Spirit of Justice is the sixth main-series entry in Capcom’s venerable Ace Attorney franchise, and it’s immediately apparent that Capcom is trying to shake up the formula a bit. Whether or not this is wise is questionable; the Ace Attorney games are adventure / visual novel hybrids, and, as such, are not really dependent on gameplay innovations, as the heart of the game is going to be learning the situations and then making the correct decisions. To the extent that Spirit of Justice’s more novel elements interfere with this, they seem more like irritating gimmicks than anything.
Searching for fingerprints, for instance, has long been a feature of the series, but here it’s made vastly more complex. Instead of presenting the player with a flat scene to slather arbitrary amounts of aluminum powder onto, Spirit of Justice has the player using limited powder to take fingerprints on solid 3D objects. This is extremely fiddly, as the controls for applying the powder and rotating the object fight with one another, often resulting in wasted powder and frustrated players. Blowing the powder away has also been made fiddly, since it no longer blows across the entire object; instead, only powder near the cursor is cleared, leading to a frustrating battle to get the object rotated correctly and the cursor in the right position without spreading lots of extra powder everywhere. Even then, it’s often the case that the powder doesn’t blow away easily or correctly, leading to lots of trial and error getting everything set up just right.
The whole game’s kind of that way. Underneath it all is the same old Ace Attorney goodness long-time fans are looking for, but there’s lots of cruft piled on top that you need to get through first. The major courtroom innovation is the presence of “divination séances,” in which a spirit medium conjures a vision of the deceased’s last moments, after which the player has to search for inconsistencies between the vision and the prosecution’s narrative. The séance is an interesting idea, but, in practice, it isn’t terribly different from the normal courtroom gameplay; except, of course, that it’s considerably more confusing, since, instead of presenting evidence against a selection of defined statements, the player has to present the incongruous element in what amounts to a looping video. It’s not very hard, but it can definitely be frustrating, as it’s somewhat more difficult to whittle down the choices.
If the presence of divination séances didn’t tip you off, yes, Spirit of Jusice is set in a mysterious foreign land: Khura’in, to be specific, which is the land where the Fey family originated. This means two things: first, yes, Maya Fey is finally back, and, second, the localizers took advantage of the situation to concoct the most obnoxious possible character names.
Most of the Khura’inese names are that bad, from Pees’lubn Andistan’dhin and Tahrust Inmee to Puhray Zeh’lot and Rheel Neh’mu. Goofy names have always been a feature of Ace Attorney, of course, but it appears that Spirit of Justice’s setting was taken as an excuse to abandon all restraint or subtlety, the end result being a setting the player has a difficult time getting invested in or even taking seriously, which is an issue, especially given the thick layer of pathos smeared across the game. Spirit of Justice opts for a somewhat less dark tone than Dual Destinies, but is still, in the end, trying to be weighty and “epic;” this time around, Phoenix and colleagues are attempting to liberate a foreign nation from what they, as enlightened outsiders, have determined to be an insufficiently progressive government. That this mission could be carried out from the defense’s bench in a courtroom strains credibility, but, if the player can get beyond that, there are still several strong and effective moments, albeit often marred by startlingly poor writing.
There is quite a lot of content in this game, with five main chapters (the last one very long), one DLC chapter, and two short DLC comedy vignettes billed as “Asinine Attorney.” Of the six chapters, three are set in “Los Angeles” (which gets more and more Japanese every game; this time one of the cases involves rakugo, for pity’s sake) and three in Khura’in. By and large, I found the American chapters more enjoyable, as they weren’t loaded down with the pathos of the Khura’inese chapters, and, as such, could focus on being entertaining murder mysteries.
The mysteries themselves — the core of the game — are enjoyable if a bit on the obvious side. There is the occasional embarrassingly meatwitted plot point, but, for the most part, they’re tightly-plotted and entertaining. Capcom promised to go lighter on the hand-holding this time than they did in Dual Destinies, and that promise was arguably kept, but they kept it primarily by making the game really really easy; the game may not be telling you the answers directly, but it scarcely needs to. Easiness aside, there are some clever twists, and one in particular in Turnabout Revolution that genuinely surprised me; things like this are the most fun part of any Ace Attorney, and Spirit of Justice delivers on them. Sadly, it also thinks a few of its twists are far more subtle than they are, which creates the irritating experience of the characters being unable to figure something out, and the player yelling it at the game.
The incidental dialogue is charming and enjoyable, and it’s nice to see the return of examination, which was removed from Dual Destinies; once again, the player can inspect the game’s locations and get amusing remarks from the cast. Also pleasingly, Capcom appears not to have forgotten the lesson learned from Trials and Tribulations, and the pop culture references are generally kept to a reasonable level. In fact, while I rarely ever have good things to say about pop culture references in video games, Spirit of Justice does contain probably the best one I’ve ever seen:
The DLC is ample — the bonus chapter and vignettes mentioned above, which unlock costumes and home themes when completed — but particularly the Asinine Attorneys are a bit on the spendy side, given that they’re really only about a half an hour of content each. Overall there’s quite a bit of play time here, which is nice, given that the replayability is a bit limited.
The graphics are fine, if unremarkable, though the anime cutscenes are once again a bit jarring. The music is, as always, excellent; several old pieces return in new recordings, with the standout being Turnabout Sisters’ Theme 2016 — a familiar song now, fittingly, “all grown up.” The voice acting is questionable to bad, with some extremely weird choices (most notably Edgeworth’s bizarre Great White Hunter voice), but is fortunately infrequent, occurring mostly during the aforementioned anime cutscenes. The cutscenes themselves are few and far between, with the solitary exception of the cutscene that plays at the beginning of every single divination séance. The same cutscene. Every time. It’s skippable, which is lovely, but still probably a poor decision.
Overall, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney — Spirit of Justice is a worthwhile purchase for any fan of the series, or for anyone who enjoys visual novels or mystery adventure games. If you’ve never played an Ace Attorney game, it’s not the best jumping off point; I would suggest starting with Ace Attorney Trilogy or Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright instead, as they’ll do a better job of easing you into the world and the gameplay. It’s not a perfect game — it is also, perhaps, not the game I was hoping for — but it’s enjoyable nonetheless, and I award it 3.5 beautiful girl hairs out of 5.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney — Spirit of Justice is available from the 3DS eShop for $29.99.