Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

Nintendo 3DS

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice
Defense attorney Phoenix Wright travels to the nation of Khura'in, a suspiciously peaceful place that punishes lawyers alongside guilty clients. Wrapped up in protecting the innocent, Phoenix challenges the nation's justice system while his protégées Apollo and Athena hold the fort with their own bizarre days in court.
Phoenix Wright needs a vacation, a transfer, or to use apt terminology, a change of venue. Throughout five major Ace Attorney games and several spin-offs, CAPCOM's presented Wright with fiendishly complex murders, help in the form of fellow lawyers Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes, and various constellations of oddball witnesses and culprits. Yet he's rarely outside of his home turf: a modern nation that's ostensibly America but really Japan, right down to a justice system heavily tipped toward prosecutors.

Ace Attorney: The Spirit of Justice grants Phoenix his getaway in the nation of Khura'in, where his friend and assistant Maya Fey, absent for most of the last two Ace Attorney games, pursues her training as a spirit medium. Khura'in is a mishmash of East Asian nations, ruled by a monarchy and beleaguered by rebel forces. Most interesting is their legal system, where murders are solved by the watery divinations of haughty royal Princess Rayfa, who captures a victim's final moments.

Khura'in effectively banned all defense attorneys decades ago with an edict that punished lawyers alongside their convicted clients. When a friendly young monk named Ahlbi Ur'Gaid (the first of many wonderfully horrible puns) stands accused of murder, Phoenix steps into the empty defender's platform and unwittingly throws the gauntlet before the entire Khura'inese government.

As Phoenix plunges into the Khura'in legal labyrinth, and Apollo and Athena watch over things at home, cases progress largely unchanged from the Ace Attorney pattern. Some give the player the chance to investigate crime scenes, but the rich core of the series lies in the trials that unfurl all manner of shocking truths, strange misdeeds, stranger witnesses animated with amusing detail, and moments where a client is just a gavel-bang away from an unjust conviction.

Long on expository dialogue and short on interaction, it's a series driven by characters, by the outlandish prosecutors desperate for guilty verdicts, by the endearing stereotypes that need their stories dissected, and by the courtroom revelations that show everyone's deeper side. In that light, Spirit of Justice is full of small improvements: better character models, more scenery, and a soundtrack that fits the new Khura'in landscape nicely.

The legal tools all reappear: gather evidence and details, prod testimonies until the holes appear, and use turns of logic and material proof to put the real murderer (who's never far from the courtroom) behind bars, with Apollo's lie-detector bracelet and Athena's Mood Matrix occasionally coming into play. Phoenix's Khura'in trip adds a new element with Rayfa's portal to a victim's last vision. The player now sifts through the aqueous footage, picking out contradictions in sensations that bubble up as words. Ace Attorney games often dress up their base gameplay with simple gimmicks, but Divination is the first that's really intriguing. Victims seem more sympathetic as you pick through their final glimpses, and like most evidence you encounter, their last minutes aren't what they first appear to be.

The Ace Attorney series often struggles in the absence of creator Shu Takumi, now occupied with side projects like the Professor Layton crossover and the prequel The Great Ace Attorney. Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, the first major game without him, was hardly terrible. It was generally charming and frequently hilarious. Yet it was also safe and predictable, a comforting installment of a long-syndicated legal drama.

Spirit of Justice takes more chances. Khura'in is fresh territory, and its power struggles and vicious laws raise the stakes around Phoenix. Previous courtroom challengers sought to humiliate him; the new ones want him executed. Pious monk-prosecutor Nahyuta Sahdmadhi takes the offensive in most cases and proves far more subtle than his predecessors, intimidating by sanctimonious insults and nonsensical damnation. He's entertaining, but among previous prosecutors he ranks above only Klavier Gavin in overall impact.

A better antagonist emerges in Princess Rayfa, who follows Phoenix on his investigations, condemns his lawerly turpitude at every corner, and fumes when her visions prove misleading. We've seen her character and her shattered-privilege story arc many times before, but she brings welcome spite to a series that normally saves its conflicts for the trials.

Too bad Spirit of Justice is only in Khura'in for three of its five case. It begins with a routine introductory trial that lays out the nastier elements of the Khura'in courts, and then we're back in Japan-as-America with Apollo, Athena, and a magic-show murder for the second case. It threatens to nosedive with a tedious investigatory phase (including a mind-numbing search for fingerprints) and plot threads drawn around bland magician Trucy Wright, but the courtroom scene puts an amusing spin on a tired twist and finds the reliable Ace Attorney blend of comedic knife-edge tension. It also reintroduces forensics expert Ema Skye as the game's primary investigator, so it's forgiven any weak elements.

Spirit of Justice doesn't deliver until the third case, a Khura'in double-murder mystery that bares the internal conflicts of the nation and the characters as Phoenix defends Maya, who much like Jessica Fletcher's dimwit nephew on Murder, She Wrote, can't seem to stay out of trouble. Through all the turns and nonsense, it's Ace Attorney at its best: silly despite the grim murders, compelling despite the silliness, and genuinely touching at the end.

The fourth case backtracks with a return to Apollo and Athena's turf, where Athena, as the newest member of the firm, gets the legal equivalent of latrine duty: a surprise case about rakugo performers and soba noodles. It's an occasionally funny but largely disposable outing, notable only for the banter between Athena and Dual Destinies prosecutor Simon Blackquill, along with the game's admirable refusal to rewrite most of the Japanese culture references this time. The first Ace Attorney game lodged the series in a corner by setting everything in Los Angeles, but it's conceivable that southern California has a prominent circuit of traditional Japanese storytelling comedians.

The fifth case returns to Khura'in and pulls together most of the characters introduced in Spirit of Justice—and one who's been with the series much longer. Like Danganronpa, Zero Escape and other narrative-driven games of late, Spirit of Justice is convinced that only a wildly unpredictable climax suits a story. So while Spirit of Justice overstuffs itself with plot twists and transforms the courtroom into an unlikely stage for personal enlightenment and national upheaval, it's sometimes too absurd even for a series where the dead testify on their own murders. But hey, it's still a comedy.

Spirit of Justice also retains one of the more frustrating Ace Attorney staples: incredibly specific solutions. Proving someone innocent requires not only the right evidence, but the right timing. You might know just how the butler entered the locked room, precisely where he stood, and which brand of iron he used to steam off a stamp and frame the baron's psychic werewolf daughter, but unless you know exactly which evidence to offer at which point in the conversation, you're out of luck. The Khura'in water divinations exacerbate this, as you now must pick out the correct sensation as well as the correct evidence and patch of dialogue.

Even so, Spirit of Justice is worth the small annoyances. Like its lawyer heroes, it's rarely without a good comeback when mediocrity threatens. If the plot turns preposterous, it's easy to take it as a joke. If the case drags, it's fun to see the characters quibble. And on the rare occasions where the series unearths a bad cliché, at least there's a cute mannerism like Ahlbi's puppy perching on his head. It only mixes up the formula a little, but Spirit of Justice knows what it's doing, and it's just what Phoenix Wright needed.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : B+

+ The middle case is exceptional, the new divination technique is intriguing
Irksome guesswork guides too many solutions

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