When Capcom hits upon a formula that works, they stick with it. And I’m not just talking about the Mega Man franchise!
The Ace Attorney games have gained a reputation as some of the best visual novel/adventure games ever released on the Nintendo DS/3DS (and eventually iOS and Android). Their unique mix of over-the-top characters, off-the-wall courtroom drama, delightfully groan-worthy puns, and pulse-pounding music has made the games beloved by fans (certainly beloved by me). But is there any room for new fans in this continuity-heavy series? Based on the latest game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Spirit of Justice, the answer is probably no, but for existing fans, there’s an awful lot to enjoy here.
Spirit of Justice is a return of sorts to the roots of the Ace Attorney franchise. Not only do fan-favorite characters like Maya Fey return, but so does the mysticism and magic that were at the heart of the first three games. Spirit of Justice finds veteran defense attorney Phoenix Wright vacationing in the deeply religious country of Khura’in. Driven to defend his innocent tour guide accused of murder, Phoenix finds himself in the middle of a corrupt and ritualistic legal system where defense attorneys share the sentence of their clients if they lose. Meanwhile, his understudies — Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes — have cases of their own back in the States, which uncover threads of a conspiracy that’s directly tied to the future of Khura’in. To say this game stuffs a lot of plot into the usual five case structure is an understatement.
Visually, Spirit of Justice utilizes the same graphical upgrade that debuted in the previous game, Dual Destinies. The heavily pixelated, hand-drawn character sprites from the DS days are now replaced with 3D models, thankfully packing in the same level of expressiveness found in the original games.
Gameplay-wise, it’s still the familiar old Ace Attorney; find contradictions in witness testimony with your assortment of evidence and special skills. Phoenix, Apollo, and Athena all have unique abilities they can use in court to corner witnesses. Phoenix can use a magatama charged with spiritual energy to draw the truth out of people by presenting them with evidence, a gameplay holdover from the original series. Athena can use her “Mood Matrix,” a special computer program, to detect subtle emotional cues in witnesses. Finally, Apollo has a “perceive” ability, which allows him to zoom in on a witness during testimony to find a physical “tell” that proves they are lying. While Phoenix and Athena’s abilities are based on logical deduction, Apollo’s is more like an annoying hidden objects puzzle. Personally, I find using my wits to uncover lies more satisfying than trying to find a tiny physical twitch, which can become a bit tedious at times.
The newest mechanic in the game is Divination Séances, where the spirit of the victim is summoned so the court can see their final moments through their own eyes. These memories are fully animated, meaning that you need to spot contradictions in motion (but don’t worry, you can pause or rewind the action at any time). I’m a big fan of this mechanic, as it’s much more active than the usual method of picking the right statement or evidence, and it perfectly ties into the game’s mystical themes. It also differentiates the court battles in Khura’in with the more traditional court battles back in the States.
Ace Attorney games excel at making you feel like a brilliant lawyer, even though it sometimes takes you five guesses and a restart to eventually suss out the correct bit of evidence. As per usual, there is only one path of logic that leads you to the truth, and this can lead to some annoying situations where you’ve figured out the contradiction but can’t find the exact piece of evidence you need to move the plot forward. This can be somewhat frustrating if you’ve played for a solid half-hour or more and then get stuck on a single piece of testimony, requiring you to restart the entire section.
The cast of Spirit of Justice is an assortment of both familiar and new faces with delightfully punny names. Alongside Phoenix, Apollo, Athena, and Maya, we have detective Ema Skye, Phoenix’s daughter Trucy Wright, and fan favorite, Chief Prosecutor Miles Edgeworth. While I love these returning characters, their presence here feels unnecessary and clutters the cast. One example is Simon Blackquill, the prosecutor in Dual Destinies, who makes an appearance in the fourth case but doesn’t add much, if anything, to the story.
Unfortunately, the same can be said of the third lawyer at the Phoenix’s law agency, Athena Cykes. Impressively introduced as a new playable character in Dual Destinies, she comes off as a bit of a third wheel here, with no personal ties to the overall narrative. I hope that after the events of this game, Athena will move firmly into a central protagonist role in the next installment, because she can more than handle it.
The character of Phoenix Wright feels more like himself than he has in a long time. By taking him out of Los Angeles (or as it’s known among fans, Japanifornia) and placing him in the unfamiliar legal system of Khura’in, he once again has that underdog quality that makes him, well, Phoenix. Plus, seeing him alongside Maya again in court just feels right. On the other hand, Apollo’s character has changed considerably since his debut in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. He finally proves to fans (and himself) that he’s not just a poor man’s Phoenix Wright. The trial where Apollo and Phoenix must face off with each other is especially effective, showing just how much Apollo has grown alongside his mentor.
Taking on the role of Phoenix’s assistant is the arrogant Rayfa Padma Khura’in, the Princess of Khura’in who conducts the Divination Séances. Although you grow to love the character by the end of the game, she is near insufferable in the first half, especially when you’re forced to have her chaperone you through every investigation section in Khura’in. The role of the new prosecutor is taken by Nahyuta Sahdmadhi, a combination monk/prosecutor with mysterious ties to Apollo. Like all Ace Attorney prosecutors, his cold and professional demeanor in the courtroom belies a much deeper character that’s slowly revealed as the story unfolds.
The music is always a highlight of Ace Attorney games, and this soundtrack is a combination of new, haunting pieces with Eastern influences and familiar themes. This contrast perfectly underscores the oscillation between the legal systems of the two countries. With strong takes on long-standing pieces like “Cross-Examination” and “Pursuit,” this is one of the strongest Ace Attorney soundtracks in years.
Spirit of Justice is a loving, though slightly overstuffed, throwback to the original Ace Attorney Trilogy. Too many characters, too many plot threads, and too many locations mean that this game lacks the narrative focus of previous stories in the series. I worry that Ace Attorney is in danger of becoming stale if new entries keep sticking to the same formula, not unlike what happened to Mega Man on the NES. Perhaps Capcom will take the series in a more innovative direction in the future, rather than rely on the continuity and mechanics of several previous games. All of that said, it’s still Ace Attorney! I certainly had no objections to playing through Spirit of Justice, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the series. And to those who have never touched an Ace Attorney game before, I suggest that you start way back at the beginning. You won’t regret it!