Thanks to guest Nerd Peter Spezia for this review!
Establish A Legal Revolution!
How do you properly conclude a series’s second trilogy?
It’s a difficult question, mostly because there are few media franchises that get a chance to reach a sixth entry in a mainline series. Different franchises use varying narrative techniques to build their universes over a series of installments, whether that involves a prequel trilogy or jumping all over the canon timeline. And yet, as the Ace Attorney franchise approaches its sixth numbered game with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice (Gyakuten Saiban 6, in Japan), it can be argued that the game needed to deliver a conclusion to the titles that featured the crimson-suited Apollo Justice as a protagonist. What follows is an intriguing adventure that delves into the second-fiddle attorney’s character more than ever before, while delivering compelling murder mysteries and the series’s best climax yet.
A Day In Court
A recent article from Vice Gaming put it best: Ace Attorney is the video game equivalent of TV’s Law and Order – a franchise that relies on serial courtroom dramas to convey its narrative. Through a blend of point-and-click adventure and visual novel gameplay, players assume the role of a defense attorney who is trying to fully acquit falsely-accused defendants of all murder charges. Each case is broken up into two phases – investigation and trial. In the investigation phase, the player gathers information necessary to defend the client. This involves studying suspicious aspects of 3D environments, talking to individuals associated with the case, and employing various means of forensic testing at crime scenes. During trials, the player solves logic puzzles by probing witness testimony for more information, in order to present evidence that contradicts a particular statement. Doing so incorrectly damages the attorney’s reputation in court, and after so many penalties, it’s Game Over. Fortunately, saving is allowed at any time and a hint system shows up after a couple of failed objections. While the gameplay isn’t action-intensive, a lot of reading is required, and attention to detail is crucial in order to progress.
Veteran players will recognize recurring mini-puzzles that appear throughout the game, which were featured in previous Ace Attorney titles. These include using logic to break the Psyche-Locks around a suspect’s secret, slowing down time to Perceive a suspicious person’s nervous tic, and displaying conflicting emotions with the Mood Matrix. New to the franchise in Spirit of Justice is the Divination Séance, where a priestess is able to insightfully project the final moments of a spirit’s life. While this may seem helpful in proving a defendant’s innocence, first impressions are often damning. Thus, pointing out conflicting sights, sounds, and other sensations in a spirit’s conveyed testimony is necessary to discovering the truth behind a case. These visions make for some of the biggest challenges that the game has to offer, but also use the 3DS’ video playback capabilities for a unique type of logic puzzle. Overall, it’s a welcome addition to the gameplay formula, but since the ability is not tied to a main protagonist, it is doubtful that it will return for future installments.
A Land With No Lawyers
For some backstory, imagine a country where lawyers no longer exist. Spirit of Justice takes place in the mysterious land of Khura’in, where religion is so paramount that communing with the dead through the aforementioned Divination Séance rules the courtroom. Twenty-three years ago, after a popular defense attorney was accused of assassinating the country’s queen, the people’s distrust of lawyers grew. Thus, the Defense Culpability Act was signed, in which lawyers would meet the same punishment as their convicted clients. Because of the understandable unwillingness to accept this deal, the profession became extinct in Khura’in. And of course, in the Ace Attorney series, having the prosecution run unopposed is never fair.
Enter Phoenix Wright, the franchise’s titular hero, who is visiting Khura’in in order to see his former assistant, Maya Fey. However, upon Phoenix’s arrival, the young boy who is acting as his local tour guide is arrested for murder. Naturally, the defense attorney puts his faith in his client, only to learn of Khura’in’s unusual legal proceedings. Chapters highlight cases that take place both in Khura’in and America, with different attorney protagonists. As the story progresses, the mysteries behind Khura’in begin to unravel, leading to revelations that shake the legal bedrock of the religious country. A revolution is about to begin, and you direct the winds of change.
Phoenix Wright is the series’s most identifiable character, but there are two other key characters that the player will control in this game. Apollo Justice dons a red suit, believes in the power of warming up the vocal cords, and is finally coming into his own as a professional defense attorney. The fact that Apollo receives the most character development in Spirit of Justice comes as a bit of a surprise, but it is a rewarding payoff for those who have stuck with recent entries. Meanwhile, Athena Cykes returns after debuting in the previous installment, 2013’s Dual Destinies. With her yellow attire, spunky attitude, and specialization in analytical psychology, her presence is a breath of fresh air to the series. Unfortunately, the problem with multiple protagonists is that the game feels the need to give each of them screen time. This results in a case that can only be described as “filler,” simply to remind the player that Athena and her prosecutor rival exist in this world. It is arguably the game’s biggest detraction, as its placement in the story totally breaks the flow of what is happening in Khura’in.
Speaking of that mythical land, the antagonists in Spirit of Justice are certainly not friendly to the American outsiders. This installment’s prosecutor is Nahyuta Sadmadhi, whose serene grace wears off quickly due to his repeated portrayal of a cold, stubborn demeanor. Nahyuta’s unappealing character carries on for so long that the resolution of his character arc ends up feeling not as earned as it could have been. On the other hand, the story’s other antagonist, royal priestess Rayfa Parma Khura’in, is much more likable. Rayfa is the one tasked with performing the Divination Séance in court, a difficult responsibility and a process in which she has full faith. But when Phoenix successfully challenges what is presented in the spirit visions, this shakes Rayfa to her core. When combined with her spoiled, spunky attitude, Rayfa’s character arc is immediately more identifiable, as she changes throughout the course of the game. Naturally, each murder mystery has its own villainous culprits, who achieve varying degrees of disdain from the player – but these two antagonists really stand out to make Spirit of Justice‘s story memorable.
