Angeles, despite having some very clear Japanese elements (the games, after all, are made in Japan, and in the original Japanese version, take place in Japan). The translation team has always done an excellent job of keeping up the charade and keeping the game localized. However, one particular case centers entirely around Rakugo storytelling and the making of soba noodles, two distinctly Japanese traditions.
This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s clear that the translators had to awkwardly try and fit in an explanation of what Rakugo storytelling is without using extra lines of dialogue. Then, at a certain point, the game assumes you’ll have enough outside knowledge about how soba noodles are made to make a certain leap of logic. I did not, and had to stop playing in order to look it up. Maybe it’s something that’s common cooking knowledge in Japan, but I certainly didn’t know—and it just seemed odd that this one case, out of all the other cases in the series, should be so pointedly Japanese (even as the characters insist that they’re heading home to “America.” Right.).
Another potential issue with the game may affect series newcomers, though not veterans. I’m a long-time Ace Attorney fan myself, so the only new “mechanic” I had to learn was the Divination Séances. However, we’re six games deep into the main series, and there are a lot of gimmicks out there in the wild. Why does Phoenix have a glowing green Magatama; why does Apollo have a magic bracelet; why is Athena’s necklace a mood-detecting talking computer? As a long-time player, I know the stories behind all of these things and how to use them (and the game does give a brief tutorial for each), but from a self-contained story perspective, things like Apollo’s bracelet come completely out of left field.
Similarly, there are a few points with “mysterious secrets” left unrevealed in the dialogue. If you’ve played Apollo Justice or any other relevant game, then congratulations, you know what the secret is. If not, then too bad: Spirit of Justice never explains. These points are rare and more of an Easter egg for fans than anything else, but someone who’s picking up the series for the first time could be understandably frustrated at never getting an answer (though, to be fair, that may be the fault of the player for starting with the sixth main game in a very story-heavy, text-driven series). While still technically a self-contained story and a big technical leap forward for the series, Spirit of Justice would not be the game I’d choose to introduce someone to the series for the first time.
On the whole, though, what Spirit of Justice does right outweighs what it does wrong. It’s something of a trend for the Ace Attorney games to explain away all the opposition its characters face with nebulous “corruption in the system” or “it’s the dark age of the law,” so the initial premise of “Phoenix & Co. visit a country that (of course) hates lawyers” had me rolling my eyes a bit. However, this is the one game in the series that actually delves into those themes. The Kingdom of Khura’in is actively beset by revolution, and many more characters than just the lawyers want to see the legal system overturned. The cases you take and the people you talk to actually actively lead to political and revolutionary changes throughout the game, rather than just solving a murder and hearing that things got better as a post-script. While not every case tied into Khura’inese politics, it was a great decision to move the story from ineffective whining about “the dark age of the law” to a game where you actually help create the change you want to see.
While perhaps not the best game to pick up as your introduction to the wacky world of Ace Attorney, Spirit of Justice is a strong continuation, perhaps even evolution, of the series. It takes the gameplay elements fans are so familiar with—investigate, examine, move—and finds ways to freshen up the formula with new twists without abandoning its roots. When you pick up an Ace Attorney game, you know what you want to see: lawyers, drama, wacky witnesses, and an increasingly convoluted and impossible series of murder mysteries to unravel. And when you pick up Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
The Wright Anything Agency is back in action, and this time, it's an entire country that needs help. With some fresh spins on the investigation formula, abominable name puns, and an increasingly convoluted series of wacky murders, Spirit of Justice is a strong entry in the Ace Attorney series—though perhaps not the best game for a first-time sleuth.
T - Teen
|Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice is available on Nintendo 3DS. Primary version played was for Nintendo 3DS. Product was provided by Capcom for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Emma’s early gaming was mostly done in secret, as the only gamer in a family of normal people. She still retains skills from this dark period in her life, such as the ability to teleport instantly across the house away from the computer, and holds a gold medal in the Olympic sport of “Hide the Gameboy.” Sorry, Mom, now you know.