Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice Review

The gang's all here for Ace Attorney's bombastic sixth game.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney -- Spirit of Justice is strangely named. With the last game in the series, Capcom elected to put the name of its series' lead back in the titles, after a lengthy dalliance with spin-offs and up-and-coming protagonist Apollo Justice. Yet Spirit of Justice -- the sixth main game in the franchise -- is as much about the latter lawyer as any game to date.

It doesn't start that way. Spirit of Justice actually begins with Phoenix Wright -- the anime attorney who kicked things off with loud objections and pointed fingers. In classic Ace Attorney fashion, our justice-minded hero is immediately pulled into a case of murder and a framed innocent, with the series’ signature over-the-top sense of humor that somehow, never feels at odds with the dark subject matter.

If you've played Ace Attorney game before -- any Ace Attorney game -- you'll really know what to expect. Most of my experience with the series comes from the original trilogy, and it was actually somewhat distracting to see how much of the presentation has been directly translated from handheld to handheld, 2D to 3D, and 15 years' worth of games.

Spirit of Justice is still a legal tragi-comedy in visual novel form, intercut with crime scene investigations and sequences where you need to point out contradictions in witness testimony. Everything from music, to sound effects, to character poses and plot beats have been copy-pasted all the way from the first game.

One thing that should immediately stand out to long-time fans is the setting. Instead of the near-future California (that looks suspiciously like parts of Japan) in which the other games take place, Spirit of Justice begins in Kura'in, a kingdom of spirit mediums.

The law in Kura'in differs in a way that just so happens to fit perfectly with that old Phoenix flavor. Defense lawyers are hated and mistrusted to the point that a recent law states whosoever would defend a criminal will receive the same punishment, should their client be found guilty.

Moreover, clients are always found guilty thanks to the theocratic Kura'in's use of the "Divination Séance." The final moments of deceased victims are shown, and interpreted, through spirit medium magic.

What makes Spirit of Justice work -- what has always made Ace Attorney games work -- is a colorful cast of characters that absolutely will not give Phoenix and company the benefit of the doubt. Kura'in doubles down on that underdog atmosphere with a legal system that is constantly stacked against Phoenix, and eventually Apollo as well. Each case begins by feeling insurmountable, slowly building to an iconic "turnabout" as you shove evidence and testimony in the smug faces of your detractors.

In fact, that usual sense of hopelessness, and eventual hope, is the crux of the game's plot. What starts as Phoenix making a vacation visit to his old sidekick, Maya Fey, eventually U-turns into a tale of dictatorship, subtle manipulation, and all-out rebellion.

Spirit of Justice starts slow, seeming like a more perfunctory sequel than our last entry, but over time the story builds and reveals itself as absolutely essential to the greater world of Ace Attorney.

It just takes its sweet time getting there. The early hours of the game (and there are many early hours) swap between Phoenix in Kura'in, and Apollo (as well as his partner, Athena) in California. Phoenix's foreign chapters feel fresher and more vital. They move the plot along and  introduce new characters and mechanics through the aforementioned séances . The trials of the California crew, meanwhile, are familiar side stories completely cut off from the greater conflict.

Part of what makes the swapping so hard to stomach is that those new Divination Séance scenes are so very, very good.

Ace Attorney has accumulated a cadre of mechanics over the years, it seems -- some that I recognized, and some I only knew were standbys thanks to the characters' familiar reactions. Dusting for fingerprints, scoping out muscle tics with Apollo's lie-detecting bracelet, Athena's in-court therapy sessions, and so on: the gang's all here. Some fit the idiosyncratic gameplay better than others, but in most cases it was hard for me not to think that each element had been introduced to differentiate otherwise super similar sequels.

Séances are quite different. They're enormous parts of each case in Kura'in, and lend a dynamic element to the otherwise static contradictions.

Phoenix (and eventually Apollo) take turns tearing apart the state-sponsored insight into these visions of the victims' final moments, finding alternate, usually correct interpretations of what's shown. A gloved hand might prove that the accused couldn't have left their fingerprints on some object at the time of the crime, for instance, or the sound of a dog barking might indicate the victim was on a cell phone, rather than speaking to someone in the same room.

These séances are also essential facets of what the game has to say about the truth. In each instance, there is only one true series of events, although there are many interpretations. These misinterpretations are how the Kura'in government stays in so-called peaceful power, as the evidence is twisted to put innocent people to death.

The same can be said of any number of crimes pinned on honest clients the Wright Anything Agency has tackled over the years. Yet it seems especially poignant for these murders to be recorded and immediately interpreted in an era where crimes are constantly surveilled through smartphones, when public opinion is instantaneous. That it occurs here through necromancy, instead of true-to-life technology, only makes it easier to swallow with the rest of Ace Attorney's tone.

Speaking of which, Spirit of Justice leans just a bit heavier on the dramatic side than its predecessors. While there's always been a thread of tragedy woven through the past games (they are exclusively about violent murders, after all), this time things are especially dour.

The main plot sees Kura'in use its one-note legal system to suppress and execute dissidents. Meanwhile, this installment's rival prosecutor (a tradition for the series) is a tranquil, religious zealot constantly informing the cast which Hell they're destined for, and by that very nature he's a bit less over-the-top than previous opponents. Together they make for a tone that's much more serious than the anime shouting matches of past Ace Attorney games.

Which isn't to say Spirit of Justice isn't very shout-y, and very anime. There's still plenty of fun to be had in a universe where people react to being pointed at as though they've been dealt physical blows, and in which nearly everyone's name is a pun (Phoenix's first client is a tour guide named Ahlbi Ur'gaid). That tone isn't lost, it's just... quieter, next to the more action-oriented tale in Spirit of Justice.

When that action finally climaxes -- in a multi-day, multi-trial, multi-protagonist final chapter that ties together most of the main cast from Ace Attorney games past and present -- it's as good as the series has ever been. You'll just have to work your way through a lot of familiar territory to get there. In between, the game steps off that beaten path, tonally and mechanically, just enough to make the trip worthwhile.

Final Verdict: Yes