The Ace Attorney series has one of the worst pitches for a game of all time: Let’s make a game where the player takes on the role of a defense attorney and takes part in legal deliberations. It’s seriously just an awful premise. And yet, despite that, each game had topped the last with over-the-top logic puzzles, memorable characters, and a peerless narrative. At this point the franchise has received six main games, and a whole slew of spin-offs, so it’s reasonable for players to be concerned that the series could start to become repetitive, and perhaps lose its edge. Luckily, the newest addition to the franchise, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice proves that the series has never been stronger, and continues to innovate gameplay, continue to surprise their fans, and tell original, incredibly well-written stories.
Spirit of Justice starts where Dual Destinies left off. The so-called “dark age of the law” still haunts the world, and the only people holding fast against the tide of falsified evidence and mishandled trials are Phoenix Wright and the “Wright Anything” law firm. Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes hold things down in the United States, while Phoenix travels abroad to Khura’in to reunite with his former assistant, Maya Fey. While the state of the legal system is not great in America (the previous game had courtrooms exploding mid-trial, after all), the situation in Khura’in proves to be far worse, and Phoenix finds himself defending clients in a country determined to see his undoing.
Khura’in is a small, pious country, and the birthplace of the mystical channeling techniques of that can be found in previous Ace Attorney games via the Fey Clan. In Khura’in, there are no longer defense attorneys, and people are convicted of crimes without anyone ever hearing a word spoken in their defense. Instead, spirit mediums are able to conjure up the final memories of the victim for all to see, and this is believed to provide an infallible interpretation of the events. Due to this religious element of court proceedings, defense attorneys, who are seen to reject these divine visions, are thought of as conniving, and heretical. Defense attorneys disappeared from Khura’in altogether with the passing of the Defense Culpability Act, which states that those who would defend a criminal are guilty of the same crime.
Spirit of Justice raises the stakes in a way that other Ace Attorney games haven’t been able to, because each time Phoenix defends a client in Khura’in, he risks his life by doing so. When things look bad for Phoenix, the gallery literally calls for his execution, and when Phoenix claims that his faith in his clients is absolute, he backs it up by putting his life on the line. Fans of the series may be used to having the entire court against them, but the courts of Khura’in take it to a whole new level by assigning the player the most reviled profession in the land.
The mystical ways of Khura’in also afford for some interesting new gameplay mechanics in the form of the seance visions. Players see the murder through the eyes of the victim, and must search for contradictions in the visions to refute the prosecution’s claims. Alongside some of the classic gameplay mechanics like cross examinations and psyche-locks, plus some of the more recent additions like Apollo’s bracelet lie detector and Athena’s mood matrix, the seance visions add yet another unique mechanic to the series. Simply put, Spirit of Justice gives players the most diverse set of experiences of any entry in the series.
One of my favorite concepts that has slowly integrated itself into the Ace Attorney franchise is something that I refer to as “character transformations.” This is when a character, usually the true culprit of the crime, reveals their true nature as the player closes in on proving their guilt. These transformations have always existed in the series, although in earlier games they were mostly limited to a transformation of the character’s personality. In recent entries, these character shifts have become a more literal transformation, where the villain’s appearance changes entirely as they show their true self. Spirit of Justice not only continues this tradition, but turns the dial to eleven. When backed into a corner, characters shed their attire for a more suitable set, augment their personalities in a major way, and/or gain ridiculous props to help demonstrate their transformation. Transformations are completely over-the-top, and ridiculous, but they’re also the thing that I found myself looking forward to the most during each case, because they’re so damn fun.
Aside from a few upgrades, though, Spirit of Justice remains very similar to previous entries in the series. Sometimes this is a negative–yes, there is occasionally repetitive dialogue, and yes, there are really long investigation scenes that sometimes overstay their welcome. For the most part, however, this means that we get to engage in more witty banter, and ridiculous courtroom shenanigans. There are a few minor gameplay updates, like the new “notes” tab that serves as a checklist for what you should be doing if you lose your way (thank ye, o’ Gods), and a clearer system for presenting evidence that results in fewer instances of not knowing what you need to do to advance in the trial, both of which improve the overall experience.
Narratively, Spirit of Justice does nearly everything perfectly. There is a case in the game where a murder revolves around a magic show. During the case, one of the characters explains that any good magician will use the art of misdirection to fool their audience into seeing only what they want them to see; when a magician says that something definitely is, it definitely is not, and vice versa. The writers know what they’re talking about when they explain this concept, because it’s exactly what they do in each story in Spirit of Justice (and the series, as a whole). Each murder mystery tricks the player into making a flawed core assumption, of one kind or another, and then misdirects their efforts in solving the mystery at every turn, only revealing their elaborate illusion at the last possible moment.
Beyond each individual case though, is a larger, overarching story that’s told with equal care. One of the things that Spirit of Justice does very well is demonstrate a sense of growth among the characters. Phoenix is more of a veteran and a force to be reckoned with than he’s ever been, and he plays the role of mentor for Apollo, Athena, and, in a way, the entire country of Kuhra’in. Athena is still a rookie lawyer, but is now capable enough to stand on her own, and even characters like Gaspen Payne are no longer as much of a pushover as they’ve been in the past. However, as the title of the game suggests, this entry focuses squarely on Apollo Justice, as he grows as a defense attorney, and perhaps even becomes a peer of the legendary Phoenix Wright himself. To say more would be to enter spoiler territory, so I’ll simply state that Spirit of Justice tells a wholly satisfying narrative that aligns with what players have come to expect from the series.
Although the cases in Spirit of Justice meet the high bar that fans should expect from the series, the game does have its low points. The fourth case, in particular, is pretty weak, which isn’t helped by the fact that it’s positioned just before the finale. While the other cases all feel like they have a perfect place in the narrative, the fourth case is short, unrelated to anything else that’s going on, and doesn’t feature any especially memorable characters. It also doesn’t have a investigation section, which makes it feel tacked on, and more like a tutorial case, rather than something that we’re meant to play as the game begins to wrap up.
The presentation of Spirit of Justice is very similar to Dual Destinies. It uses the same engine, so the character models, and 3D presentation are identical to the previous entry. The soundtrack is a mix of classic tunes that have been in the series for a while now, and some new pieces for new characters, etc. The one area that seems to have improved is in the quality and quantity of unique animations for each of the characters, and that’s no minor achievement. Animation is more fluid, and detailed than ever before, and players no longer have to see the same three or four animations over and over again, as there is now a wider variety on display.