Visual Novel Theatre- Phoenix Wright: Spirit of Justice

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Man, Phoenix Wright. Ace Attorney. You remember those games? I didn’t, apparently, because I completely missed this new release until Red Metal reminded me it existed. Luckily, that has since been rectified. And my life is better for it. Let’s use that to make your life better, too.

Phoenix Wright is one of those series that is completely beloved and adored by everyone, so of course Capcom is convinced it’s barely selling enough to keep itself afloat and has thus relegated it to digital only releases on the 3DS. Spirit of Justice is the newest release in the series. And you know what? Phoenix Wright has not stopped being good.

Oops, spoilers. Now you don’t even have to bother reading this post.

Spirit of Justice is the 6th (I think?) entry in the mainline Ace Attorney-verse. It’s also the second entry in the new era they started building after the conclusion of Apollo Justice. It follows directly off of Dual Destinies, with the status quo much like it was then. Ol’ Phoenix is back to practicing law, and actually has a respectable law firm/talent agency, composed of the Superstar titular lawboy himself, the Superloud Apollo Justice, the Superyoung Athena Cykes, and the Superpantied Trucy Wright, who’s not a lawyer at all but that doesn’t matter for the purposes of this discussion. It’s still a pretty decent timeskip after what most people think of as the Phoenix Wright setting, and much like last time, part of the fun is seeing what the old characters and old places are up to in this new era. You finally see Maya again. That was probably one of the big selling points. And it’s not even a spoiler to say that you need to bail her out of a murder charge. In fact, that’s just tradition, now.

Spirit of Justice continues on some of the story notes started in Apollo Justice and continued in Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, in that the cases you’re facing now impact matters beyond just the life and death of your clients. In this case, you’re dealing with the stability of and rebellion against a quietly oppressive regime in a foreign country.

Spirit of Justice takes place in two main settings. You’ll be seeing a bit of the old, familiar, totally not Japanese country of AMERICA! And don’t you even doubt that the game is as American as they come eat your cheeseburgers. Most of the time, you’ll be hanging out in the country of Kura’in, a small, strongly religious monarchy that founded the channeling technique used by the Fey clan in games past. Kura’in’s got a bit of a unique take on the whole criminal justice procedure. They can call the spirits of the dead back from the Twilight Realm and view their final moments through their eyes. With this piece of evidence at their disposal, the state there feels that any arguing against their accusations is tantamount to an obstruction of justice, and so have instituted the Defense Culpability Act; anyone who defends an accused will be convicted of the same crime as them if they are found guilty.

As you can imagine, Kura’in doesn’t have any defense attorneys anymore. As you can imagine, you’ll be jumping face first into their court system.

Just like in Dual Destinies, you’ll be switching between your three lawyer protagonists, here. Phoenix has been hanging out in Kura’in, taking care of things there, while Apollo and Athena are holding down the fort back home in Japamerica. To be honest, it’s really Phoenix and Apollo’s show, here. Athena is mostly an afterthought, although you do get a bit of an interesting relationship out of her chapter that seems to harken back to the Phoenix’s and Mia’s from the original games. Spirit of Justice also continues the trend of really fleshing out Apollo’s backstory, in ways that clearly weren’t planned for any earlier than this game. Once again, it mostly works here, his background is vague enough that it’s got room for development, but it does cause a bit of dissonance when you run into big deal things from his background that he never once mentioned before. Like, I get that he’s the one long-established who still has all the mystery and vagueness that provides room for illustrating his backstory, but I feel there’s a more elegant way to work those minor things such as his entire blasted childhood in than just dropping them from out of nowhere.

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Gameplay-wise, Spirit of Justice is little changed from Dual Destinies. That is to say, it’s a little advanced from what you might know with the more popular DS games, but the core gameplay remains the same. You’ve got your investigations, where you interrogate witnesses, find clues, and uncover mysteries. Then you’ve got your courtroom scenes, where you interrogate witnesses, examine your clues, and uncover mysteries. In a more exciting way! You also argue with jerks! Who doesn’t love that!

