Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice | Principal Platforms: Nintendo 3DS | Developer: Capcom | Publisher: Capcom | Genre: Visual Novel | Year: 2016
Well, this is it. After withstanding the vicissitudes of franchise life for almost fifteen years, the Ace Attorney series arrives at its sixth (and thus far final) core release, Spirit of Justice.
As expected, Phoenix Wright and his expanded entourage return to action on Nintendo 3DS. The familiar blend of detecting and courtroom drama is intact for what promises to be a major climacteric in the new trilogy that began almost a decade prior with the release of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney.
Capcom haven’t skimped on the presentation this time. The fuzzy screen text that spoiled Dual Destinies has been eliminated, and there’s now a (long overdue) settings menu that allows players to tweak things like the subtitles, sound mixing, and even those annoying screen shaking effects.
You can see Ace Attorney building upon its foundations a little bit here too. Several 3D cutscenes feature incredibly detailed character models (including a touched-up one for Wright), and such moments have a lot more to offer in terms of music. It’s a welcome step towards a new dimension of storytelling for the series, and it’s a facet that’s helped by an improved user interface.
Everything on the top screen looks better. The speech bubbles, the objection graphics and evidence details — it all looks sharper and more presentable. Some nice voice acting can be heard here and there, and the animation work on those aforementioned cutscenes upholds the high standard that the developers set for themselves after making the gorgeous-looking Apollo Justice.
Bells and whistles aside, it’s the setting that makes the biggest first impression here. For the first time in the series, Phoenix Wright travels to the spiritual Kingdom of Khura’in, where he hopes to reunite with his former protege and sample the culture of an exotic Far Eastern land. Maya Fey – the young spirit medium who hasn’t made an appearance in these games since Trials and Tribulations – has blossomed into adulthood during her absence, but you can rest assured that trouble still follows her around. Sure enough, Wright’s reunion with her is interrupted by a violent uprising that will challenge not only Khura’in’s barbaric legal system, but also the strange new friendships that Wright has begun to form on both sides.
Wright retains his veteran status, and yet he’s completely out of his depth in this world where justice is decided by faith and tradition rather than hard evidence and due process. Indeed, the dramatic shift in location lends this story a delightfully different tone from what players are used to. The first episode alone is stacked with fresh story beats that do an excellent job of hyping the twist-filled arc to follow.
Spirit of Justice sets itself apart in terms of style, but the common franchise themes are still being explored. In some cases this has led to repetition. Reintroducing Maya Fey, only to have her accused, kidnapped and confined to the sidelines (again!) seemed like a total waste for a while there.
Some may argue that’s because Ace Attorney is experiencing a touch of Sonic the Hedgehog syndrome by introducing more new characters than the narrative can reasonably cope with. The ensemble certainly has its benefits though. The trademark banter is still strong for example, especially now that Capcom has two different judges to make fun of!
Even the filler chapters feel more integral to the proceedings, with Apollo and Athena continuing to get their own important bits of character development. One instance sees Athena helping Apollo overcome his fear of heights by holding his hand as he nervously navigates the rafters in a local theatre. You’d be surprised at how warm that feels.
Spirit of Justice is also very strong when it comes to new characters. My favourite is Her Benevolence, Rayfa Padma Khura’in. This petulant princess is a fourteen-year-old terror whose rivalry with Phoenix Wright provides some of the game’s most unexpectedly profound and often humourous moments. She’s an immature yet incredibly passionate antagonist whose childish ignorance and stubborn piety are aggravating and sympathetic in all the best ways.
Saddling Wright with another female tagalong hardly seems like a fresh recipe at first, but the union is very suitable for embellishing those wider themes I mentioned earlier. That’s because Rayfa is the chief practitioner of the Divination Séance, which takes the form of a brand new gameplay mechanic where players witness the final seconds before a crucial murder victim died.
The way this plays out is similar to the Mood Matrix introduced in Dual Destinies, only with higher production value and some added clunkiness. Looking through the eyes of a victim as their shadowy killer strikes (and the “lights” go out) is quite the spectacle, and it’s all prefaced by a gratuitous yet no less beautiful video of Rayfa dancing around a “Pool of Souls” to call upon the departed spirits. It’s another good representation of how well everything is presented, even as the gameplay struggles to follow suit.
The Séance is a wonderful idea that is a bit vague in its execution. If you happen to miss the contradiction in the scene, it can lead you to rewatching video footage until you spot the correct trigger point you’re expected to click on. It’s not entirely unlike that dire musical episode in Apollo Justice, and it’s not helped by the reappearance of penalties — an entirely stupid bit of backwards design that is especially dumb seeing as how the unspecific trigger points can lead players into making accidental mistakes.
Spirit of Justice also brings a revamp to fingerprint analysis, although whatever Capcom were trying for is lost on me because the new implementation here is a fiddly mess. Some chapters continue this Layton-esque experimentation to further detriment. The second case has more ropey video analysis to sift through, and whilst one chapter features a cool card puzzle, there’s a sliding block riddle towards the end of the game that I found enormously irritating.
If we really want to talk low points, then the opening section of the game’s final case surely takes the cake. Spirit of Justice reintroduces the concept of having an incredibly long final chapter. Turnabout Revolution will indeed take you several hours to finish, with the opening section set in America being a real drag on account of its nonsensical storytelling, wasted opportunities, and bizarre decisions that make the main characters look like complete idiots.
Thankfully the second and third act of Turnabout Revolution return to colourful Khura’in and fare much better from that point on. The flashbacks get to be a bit excessive again, but the drama has rarely been better. The uber antagonists are as insidious as they are magnetic, the twists are legitimately jaw-dropping, and Apollo successfully rounds out his character arc just as Wright did before him.
It’s a shame that players have to wade through such an enervating first act in order to get there. Consider though what Phoenix Wright himself says at one point:
“I’ve seen more than my fair share of trials like that. They start with no viable evidence, useful testimony, or any hope of winning. But through cold sweat, desperation, and a little luck, I always managed to pull them off.”
For all of its rough edges, case 6-5 does demonstrate this essential quality very well by the end.
As the current finale to Ace Attorney’s long saga, players are likely to feel satisfied with Spirit of Justice. Whilst its new mechanics and lacklustre DLC offerings are a step down from the work on Dual Destinies, the significant improvements in presentation and plotting are enough to classify this as a (slightly) superior experience.
Wherever the franchise chooses to go next, if Capcom continues to deliver such an excellent, one-of-a-kind experience like this, you can bet players like me will be there enjoying every objecting, desk-slamming, finger-pointing moment of it!