Most objectives expected in video games consist of racing, moving from point A to point B, shooting an enemy or slaying a dragon, but would anyone ever think that arguing in a courtroom would make an interesting and intuitive video game experience? Not until the “Ace Attorney” series became a cult following with its thought-provoking murder mysteries, quirky characters, and imaginatively fun world still capable of capturing the minds invested in “Whodunit?” stories. The latest main installment of “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice” on the Nintendo 3DS has managed to capture some of those same elements like its predecessors, but how well and to what extent?
“Spirit of Justice” starts in a different setting where famous defense attorney Phoenix Wright visits the foreign, religion-focused country of Khu’rain to meet up with an old friend, Maya Fey. As usual however, he finds himself caught in the middle of a murder case—except this time, he becomes trapped within the boundaries of Khu’rainese law, one that lacks and condemns defense attorneys for their profession. With the country’s famous “Divination Séances” that allow the court to witness the victim’s last memories as well as its dark history with defense attorneys, any who fail to prove their defendant as not guilty fall under the Defense Culpability Act—a law that punishes lawyers just as severely as the accused, including execution. Seeing the unfairness of this legislation, it’s up to Phoenix to not only try to right the wrongs of Khu’rain’s legal system but fight for his own life, while Wright’s fellow defense attorneys Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes continue to hold down the fort in the U.S. court of law.
In regards to previous titles in the series, “Spirit of Justice” plays largely the same—with cross examinations of defendants and witnesses to find contradictions by presenting evidence, as well as investigations of crime scenes and bringing out the truth from people involved in a case with Phoenix’s signature breaking of Psyche-Locks, Apollo’s perception with his iconic bracelet, and Athena’s psychological therapy sessions. “Spirit of Justice” brings back the previous entry’s streamlined interface and gameplay of investigations that avoids tedious pixel hunting, while each attorney’s exclusive mechanic is spread throughout the game. With a consistent change between attorneys however, it keeps a good balance. “Spirit of Justice” also brings the return of using forensic science to closer examine evidence for blood and fingerprints—an element absent from the previous “Dual Destinies.” Unfortunately, these segments of the game are among the most tedious, having the player examine rather large 3D models with little fingerprint powder to use. This returning feature goes from a fun side element of previous installments to frustratingly long segments. Still, said segments are few and far in-between compared to other gameplay elements.
The most eye-catching feature however is Khu’rain’s famous “Divination Séances,” allowing the defense to examine and find flaws in the last moments of the victim. This mechanic that a majority of previous installments weren’t capable of is an interesting idea for a game surrounded by religion in conjunction with the logic to solve the ambiguities of murder cases. While it works out well a majority of the time, other times it’s rather confusing as to what inconsistences the player should be looking for, and the feature itself can sometimes be finicky about said inconsistences. It’s undeniably an intriguing and thought-provoking feature, but could have used some better overall execution.
Being one of the more well-known series of the niche “visual novel” genre, story is an important factor in the “Ace Attorney” series. “Spirit of Justice” provides a great overall story, with its character interaction being one of its strongest points as well as the narrative itself. Though some of the new characters in “Spirit of Justice” aren’t quite as interesting as others from past installments, their own backstories are interesting enough to keep the player’s attention. Many of their personalities still have the usual “Ace Attorney” charm and don’t painfully stick out, despite how wonderfully ridiculous they always are. Many lovable characters from previous entries also make a return and are just as fun as ever, but the only real crime the game commits with this is underutilizing the popular Maya Fey’s return. Despite her absence from the series for years, so little is done to acquaint her with new elements that have been introduced since as the game conveniently pulls her out of the plot from time to time.
“Spirit of Justice” takes an interesting change of pace by putting the recognizable Phoenix Wright in a very unfamiliar setting, but doesn’t overwhelm the player by bringing them back to the standard court room throughout the game. Though if “Spirit of Justice” lacks any noticeable flaw in its story, it’s the story-telling itself. The narrative is unquestionably fascinating and brings in a few surprises. But the mysteries of solving cases can be rather obvious at times, especially for a game that is focused on solving said mysteries. The game can’t help but occasionally hold the player’s hand by giving sometimes painfully obvious hints, and yet the characters seem to lack basic deductive reasoning in a profession that relies on such a concept. Usually, the real criminal’s identity becomes obvious quickly and it’s at times that the player may know a theory the game wants to propose is incorrect, but has to propose it to move the story forward. Nevertheless, the story is still quite enjoyable and something fresh, but does lack some of the enigmatic elements of other titles.
Considering its nature as a visual novel, presentation is also quite important. Much like “Dual Destinies,” “Spirit of Justice” continues to take the smart approach of emulating the spritework of older titles with choppy but captivating character animation. However, “Spirit of Justice” takes this another step further with more FMV cutscenes as the series has shifted to 3D. These scenes do look nice, but definitely aren’t the most stunning work to be found on the 3DS handheld and can be a little stilted at time. Playing the game in 3D also causes some significant framerate drops—some of which are still present even when played in 2D. Some models even require a few seconds to actually load, especially towards the end of the game. Though this isn’t a game breaker by any means, it can sometimes break the immersion that visual novel games try so hard to invest the player with. Many of the character models themselves are still well-made, and it’s hard not to appreciate what the series is doing differently from past entries; it simply lacks refinement—something one would expect after the developers’ first experimentation with 3D in “Dual Destinies”.
Other changes and inclusions in the presentation of “Spirit of Justice” is its greater presence of voice acting and its return of anime cutscenes from the previous game. Unfortunately, anime cutscenes have a much smaller presence than “Dual Destinies” and have noticeably downgraded in quality with the change of animation studios from BONES to A-1 Pictures. This is a disheartening change, but the animation itself is still nice to see when it does appear. The greater presence of voice acting is also a welcome addition to the series. Though “Ace Attorney” may never be a fully-voiced series, the performances of the well-chosen actors do make the overall presentation of “Spirit of Justice” quite enjoyable.
Though the sound of the voice acting is pleasant enough on the ears, the soundtrack doesn’t quite leave the same impression. There aren’t any songs that are particularly ear-grating, but many of them simply lack inspiration, fail to stick out, or are just reused from previous titles. In fact, among the best songs in the game are remixes of older tracks, but they aren’t even among the best remixes of the series and still leave more to be desired. It is definitely among the weakest soundtracks in the series, but the songs regardless do their job of setting the appropriate moods.
“Spirit of Justice” is a game that’s impossible not to get some real enjoyment out of, especially for long-time “Ace Attorney” fans, those who simply enjoy the series or even just murder mysteries. It has a fun and interesting story and is one of the more ambitious titles of the series with a nice overall presentation. Yet it does lack some polish in some areas, be it the presentation, soundtrack or in some of its crime-solving. But for fans of “Ace Attorney” or fans of interacting in crazy courtroom antics, “Spirit of Justice” is a game worth checking out. For the overall fun and investment it provides, “Spirit of Justice” earns the score of 3.75/5.0.