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Spirit of Justice maintains the innovations Dual Destinies brought, so you’ve still got the multiple protagonists with their own special abilities, multiple angles to your crime scenes, much less punishment for your mistakes, and more general ease of use. Mechanically, Spirit of Justice doesn’t add all that much to the formula, save for one new thing. Reviewing the last memories of the dead. Basically, with this one, you watch through a soundless movie from the victim’s perspective as they’re killed, while words describing the sensations they’re hearing, feeling, smelling, etc. pop up, and the priestess describes the events as she sees them. You goal here is to find and point out the discrepancies between the way the priestess interprets things and how they actually present themselves. Once you do so, she refines her interpretation, something more specific pops up in the vision, and you get a little closer to the truth. In execution… it’s a little meh, to be honest. It’s an interesting concept, but I found it to be a little fiddly in practice. Just a little to many variables in this, it’s a lot easier to find something that might conflict with a statement in a video than it is with a bit of text. It’s something that I could see the series getting better at once the developers have some more experience with this, at least in making it a tighter bit of storytelling. So yeah, could get better once they try it some more, but you’ll forgive me for hoping they don’t when the inevitable sequel comes out.

Difficulty-wise, we’re a step up from the simplistic Dual Destinies and Layton vs. Wright, step down from the old school Ace Attorneys. There are a few real stumpers here, but the game gives you enough clues and tools that you can usually figure it out with some effort, or, failing that, brute force your way through.

But what do you care about difficulty? Ace Attorney is all about the story, the mystery, and the characters. That’s what keeps us all back to these games. Enjoying the light, twisty turny plot. Uncovering all those hidden factoids. Getting to see some more of these cartoon dudes and they’re deliciously eccentric personalities. Ok look. It all fits in. The context stuff the game presents here, it’s all about par for the course for Ace Attorney. It has the quality you may have come to expect, not much more. It’s not going to blow you away the way some of the other games may have, but it does definitely hold it’s own. If you’re new to the series, I wouldn’t recommend you start here, and if you’re not a fan, it won’t change your mind, but if you already enjoy your Ace Attorney? This will give you that fix you need.

I’m starting to realize that I’ve been banging that drum a lot, comparing this to past games in the series, which may be useful to some, not so much to people who’ve never tried the games out. Hey, look. It’s hard to get around that. That’s just the way the series goes. Sequels add more story additions than they do gameplay elements, that’s really what it’s all about. As a result, and a result of this game’s comparitive quality, this is probably not the best place to get into the series, and as it’s a digital-only release, it’s going to be exactly as accessible to you as some of the games that are a better entry point. I love the Phoenix Wright series. They make great games! And this gives you exactly more of what you’ve come to expect. But they’re more about the plot and mystery than the gameplay, and you’re going to be better off starting with the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy, which introduces you much better to them all and is available in the exact same place for the exact same price.

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One thing I do have to commend the plot in Spirit of Justice for, however; they do a great job of masking and leading you to the twists at just the right times. With the exception of the final episode, wherein the mysteries are foreshadowed a bit too much and I ended up figuring things out well before they were introduced, for the most part, the big realizations, while they were foreshadowed solidly enough that they never felt unfair, were still hidden well enough that I at least didn’t get them through my head until the characters started drawing the logic on them. That’s a very difficult balance to run in mystery stories, and it’s really to the writer’s credit that they were able to run that line.

As far as the characterization goes, our main cast have just the quirkiness and fun that we’ve come to expect and love. Phoenix does seem to have lost a bit of his confidence from last game, more in line with his original appearances, and Athena has largely taken more of an assistant rather than the lead role she used to have, but otherwise, if you like them, you’re getting more of that which you love here. As far as new characters go, there’s three you’ve got to keep an eye out for now. One of which is not exactly ‘new’ per se, but this is the first time we get to see Maya since the time jump. Turns out, she’s not as dead as everyone had expected! In fact, she’s doing just fine! Still loves food and kid stuff in spite of her position as the head of her village, still loves giving everyone around her a hard time in between her spurts of fervent commitment to justice, and is otherwise exactly what we know and love.

