Early 20th Century Austria may not sound like the most interesting setting for a video game, but it gave rise to significant moments in history. Many may know it as the home country of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination was pivotal leading up to World War I. However, not everyone may know that it was also a breeding ground of modernism in an era focused on cultural advancements in the arts and sciences. The Lion’s Song explores this period through a point-and-click adventure game told in four episodes, all available in one download on the Nintendo Switch.
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-clickadventures 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!
What are your thoughts on Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice? What are your favorite games or cases from the Ace Attorney series? Have you played any of the Ace Attorney spin-offs or other similar visual novels? Share any thoughts you have in the comments section below!
The Zero Escape series began on the Nintendo DS with 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, a mystery thriller about nine characters trying to escape a ship. The game featured branching decisions, puzzling escape sequences, and huge twists that turned the story upside-down. Despite its commercial failure in Japan, the series was well-met with critics, leading to a sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, on Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita. The game built upon the intriguing plot of the original and brought new characters, more escape rooms, and a bigger emphasis on science fiction. Again, the game didn’t sell well, which led to series creator, Kotaro Uchikoshi, putting the series on hold indefinitely. Luckily, fan response and a desire to finish what he started led Uchikoshi to finally create the conclusive third game of the Zero Escape trilogy, Zero Time Dilemma.
Zero Time Dilemma weaves a tale similar to previous Zero Escape games but puts its own creative twist into it. Again, a group of people find themselves trapped in a facility thanks to a mysterious character who goes by “Zero.” Everyone unwillingly participates a survival game in which six players’ deaths will allow the remaining three to escape. Meanwhile, Zero engages them in life-threatening decision games that often end in betrayal or self-destruction.
Of course, that’s not all. The huge catch is that every 90 minutes, the characters are injected with a drug that causes them to fall asleep and lose their memories of that fragment in time. This unique concept manifests in the gameplay as well. You can experience nearly any 90 minute fragment in whatever order you choose. Since the characters don’t remember what happened beforehand, it’s almost like starting anew each time. Unfortunately, this makes development seem somewhat static. However, this unique style of storytelling sets up its own brand of intrigue. Each fragment is part of a large timeline, which you view as a massive flowchart. Certain sections of the timeline remain locked until you complete specific story elements. As you play more fragments, you can piece together the timeline and solve the mystery of this treacherous game.
Unlike previous titles, the characters are divided into three groups that rarely interact with each other. Although you get to appreciate each group’s rapport more, you miss out on individuals’ reactions to characters outside of their group. Regardless, the characters are entertaining and run the gamut of personalities. You play as the three team leaders: loyal and righteous fireman Carlos, kind but anxious Diana, and mysterious entity Q. Rounding out the rest of the cast are some new characters and some familiar faces from both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. Fans of those games will be pleased to see more conclusive revelations to these characters’ fates.
ZTD is largely rooted in the visual novel genre, so storytelling is essentially half of the game. Experiencing the story is more cinematic than ever before, with fully-animated, voiced cutscenes replacing the lines of text from previous entries. After choosing a team and fragment from the menu, you watch that particular episode.
Within most fragments, you will encounter the second part of this game: escape sequences. This style of gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has ever participated in a real-life escape-the-room game or have played older adventure/point-and-click games. In these sequences, you must seek a way out of a locked room by searching the area, solving puzzles, and managing items. Each room features unique challenges, including spatial reasoning puzzles, codebreaking, math problems, logic riddles, and hidden-picture minigames. The game effectively utilizes the 3DS’ touchscreen for its challenges and point-and-click portions. Additionally, a memo function lets you take notes, which is almost required for certain puzzles. A room’s difficulty largely depends on a player’s ability to solve these logic puzzles, but they are all generally solvable without requiring outside assistance.
The puzzle rooms are mostly enjoyable breaks from the story, but they share common pitfalls. First, most of the rooms follow a linear structure. Although you can technically access most puzzles from the get-go, there is typically one puzzle you are required to solve that will give you the solution to the next puzzle, and so-on. Some rooms are open-ended, but most only give the illusion of choice. Building upon this issue, some rooms require you to find certain items to complete a challenge. However, on some occasions, these items are too well-hidden, represented as only a sparkle or tiny item on the floor. These annoying pixel hunts serve as barriers for players who are just trying to solve the codes and escape.
Following most escape rooms, Zero tasks the characters with a decision game, usually tied to a complex scientific, statistical, or psychological principle, such as the anthropic principle, the Monty Hall Problem, and the prisoner’s dilemma. Each decision leads to a different branch point, further complicating the extensive timeline. Thankfully, you can return to any segment of the timeline at any time to redo a decision. You can even fast-forward through story elements to get to the branch point, making the experience user-friendly.
Without spoiling anything, ZTD’s implementation of the timeline is extremely clever both from gameplay and story perspectives. The timeline is just as much a part of the game as any other element, and the culminations of these fragments is a thrill to play through. That said, there is one section that players may get stuck on once all the available story fragments are exhausted, and better communication on that particular progress prerequisite would have been appreciated.
No matter what order or which teams you play as, there are wonderful story sequences with clever twists throughout. There are multiple endings, with some being either graphically gruesome and others presenting juicy revelations for the entire series. Some end-game twists may come off as too convoluted (even by Zero Escape standards) and may disappoint some fans looking for more in the trilogy’s conclusion. However, ZTD answers many questions and ties up loose ends from all three games, which fans won’t want to miss out on.
Graphics and Sound
ZTD utilizes fully animated and voiced cutscenes, which is a huge step-up from text-heavy static screens. The characters don’t move that much, which is to be expected from a dialogue-heavy game, but the models look pretty good and resemble an anime-styled Telltale Games presentation. During action scenes, the framerate drops and the cutscenes devolve into PlayStation era FMV sequences. Regardless, having these extensive cutscenes helps this game feel more modern.
The game has options for both English and Japanese voice tracks, which will appease players of either camp. The voices are good for the most part, although there are some volume issues with certain characters like Zero, whose voice is very hard to hear. The creepy music contributes to the game’s tone while mild techno tracks during escape sequences help get the brain running. Longtime fans will be all too familiar with the five discordant tones signaling death and madness, and the series wouldn’t be the same without it.
ZTD will take most players between 25-30 hours, making it shorter than the previous entry, Virtue’s Last Reward. Total playtime varies depending on how long players take during puzzle sequences. Although there are multiple endings and many fragments to complete, most playthroughs will go through each fragment and ending to get through the whole story, so there isn’t as much replayability as it may seem. It is very possible to replay it like rereading a good book, and playing fragments in a different order can make it interesting. For the most part, this game is only meant to be played once.
Zero Time Dilemma has a great story filled with the ridiculous twists that Uchikoshi has become known for. This game gets scary and gory, earning its M rating, so only those who can stomach it need apply. Otherwise, players can strap themselves in for a thrilling tale filled with science fiction and horror. Mystery aficionados and puzzle fans will love this enjoyable mix of visual novel intrigue and escape room sequences. Fans of previous Zero Escape games owe it to themselves to play through the exciting series conclusion. However, players without prior experience may be lost in the midst of references and convoluted time plot. If you haven’t played a Zero Escape game, it is recommended that you play the first two installments, especially Virtue’s Last Reward. Once you are familiar with what the style and characters of those games, you will fully appreciate the madness that is Uchikoshi’s Zero Time Dilemma.
What are your thoughts on Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma? Have you ever played the other games in the Zero Escape series and what did you think? What are your favorite story-based adventure games or visual novels? Please share any thoughts you have in the comments section below!