“Weird” is probably the word that best sums up the Ace Attorney series. From its humble origins as an obscure Game Boy Advance visual novel up through its resurgence as a cult hit DS port and beyond, the madcap lawyering adventures have no shortage of head-scratching moments. The series’ success is in and of itself an oddity; the games are incredibly wordy, utterly daft, and their gameplay consists of “chose your own adventure” storytelling that you’d think would appeal more to grandmas than gamers. It’s a bit puzzling that slick-haired lawyers toting “objection!” and “take that!” signs are cosplay convention mainstays, but I think a lot of the appeal has to do with the game’s zany anime influence and tongue-in-cheek, self-referential humor. It also helps that some of the games are more readily available. Once low-print-run DS collector’s items, getting the original trilogy is now as simple as downloading the remastered collection from the 3DS eShop.
That said, Spirit of Justice is the series’ sixth main entry, not counting spinoffs like Ace Attorney Investigations and the comparatively subdued Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright crossover. After defending everything from a TV star samurai to an actual killer whale, where does Counselor Wright take his career next? Well, the answer’s right in the title “Spirit of Justice”—ghosts. No kidding.
Now, the supernatural is nothing new to the Ace Attorney franchise. Wright has a strong relationship to the Fey family, including his late mentor Mia and her younger sister Maya, and the Feys belong to a culture well known for divination and communication with the afterlife. But a significant portion of Spirit of Justice’s plot takes place in the foreign country of Khura’in, where séances are de rigueur, so it’s a central focus of the game. After the end of the previous game, Dual Destinies, Maya took a hiatus from being Wright’s personal assistant and traveled to Khura’in to hone her spirit medium abilities.
Wright travels to Khura’in to visit his old friend, and I appreciate that this time he doesn’t seem as incompetent as he used to. He’s Phoenix Wright so some sweating and bumbling are to be expected, but it’s been five games and I like that he doesn’t act as stereotypically dumb as he used to. Per usual he quickly gets embroiled in a case and volunteers to serve as the defense. To his horror he discovers that lawyers have been outlawed in the country, with highly subjective séances serving to convict or exonerate the accused instead. These séances are performed by the country’s petulant young high priestess, and purportedly depict the victim’s final moments before they were murdered. Even worse, defense attorneys who dare represent the accused are condemned to share their fate; if a defendant is convicted and sentenced to death, their counsel loses their head as well.
This definitely ups the stakes, but what it means for gameplay is an entirely new form of evidence to consider. Spirit séances are kind of absurd on their face and this sort of thing would never be admissible in a real court of law, but it adds a new dynamic to a gameplay system that admittedly had been getting a bit rote. The visions are basically like a security video from behind the eyes of the victim, but that makes them highly subjective and open to interpretation. The victim’s senses are represented by words that flash onscreen—things like what they hear, smell or “pain”—and naturally there is a lot of room for contradictions to slip in between what the vision shows and what the prosecuting attorney asserts is the truth.
So the old game of sussing out lies and discrepancies takes on a whole new layer. This combines with the usual cache of evidence to make some of the most complex trials in the series’ history. Even the first trial, which involves a young tour guide, a stolen relic, and a hippie monk/metal guitarist, was surprisingly challenging for me. The clearly guilty-as-sin witnesses this time around seemed even more irritating than the usual crop of egotists and slimy incompetents, but that made it all the more satisfying to really nail them with a contradiction in cross-examination and finally catch them red-handed.
Of course, one of my old complaints about the series remains. Oftentimes I can see some pretty clear contradictions early on, but the game makes me follow a more convoluted path to get to that determination. Something obvious at the start like “the victim was clearly struck from behind, not from the front” is right there in photographic evidence, but I have to follow a winding rabbit hole about a power outage, a dance performance and a closed window shutter before I can present the most plainly damning point.
As with previous entries the game seems insistent that I exhaust every last piece of evidence, finding earth-shattering implications for even the most mundane or seemingly inconsequential detail. This makes for some very labyrinthine trials and this should appeal to longtime fans, but I wouldn’t mind if certain pieces of evidence were red herrings once in a while.
Visual novel mysteries and especially Ace Attorney games live and die on their story, so I won’t risk spoiling anything else here. Suffice to say that this is one of the most satisfying collections of cases and as the sixth game in the series is plays even more with the long and complicated continuity, bringing a few things full circle. For example it puts even more emphasis on multiple protagonists than Dual Destinies did. While Wright and Maya tackle the highly flawed criminal justice system in Khura’in, Wright’s understudies Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes hold down the fort at the Wright Anything law offices back in America. It’s cool to see spinoff hero Apollo continue to be a main protagonist of the series, and while I don’t want to spoil too much, he and Phoenix Wright even find themselves on opposite sides of the witness stand this time.
The series’ production values continue to improve and Spirit of Justice is so far the high water mark. The pseudo-polygonal animated character portraits are more gorgeous than ever and the animation is stunning at times. The game also includes fully animated cutscene interludes and has some of the best, and most subtle, use of the 3DS’s stereoscopic 3D effect I’ve ever seen. As always the music is bombastic and melodramatic to fit with the bizarre action happening onscreen, with a healthy mix of old favorites and new pieces. When much-loved characters make their triumphant returns accompanied by their signature themes, I’m sure a number of veteran players will get chills down their spines.
Spirit of Justice doesn’t fix what isn’t broken with the series, and manages to add some intriguing new elements to an already hefty stable of gameplay mechanics. As a result the internal logic of these new cases is like the spaghetti tangle of cables behind your TV, but most fans wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t recommend it to newcomers as it’s quite a bit harder than most mystery visual novels, but if this is where Capcom chooses to end the Phoenix Wright saga, then it’s a fitting conclusion to the unlikely, one might say “turnabout” phenomenon of the Ace Attorney games.