The Ace Attorney series has been one of my favorite gaming fixtures since its North American debut in 2005. The DS original was unlike any game I had played before, and its blend of crime scene investigations, lovable characters and courtroom drama left me enamored. Since then, Ace Attorney has seen enough success to warrant four major releases (and several spinoffs). While the story has stayed strong throughout, the series did seem to regress a bit with 2013’s Dual Destinies.
Thankfully, I can say that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice puts the series right back on track and is a stellar follow-up to what was a slightly disappointing entry. A lot of my qualms with Dual Destinies were with the way the game simplified the series’ investigation scenes. Instead of every area being able to be examined (which always guaranteed hilarious dialogue exchanges if not clues), only specific locations could be looked upon thoroughly. This made the game feel much more linear than its predecessors, and as a long-time fan it felt terrible not being able to examine a ladder when I saw one in a background.
Spirit of Justice goes back to its roots by giving players the ability to examine every single corner of its world. It may seem like a small change, but my enjoyment of Phoenix Wright’s courtroom misadventures has always come from the attention to detail. Levels are filled with references to past cases, there have been running gags going on for over a decade, and I’ve always adored that so much care was put into every single line of dialogue by the localization team. All of that is back, and the game feels so much more alive due to it.
Spirit of Justice also has a renewed sense of freshness due to it taking place in a new location — the Kingdom of Khura’in. The story revolves around Phoenix Wright visiting the eastern country in order to meet up with his former partner Maya Fey, who is finishing her spiritual training in the foreign land. Of course, Wright can’t avoid trouble for more than a few days at a time, and he quickly finds himself jumping to the defense of a young monk who has been accused of murder.
While it’s not new for the series to have Phoenix Wright in over his head, this easily marks the worst situation that the spiky-haired lawyer has ever found himself in. This is due to Khura’in’s corrupt court system that hasn’t had a non-guilty verdict in over 20 years. That staggering statistic can be traced back to the Kingdom’s laws, which forces defense attorneys to suffer the same fate as their clients if found guilty. If Wright loses the case, it’s not just a death sentence for his client, but for him as well.
Not only does this court system raise the stakes to a new level, but it also adds an interesting mechanic to the game’s courtroom proceedings. Every trial in Khura’in begins with a divination séance, a ritual performed by the Kingdom’s 14-year-old priestess that shows the last few seconds of the victim’s life. In theory, it would make courtroom cases a lot easier, but it often ends up painting the defendants in a poor light, leaving me to find issues with the scene.
These scenes play out as a fully rendered 3D video (taking place from a first-person view), and words will pop up on the screen to display any strong senses the victim had. These séances will show if the victim smelled a particular odor, heard a distinctive noise or felt pain. This adds a terrific layer of gameplay, where I had to figure out which sense felt out of place. Initially it’s really challenging, but I soon got the hang of it and found myself looking forward to each of these unique events.
Séances may be overly complicated at first glance, but they really make the courtroom scenes feel fresh. While I’m glad that the series hasn’t gotten away from what works, there’s no denying that things have stayed pretty much unchanged since 2001. I still spent most of my time cross examining witnesses, and presenting evidence at contradictions, but the séances added a nice cherry on top of the regular proceedings. Spirit of Justice is a great example of making a sequel retain the magic of its predecessors while also feeling new enough that it doesn’t feel like a retread.
Spirit of Justice also feels like a much more difficult game than its predecessor. I was often left stumped and couldn’t think of any contradictions to point out. In past titles, this would’ve led to me saving the game, and presenting random pieces of evidence until I found the right one or received a guilty verdict. In a really smart decision, Capcom has added a hint system that appears after a few failed attempts at presenting evidence. These are fully optional to engage with, but I found that it made for a much more enjoyable experience. The game also auto-saves often, so any game over screen will simply take the player back to the last part where they were. There’s no more need to save scum to get through the game, and it allowed me to just focus on enjoying the narrative instead of fretting about getting a guilty verdict.
It’s also worth mentioning that while the Kingdom of Khura’in is certainly the star of Spirit of Justice, half of the game also takes place in Ace Attorney‘s version of America (which is still as Japanese as ever, with a later case revolving around soba noodles of all things). This allows for other members of the Wright Anything Agency to get camera time (such as returning playable characters such as Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes), and the two sides really come together in the game’s fifth act to create a memorable intertwining story. It’s not exactly a new idea for the series (as Dual Destinies wove a terrific connected narrative), but there’s plenty of meaningful character development going on and old faces to be seen.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice manages to reinvigorate a series in its sixth main entry by introducing several smart new features while also bringing back mechanics that had been cast aside. This blend of old and new makes for a perfect celebration of what makes the series so special. Getting to watch familiar faces interact with the citizens of Khura’in is not only entertaining, but a rewarding payoff for a longtime fan. Spirit of Justice proves that the series still has legs, and is just as fun today as it was in 2001.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which we were provided with.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice manages to reinvigorate a series in its sixth main entry by introducing several smart new features while also bringing back mechanics that had been cast aside.