The Ace Attorney series has been around for fifteen years now and remains one of Capcom’s most well-known franchises. For all the objections that have been yelled across a courtroom, the series has consistently been well received by fans, mainly thanks to the fantastic localization these titles always undergo. Those who’ve played the previous Ace Attorney games will feel right at home with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice.
The opening to this game places Phoenix Wright in the country of Khura’in, a place where lawyers seem to be missing entirely. You quickly find out why as you’re thrust into a case involving a young tour guide by the name of Ahlbi Ur’gaid. He’s been accused of murder and Phoenix is the only one who has any chance of saving him. As the trial begins, however, Phoenix realizes he might be in over his head; in Khura’in if a person is found guilty the lawyer also suffers the same fate as the defendant. Right off the bat Phoenix is up against an entire country that despises his profession, and both their lives depends on Phoenix finding Ahlbi innocent of murder.
Without going into too much detail to avoid spoilers, the first case does a good job of setting up the overall tone for the game and introduces many things that will come up as you continue to play through it. From the very beginning, the story was already building itself up. By easing you into Khura’in and reintroducing you to the main characters it was readying you for the finale before you even got there. The only exception to this is the fourth case in the game. This case is the only one in which you play as Athena, who is tasked with a sudden court case and no time to investigate. It felt like they were trying to give the players a chance to play as Athena at least once in the game, since the other cases have you playing as either Apollo or Phoenix. While this particular case is well written and fun to play through, it feels like it halts the story progression that had been building up. It quickly became one of the more forgettable cases despite being second to last. If this case had been played out earlier in the game and perhaps even included an investigation sequence to get me more invested, it would have been more memorable.
Ace Attorney as a series does a lot of things right, and one of those is never giving away all its secrets in whatever case I’m playing. While I was able to look at the evidence and information from characters in order to determine certain facts about a case before they came up, there was always something that might be ever so subtly hinted at during the game that I wouldn’t realize was true until it was finally revealed in court. It shows good storytelling when all the clues can be put together to create an outcome you didn’t see coming unless you looked really deep into every little thing. Even when I thought I had figured out the outcome of one of the cases, it completely threw me for a loop at the last second and it actually felt good knowing there was even more going on than I had initially thought.
The place Ace Attorney shines even more than its story is with the characters. Well written and portrayed, the characters draw your interest into the cases you’re trying to solve. Spirit of Justice felt like it had a somewhat smaller cast of new characters compared to previous games, but each one has enough personality to keep their repeated appearances interesting. I found myself multiple times thinking a certain character was in fact the true criminal and was surprised when the game ended up turning my thinking around entirely. It’s also worth stopping to say some of the character names aloud–the localization team knows how make a name that appears normal to be quite clever.
The gameplay in Spirit of Justice is identical to previous Ace Attorney titles. You point and click to find clues when you’re out investigating and in court you’ll cross-examine witnesses while presenting evidence in order to find out the truth. The one new creative gameplay mechanic introduced is Divination Seances. During the court sessions in Khura’in the character Rayfa summons up the final memory of the deceased in the Pool of Souls following a short cutscene of her dancing. This shows the player a look through the deceased’s eyes leading up to their death. In addition to the sight displayed you’ll also see words pop up representing the other four senses: smell, sound, touch and taste that they experienced leading to their death. Similarly to cross-examinations, Rayfa will explain what is being shown through her Insight; using the deceased’s five senses you’ll need to determine the contradictions in what she is telling you happened in their final moments.
While the Divination Seances were usually just a short part of the overall court session, it was a nice change from cross-examinations. Getting to see the final moments of a characters death would almost always mean you saw your defendant in an incriminating position, having to use both the visual evidence of the Seance and everything on hand made for a fun new way to examine exactly what happened.
In addition to the Divination Seances, you’ll also make use of Phoenix, Apollo, and Athena’s unique abilities from previous titles. Phoenix has his Magatama which can sense when people are hiding the truth, Apollo has his bracelet which can perceive when people are nervous about their statements and Athena has her Mood Matrix which helps her examine witness emotions. While these abilities all make an appearance in the game at some point they all felt very briefly used. It would have been nice to see them appear more while playing, but at least one was still featured in almost every case.
This game also sees the return of checking for fingerprints and using luminol spray to test for blood, all thanks to the reappearance of the character Ema Skye. You’ll either find yourself rotating an item while dusting it for prints, or spraying luminol in a background to see if any blood was left behind at the scene of a crime. While neither function is used frequently throughout, they’re used just enough to make looking for those final clues in an area feel a little more engaging than simply pointing and clicking on an object.
Graphically the game is identical to the previous title, Dual Destinies. The returning 3D character models are all slightly improved upon and still fit in well with the all the backgrounds. The new characters introduced in the game receive lively and endearing animations, making even the culprits interesting to as while they react to your questions and accusations. It also felt like they made more use of the 3D models for more in-game cutscenes, which are always very enjoyable to watch. There is also the inclusion of short anime cutscenes, similar to the ones seen in the previous title. These are typically shown at the beginning of each case and occasionally in the middle during a big reveal or important scene that is best animated.
Through most of the game I played with the 3D functionality for the 3DS turned on and found it to be quite enjoyable, making backgrounds and character models pop out more than with it turned off. It’s one of the better games to make use of the 3D slider since even on a low setting it adds more depth.
While the writing and characters were the high point in this game, they would be hard-pressed to stand by themselves without the fantastic music that always hits its mark. The Ace Attorney series has always known how to set the mood with its music and Spirit of Justice manages to do this just as flawlessly as previous titles. The music never feels out of place, whether it’s the tense music of having only one more chance to prove your theory correct or a lighthearted tune after successfully finding your client innocent, this game can always match what you’re feeling as you get drawn into each case. You’ll hear familiar tunes from previous titles and new songs such as the ones found in Khura’in which are especially outstanding, completely fitting the atmosphere of the mysterious foreign country.
Aside from the fourth case, which is the weakest, the only other complaint is the overabundance of flashbacks used in cases. While some flashbacks are used to help remember important points of information, most of them just feel like they’re needlessly repeating things that had happened previously in the same case. There are some instances where a character would say something emotional or thoughtful and a flashback of that moment would replay two more times in the same case, making it lose a lot of the initial impact.
The atmosphere, music and overall writing of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice are spot on. While there are a lot of callbacks to previous games, it never feels like they are there just for nostalgic purposes, yet the experience seems reminiscent of the original trilogy in the best of ways. The game is not recommended to those who have never played the Ace Attorney series; while a new player could still enjoy it, many references and key character interactions wouldn’t make sense to someone who had decided to start here. If you have played the previous games in the Ace Attorney series, however, you’ll want to add this one to your game library.