I was quite excited to download a new Phoenix Wright game; it’s a series I’m rather fond of and have been for a long time. What I didn’t expect was to play one of my favourite games of the year and one of the best in the series. I absolutely loved Spirit of Justice.
Spirit of Justice shakes up the formula by moving most of the actions to Khura’in, a small and beautiful country in Asia which is the original home of spirit channelling, an element of the series missed in the last couple of games. Khura’in is not as idyllic as it first seems, with an oppressive government enforcing the ‘Defense Culpability Act’, which sees the defense attorney sentenced to the same punishment as the accused if found guilty, often death. This has led to there being no working defense attorneys in Khura’in, with all trials being shams. Opposing the ruling Queen of Khura’in are the rebel group known as The Defiant Dragons. Into this mess arrives Phoenix Wright, who has travelled to Khura’in for a holiday and to meet up with his former assistant Maya Fey, who has spent her time since her last appearance training to master her spirit channelling powers. It is not too long before he sees an innocent party charged with murder and so, predictably, he heads to the Khura’inese courts to do what he does best, but now with his own life on the line.
I enjoyed the last Ace Attorney game, Dual Destinies, but neither it nor Apollo Justice came anywhere near grabbing me to the extent the original trilogy did. It turns out the change of scenery was just the shot in the arm this series needed as I was pretty much enraptured in Spirit of Justice. This is the funniest, strangest, most complex and epic of the Ace Attorney stories in a long while, all culminating towards an intense final case. The best character of the game is Apollo Justice, who you could make a strong case for being the real protagonist of this game. He’s the player character for the final case for example. Where Dual Destinies felt in some ways like a soft reboot, Sprit of Justice fully embraces the previous games. I was very disappointed when Dual Destinies completely ignored the interesting revelations about Apollo’s parentage in his titular game, but Spirit of Justice makes up for it by delving deeply into Apollo’s backstory and, surprisingly, building much of the game around his past. I ended up finding the whole thing quite moving and I won’t deny that this game brought a tear to my eye; not a first for this series, but definitely the first since the original trilogy. The new characters are great too, such as the Khuar’inese Princess Rayfa and the new prosecutor foe Nahyuta.
Of course, this is a Phoenix Wright game so the core mechanics are pretty much exactly the same as always. This game features the widest range of protagonists and sidekicks in the series history, meaning that pretty much all gameplay gimmicks re-appear at some point. We have the Psychelocks detected with Phoenix’s Magatama, we have Apollo’s lie detecting bracelet, Athena Cykes’ mood matrix, Ema Skye’s luminol blood tests. I was very happy to see all (the latter excluded, it’s just not fun) return, giving Spirit of Justice a ‘greatest hits’ feel. Joining these gimmicks is the Divination Séance from the Khura’inese Princess Rayfa, which allows the court to see the final moments of the victim’s life. It’s fun and another neat little twist on the formula. Obviously, you’ll still mostly be pressing court testimony and presenting evidence to highlight contradictions. It’s easy to knock the simplistic and linear gameplay of this series, but the thing to remember is that these mechanics exist pretty much exclusively as a tool for storytelling. The genuine heart pounding excitement of the final stages of a trial create the illusion of control and some will always be put off by the lack of player agency, but if you just surrender to it I honestly find very few games for satisfying.
Spirit of Justice is a lovely looking game, retaining the art style from Dual Destinies. Once again, everyone is brimming with character and charm and the divination séance visions are all fully animated and look wonderful. The music is great, although I still miss some of the great themes from the original trilogy. I was very amused to see the Steel Samurai theme tune play a vital role in one of the murders again. There are a handful of fully animated and voice acted cut scenes, which are good but so rare as to feel a little superfluous. They don’t add much. The writing is obviously the best part and the translation team did a great job. Translating Japanese games for Western audiences has become something of a poisoned chalice of late. A lot of people (idiots) think that a good translation is simply achieved by hewing as closely as possible to the original Japanese, which always just ends up coming across as stilted and awkward. A good translation, which this is, captures the original spirit of the characters and the dialogue whilst putting enough of their own spin on it to make it flow well for an English speaker. The localisation team did a wonderful job here.
Spirit of Justice is the best Ace Attorney game in years, through a combination of seeking the new and embracing the old. As ridiculously excited as I am for the Nintendo Switch, I’m a bit worried that uniquely handheld games like this will slip through the cracks and simply die out. If you can play Skyrim on your handheld how do you market Ace Attorney? That would be a crying shame as handheld game development has led to some wonderful games and series, including Ace Attorney. Here’s hoping that there will one day be a 7th game.