Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice review
It’s easy to make the case for Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice, so long as you have the patience to push through its clumsier moments.
No one should look to Phoenix Wright for a gritty and accurate representation of criminal justice. As in countless procedurals on TV, the primary concern of this long-running visual novel series is entertainment and storytelling, but with a decidedly anime flair. As such, its greatest assets are (and have always been) its characters, its world and what it does with them. But sometimes that’s not quite enough. The frequent ambiguity in its puzzle designs can make unraveling cases more tedium than triumph, and so the best Ace Attorney games need to be strong enough in what they do well to overcome what they don’t. At this, Spirit of Justice succeeds.
The events of Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice see its episodes divided between the activities of Phoenix Wright in the kingdom of Khura’in and his associates Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes back in the States. While Apollo and Athena have been left to manage the Wright Anything Agency, Phoenix has traveled to Khura’in, a theocratic country on the brink of revolution, to meet with his former assistant Maya Fey as her ascetic training there comes to an end.
each time the Divination Séance occurs, the game pushes it a little farther
As a result of this split in setting, some of Spirit of Justice’s cases employ characters and systems that should be familiar to longtime fans, while others are completely new. For example, Athena’s mood matrix once again plays a prominent role, allowing players to suss out inconsistencies in a witness’s emotions and not just their testimony.
The kingdom of Khura’in, meanwhile, has its own legal practices. Thanks to a law that makes those who defend criminals as legally culpable as the criminals themselves, defense attorneys are all but extinct there. Prosecutors are accustomed to running the show with the help of a ritual known as the Divination Séance, which allows a deceased victim’s last moments (including what they experienced through their various senses) to be seen and interpreted by a priestess present at the trial.
These séances are an integral part of each trial in Khura’in, and you’ll need to point out inconsistencies between the priestess’s descriptions of her vision and what you see — a reflection in a mirror, a sound growing stronger when it should be diminishing. Unlike other tools the series has introduced for analyzing spiritual and emotional evidence, the séance and the priestess’s Insight into what it shows are treated as a blend of evidence and testimony. It’s formalized to lay the foundation for each of the Khura’inese trials, rather than being something whipped out of a pocket when the time is right.
When séances and Insight were introduced during the first case, they seemed more like a hole into which a bunch of clever ideas that couldn’t be demonstrated through concrete evidence had been thrust. But each time the Divination Séance occurs, the game pushes it a little farther, twists it here and there, and turns it into an increasingly meaningful part of the trial process.
Tools and techniques introduced in previous Ace Attorney games are all still available, of course, and if someone is jumping into the series for the first time, there’s a good chance they might feel overwhelmed. Even with the optional tutorials offered for returning mechanics, the first two cases in particular may feel like a rush of gimmicks and doodads until the story hits its stride.
What really holds Spirit of Justice back is the same thing that’s consistently made the series as frustrating as it can be rewarding.
You’re never looking for A Flaw, you’re looking for The Flaw
There are countless occasions in Spirit of Justice in which investigations provide you with multiple pieces of evidence that can point towards the same conclusion. In theory, this redundancy should be a boon. It suggests that no matter what, you will be able to cement a certain conclusion while you’re making your case. Even if you fail to observe something subtle about Exhibit A, you may technically be able to prove the same relevant detail courtesy of Exhibit B.
But that’s not how it works. In practice, you’ll inevitably take penalties when you present a piece of evidence that still indicates the correct answer, but isn’t the precise piece of evidence the game expects or intends for you to present. With witness testimony, it can be difficult to discern which of two statements with similar content is the one the game wants you to target and refute, leading to further penalties.
In every case, I repeatedly felt cheated of the feeling of cleverness and triumph these games set out to provide when I had every single piece of the solution in hand, but put them together or presented them in a way that the script didn’t account for. For example, when I was trying to prove that my client couldn’t have left fingerprints during their alleged crime, video evidence of the accused wearing gloves triggered only the default form rejection of irrelevant evidence, because the game wanted the fingerprint analysis from the scene instead.
Or, how about this one: I needed to present a contract to someone to prove a flaw in what they’d said, but presenting the actual contract didn’t work. I had to instead present the clipboard that the contract had been signed on, which then triggered Apollo pulling out the aforementioned contract that I had been penalized for presenting just a moment earlier.
I spent less time figuring out the solutions to these riddles and dilemmas than I did figuring out the very specific ways in which the game wanted me to present them. You’re never looking for A Flaw, you’re looking for The Flaw.
And yet by the final case I was making plans to double back on this series and complete the games that I’ve missed or left unfinished over the years. At the climax of its story, when you finally begin to untangle the source of the political tumult in Khura’in, Spirit of Justice reminded me that while the series’ failings are evergreen, so too are its successes. It’s one of the most successful visual novels out there because it succeeds so well at making its static images and reams of text feel dynamic and exciting. It also has some of the best character designs that you’ll find anywhere, and over time — as the games have shifted from sprites to 3D models — that’s only become more pronounced. Every character in Spirit of Justice is laden with detail and lovingly animated so that not even a single gesture wastes the potential to define that character further.
But more than anything, Spirit of Justice succeeds at telling a story that lands. It’s just about as absurd a depiction of political unrest as Ace Attorney itself is a depiction of the legal system, but it lays down its plot threads effectively as you proceed from case to case, and gathers them all up at the end for a spectacular finale that makes those moments of frustration with its structure seem irrelevant. It brought me to such a high high that those low lows are barely even visible anymore, and that’s something that few games manage.
Spirit of Justice's confident story outweighs its clumsy moments
The frustration that comes with fumbling with redundant evidence and testimony when you know the solution is very real, and it often works against the feeling of satisfaction that solving a case should deliver. But muddling through the occasional poorly designed riddle to experience all that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice executes on well is worth it in the end. It gets the important things right, even if the occasional clipboard or contract still slips through the cracks.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice was reviewed using retail code provided by Capcom. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews
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