Do The Crime, Do The Time
While the games started on the Game Boy Advance in Japan during the early 2000s, the original Ace Attorney trilogy became particularly beloved it was ported to the Nintendo DS. By this time, Capcom had given the series a Western release, with a bonus case added to the first game to highlight features that were only possible on the DS. While Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney introduced the franchise well and Justice for All featured an excruciating legal dilemma at its climax, it was the third title, Trials and Tribulations, that put everything together. Every chapter played a critical role in telling the overarching story, as it was the first game in the franchise to convey some chapters out of chronological sequence. Visiting trials that were set in the past allowed for further characterization and better-executed foreshadowing as the first trilogy concluded.
After a successful series of three games with Phoenix Wright, series creator Shu Takumi wanted to introduce a new protagonist for the fourth game, which brought about Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. In this game, Phoenix Wright was a disbarred lawyer with a child, and it was rookie attorney Apollo Justice’s job to discover all of the mysteries that surrounded those circumstances. While the game was a successful endeavor into using the features of the Nintendo DS for a full adventure, most players missed controlling Phoenix Wright. This is why, after some series spin-offs, the main Ace Attorney series continued six years later with Dual Destinies on the Nintendo 3DS. Phoenix was back as the lead protagonist as we met Athena Cykes, and while Apollo did play a role in the game’s story, he was greatly overshadowed. This installment of the series arguably introduced more new story elements than it should have, rather than relying on an already established and vast universe. Now, three years later, Spirit of Justice concludes this second trilogy by tying characters established throughout the years together, while also introducing a few new ones, with varying degrees of success.
When it comes to game series that have multiple installments, many ask if the latest title can be played without playing the other games. Unfortunately, when it comes to franchises that rely this heavily on text-reading and story, the response is often the same: You could play through the new game and get some enjoyment out of it, but many things will go over your head and your appreciation for what the game is trying to do won’t be nearly as high. For example, since Spirit of Justice significantly features Apollo Justice’s character development, it comes as no surprise that plot threads from his title-led game end up returning with great importance. If the name of Gramarye doesn’t ring a bell to a prospective player, several plot points will not have the same impact as if they’d been more informed. Similarly, Spirit of Justice‘s marketing featured the highly-anticipated return of Maya Fey – and while she is criminally underused in her big return, a lack of awareness of Maya’s identity and the significance of spirit channeling would drastically hinder appreciation for the game’s story. For as many callbacks to the mainline series as Spirit of Justice makes, the previous five Ace Attorney games are essentially required playing. If one had to be skipped, though, players could get away with passing on Dual Destinies for its lack of relevance in Spirit of Justice‘s overall plot.
Driven By Motive
As a whole, Spirit of Justice is excellent in several areas. Chapter 5 is arguably the best case that the Ace Attorney series has ever had, even though it technically functions as two cases in one. While some may hold fast to the belief that the best chapter is Trials and Tribulation‘s Chapter 5, there is more at stake here in Spirit of Justice and the plot twists are darker. It could be a fierce debate, but perhaps that is an end-game article for another time. There should be no disagreement, however, that the soundtrack is one of the series’s best. While some remixes on classic themes are borrowed from the improved 3DS sound chip in Dual Destinies, they are as memorable as ever. When these are combined with the new additions based on Khura’in’s locations and characters, the music shines even more – particularly the spoiler-filled “The Court of Resignation.” The game is also more challenging than Dual Destinies‘ hand-holding was, which is appreciated; the culprits are never predictable too far out in advance, even though eagle-eyed players can pick up on foreshadowing enough to put it all together when the time comes to make an indictment. The graphics are also improved from Dual Destinies, with better models and stronger framerate performance. Ultimately, Spirit of Justice‘s biggest success comes in how it respects the veteran player as well as the franchise’s history and characters. This installment, more than any other in the series before it, references past characters and events so effectively that it feels like one of the first true sequels in the Ace Attorney franchise because of its narrative continuity. That acknowledgement of the series’s canon is extremely appreciated from a long-time wannabe attorney.
Spirit of Justice isn’t without flaws, however. Someone on the localization team decided that because Khura’in is so unique, especially compared to the series staple of Kurain Village (go figure that one out, newcomers), Khura’in character names could be extra ridiculous and pun-filled. Ace Attorney hasn’t shied away from groan-inducing monikers in the past – Luke Atmey rings a particularly stinky bell – but this is taken to a whole other level in the mystical land of Khura’in. Apostrophes are added everywhere to create English phrases out of “foreign” names, which becomes very apparent after you meet a monk in Chapter 1 with the last name of Andistan’dhin. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, the chapter of this game that acts as filler is inexcusable. Not only does it come at a time that breaks up the momentum of the overall plot, it only serves as a device to remember characters from Dual Destinies, with no relevance to the rest of the game. When an entire chapter can be cut and nothing is lost, that is a bad indication. Additionally, fans should temper their expectations when it comes to Maya Fey’s role in the game. That said, the recently-released DLC case has a very similar feel to the first Ace Attorney game, so fans of those character dynamics should download that extra content.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice is a resoundingly successful installment in the franchise, especially to those who have stuck with the courtroom hi-jinx over all these years. Fans just need to be aware that at the end of the day, this is Apollo Justice’s story; Phoenix Wright is mostly a means to get the plot rolling. Players can expect to spend about 30 hours to beat the main game, which feels rather long for an Ace Attorney game, especially when about 8-10 of those are spent on the final chapter. As long as you can get past a frustrating Chapter 4, the game’s finale is a whirlwind that is Ace Attorney at its finest. Just grin and bear it with those Khura’inese names and all of their apostrophes.
Eat your hamburgers, Apollo.
- Thrilling murder mysteries, with the series's best final chapter
- Excellent, memorable soundtrack
- An appreciation for its history and its players
- Weak filler chapter breaks narrative flow
- Overkill on the pun-filled character names