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As always, with a new game, we get a new rival prosecutor. Nahyuta Sahdmadhi. The game likes to present him as a noble, holy man with a lot of character flaws. Sometimes, he goes over the line into being a straight dick. He thinks he’s better than you. Which I get is what you guess when you have someone building his career in a country where success is a total gimme. Might be commentary on the state of criminal justice in Japan, there. He does get a bit of an explanation for it when you hit the end of the game, but until then, he makes it oh so satisfying whenever he gets his inevitable defeat.

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We’ve also got a bit of a new partner in Rayfa Padma Khura’in. She thinks she’s better than you too. I swear, not all the new characters are pompous fools, but… well, most of them are. She has more of a character arc than anyone else though, so it’s a little easier to forgive her for it. She has convictions. About herself, her country, and what her court system does. Those convictions get shaken. You follow along the whole way.

So yeah, that takes us to the end here. Do you really need a summary? Fine, we’ll just lay it out. It’s a good game. It meets the high bar the Phoenix Wright series has established. It maintains that level of quality. Doesn’t exceed it, it won’t really blow you away, save perhaps in the DLC episode, which is probably the best of the lot. If you love the Ace Attorney series, you’ll be rather happy with it. If you don’t, well, go back, play the original games, then get to this one once you’ve got that hunger for more content.

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4 responses to “Visual Novel Theatre- Phoenix Wright: Spirit of Justice

  1. One thing that struck me as odd in this game is that for the first time since the original Ace Attorney, all of the episodes were in chronological order. Apollo Justice and Prosecutor’s Path came close, but there is one playable flashback scene in each of those games, though the murders are solved in chronological order (unlike Dual Destinies where the first victim died last).

    Anyway, to be honest, I actually ended up enjoying this game more than Dual Destinies. I do admit it’s a little more hit-or-miss than Dual Destines, expanding on Apollo’s backstory could have been better handled, and I was a little disappointed that Athena was shoved to the sidelines, but all of the good moments landed really well, and I actually thought the divination séances were a good mechanic. There was one moment in the game where I figured out the fate of a certain character that was, as you say, foreshadowed a little too much, but that was a case where I didn’t want to be right, and I was still floored it turned out I was. All in all, it’s another solid chapter in a consistently great franchise, and it boasts one of the best finales in the series.

    Then again, I’ve really enjoyed the Ace Attorney series, and even the weakest installments had plenty of intriguing developments and more than a few times that are gratifying once you’ve connected all the dots. I may even have to start reviewing the series myself…

    • I did not realize that, but you’re absolutely right! No playable flashbacks here! They even had an episode about time travel, but everything was still in chronological order. Huh.

      I have a lot of really, really fond memories of Dual Destinies, but, and I didn’t go into it in this post, I’ve been wondering how much of that comes from the fanservice rather than the plot/gameplay itself. It made a really profound impact on me, but one of the things I most enjoyed was just seeing everyone again in this new situation, and I haven’t played it again, now that the fanservice awe has worn off, to see how it holds up. I suppose I might well feel the same way.

      That’s one thing I do admire about the Ace Attorney series. I know they’ve seen a lot of changes in the team and leadership, but they’ve kept the design philosophy there, and they still maintain a certain level of quality even through it all.

  2. I liked the original Phoenix Wright, but I never finished it after getting stuck on one of the cases. Perhaps I should give one of the newer games a chance. It would be sacrilege however for a Japanese loving Otaku to play a game set in America.

    • That’s too bad. Phoenix Wright is a great game, just American as all hell. You go to the traditional American shrines, eat traditional American sushi, and one time, face off against your traditional American yokai. This game even has a traditional American Rakugo routine! I can see how that might be a bit too much America for you.

      America.

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