The original Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney began life on the Game Boy Advance in 2001 as a Japan-only release. The courtroom-themed point-and-click visual novel had a tightly-knit narrative featuring hotheaded lawyers, finger-pointing antics, contradictory witness testimonies, murder mysteries, and a wacky supporting cast. Capcom eventually made two more games, completing the original trilogy. Thanks to the Nintendo DS’ touchscreen, point-and-click adventures became more popular leading to more western releases, including the Zero Escape, Professor Layton, and Ace Attorney series. Luckily, the courtroom dramedy found a following, leading to the releases of a new set of titles, Apollo Justice and Dual Destinies. The sixth game of the mainline series, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice, completes a new trilogy, tying up some loose ends and character arcs, while providing the same excellent “turnabout” mystery plots that the series is known for.
Spirit of Justice allows you to play as several different lawyers, most notably, the original protagonist Phoenix Wright and his protégé Apollo Justice. During a visit to the Himalayan-inspired country of Khura’in, Phoenix Wright gets caught up in a case and quickly learns that defense attorneys are frowned upon, with no active lawyers in sight. Stepping up to take the case, Phoenix realizes that there is more at stake in Khura’in, and a courtroom revolution is in order. Meanwhile, Apollo defends clients on the home front at Wright’s law offices while his boss is away.
Since this is a visual novel, the story is just as important as the gameplay. The mysteries contained within represent some of the freshest, most innovative cases that the franchise has had in a while. The whodunits here are less convoluted and very clever. Mystery fanatics may solve some plot twists before the characters, but that doesn’t take away from the overall improved writing. The localization team did a great job making the story enjoyable for western audiences, producing some of the most ridiculous puns in series’ history. For example, one of the first characters you meet is a tour guide named Ahlbi Ur’gaid. Go ahead, say it out loud.
As in its predecessors, the individual cases form the building blocks of an overarching story. The theme of courtroom revolution in a foreign country provides some of the highest stakes in series history. The game still remembers its roots and provides plenty of funny dialogue, tongue-in-cheek references, and silly characters. Overall, the pacing and storytelling is improved over recent entries. However, one case in particular throws off the pacing with its unrelated plot and comparatively dull and somewhat confusing mystery. Also, there are a few stretches that go on for too long or require suspension of disbelief. Otherwise, SoJ tells a compelling tale from beginning to end.
SoJ has a large cast of characters, both new and returning. The new characters are likable in doses, such as the stuck-up Khura’inese princess Rayfa and the new no-nonsense Khura’inese prosecutor Nahyuta. Although there are small character arcs scattered throughout the game, they mostly feel like afterthoughts, with the exception of one character who receives a lot of development. Fans of the original trilogy will be especially pleased by the return of a certain beloved character, who brings the mystic art of spirit channeling back into the series. Those who have played Apollo Justice and Dual Destinies will likely find the most satisfaction with this story since SoJ functions as a trilogy-closer, tying up some loose ends.
SoJ shares the same gameplay as its predecessors. As a defense attorney, your goal is to prove that your client is not guilty of a crime, namely murder in the world of Ace Attorney. During the trial’s cross-examinations, you listen to witness testimonies and uncover their contradictions or lies. You do this by presenting appropriate evidence that proves one of their statements wrong. As a hypothetical example, a witness may say that he has never played the Ace Attorney series. Thumbing through your evidence, you may discover a receipt that shows the person has bought an Ace Attorney game, which you then present while pointing your finger and yelling “OBJECTION!” As a bonus feature, the game actually lets you yell “Objection!” into the microphone to present evidence. As you poke holes in their testimony, the lies are exposed and the truth comes out. You can also press statements, which sometimes lead to pertinent information or at least a humorous exchange. All the while, the opposing prosecutor acts as your devil’s advocate, constantly countering your arguments and demanding further evidence. As in previous games, these engaging logic puzzles are its defining factors and set it apart from regular visual novels.
The mysteries aren’t too difficult to solve, and you may even be several steps ahead of the protagonists. But if you need help, the game provides support to struggling players with a “Consult” option after you incorrectly present evidence a couple of times. Consulting clues you in to which statement contains a contradiction, ensuring that you never get too stuck. You can turn them off or ignore them if you prefer. SoJ returns to the “five strikes and you’re out” rule from the original game. Even if you mess up five times in court and lose, the game graciously respawns you right before you made your last error so you don’t have to start anything over. One may ask why even bother having a five penalty rule, but at least the game respects your time.
The country of Khura’in introduces a new mechanic to keep trials fresh: Divination Séances. The Khura’inese princess, Rayfa, performs a ceremonial dance during the trial to show the victim’s final memories. Their memories are presented as a video with words popping up to reveal the victim’s sensations. The words vary in size depending on vicinity or intensity of sensation. For instance, the word “incense” may appear, indicating what the victim smelled. Likewise, other descriptors appear for sound, touch, and taste. Princess Rayfa gives her insights on what the victim’s memories mean, but it’s your job to decide whether her interpretations are correct. This unique take on ghost whispering is fun and well-executed.
The other big trial diversion, Mood Matrix, returns from Dual Destinies. With the help of psychology expert and lawyer, Athena Cykes, you must figure out whether witness’ emotions match up with their testimony. These segments are not as entertaining or intuitive as the séances, but they provide an alternative way of solving a murder.
Investigations occur outside of trial segments and employ a more standard point and-click adventure style. Here, you must gather evidence, interrogate people, and investigate crime scenes. You are free to examine any scene, which was a feature missing from Dual Destinies, and sleuths can enjoy fun easter eggs and references by searching anything and everything. Investigations provide a break from the intense courtroom action but are not as engaging as trial segments. A helpful Notes function provides a handy checklist of what you need to do next to keep the investigation moving.
Luckily, Phoenix and Apollo have special abilities that spice up investigations. Phoenix can see people’s Psyche-Locks, which indicate that they’re hiding something important. By using evidence similarly to court proceedings, Phoenix can break their locks and unveil the truth. Likewise, Apollo’s mystical bracelet allows you to spot people’s tics to uncover their secrets. Finally, forensic minigames return, which include dusting for fingerprints and spraying luminol to detect blood.
While all of these diversions are good, these abilities are only performed a few times each. It feels like SoJ tries too hard to incorporate everyone. The game casts a wide net in trying to give each character screentime, resulting in undersaturation of most characters and cameos that feel forced.
There is one noteworthy mechanic that caps off most cases: Revisualization. This is the climactic, turnabout moment of the trial where you piece together the evidence to reveal the vital clue that pins the crime on the true killer. The logical deductions race across the screen to a heart-pounding beat. This leads up to the final juicy revelation that flashes in giant red letters, designed to give you chills. The Ace Attorney series has always been about last minute plot twists that turn the case around, and the flashy Revisualization segments illustrate this in the best way possible.
There are five episodes of varying lengths. Playing through the story takes about 30-40 hours, which is on the long end of Ace Attorney games. Of course, this number depends on how long it takes you to find contradictions and how much you explore during investigations. Already knowing the case resolutions and plot twists ruin the mystery portion and will give most players low replay value. Some fans may still enjoy replaying the game like rereading a good book, especially if they try to see any dialogue they may have missed.
Graphics and Sound
The art is breathtaking, with detailed shots of Khura’in’s exotic locations. The characters’ full 3D models all move beautifully while still giving nods to the original games’ 2D style. There are many elaborate character animations, and even in-game engine cutscenes look wonderful. There are some anime cutscenes as well that put the actual Ace Attorney TV show to shame.
The music is a highlight in Ace Attorney games and SoJ delivers on all levels. The exotic Khura’inese Himalayan-inspired trial music, victorious “Objection!” themes, inquisitive cross-examination tunes, and suspenseful pursuit music give life and energy to courtroom proceedings. Catchy music and fun character themes round out the rest of the excellent soundtrack. The voice acting is good, though there is a miniscule amount.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice is a worthy installment in the courtroom mystery franchise. It provides a good conclusion to the trilogy that Apollo Justice began. The revolution-themed story remains coherent and deep, while presenting some of the best mysteries since the original trilogy. The old and new characters have excellent chemistry. However, SoJ spreads itself too thin by trying to incorporate too many characters and abilities. Despite this, the courtroom cross-examinations are as fun as ever with Divination Séances providing a fresh take on these logic puzzles. If you are a fan of murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, or visual novels, then this series is well worth your time. If you’ve only played the original trilogy, be sure to play Apollo Justice and Dual Destinies to fully appreciate this game’s references. Otherwise, Ace Attorney fans who have played all games until now should have no OBJECTIONS!