It seems to always be up in the air as to whether or not the West will get the latest Ace Attorney game. We missed out on a couple of spin offs, and Dual Destinies was only available as a digital download. Thankfully, Spirit of Justice has made it stateside; it’s still digital only, but beggars can’t be choosers.
This game made a lot of promises in the build up to its release. It promised a branching story across two countries, new gameplay based off of spirit channeling, and the return of Maya Fey to the main series for the first time since the original trilogy. It delivers on all of these promises to some extent, but perhaps not in the way fans may have hoped.
Spirit of Justice contains five cases split among three different lawyers: Phoenix gets two, Apollo gets two, and Athena gets one. The connecting story involves the fictional country of Khura’in, the fictional home of the Fey sisters from the original trilogy. In Khura’in, spiritual power is revered and worshiped, and during trials, priestesses perform a special seance that allows the court to see the final moments of a victim’s life. This, combined with a nasty hatred towards attorneys, has lead the country to pass the Defense Culpability Act. This law mandates that defense attorneys who do not get a Not Guilty verdict are instantly found guilty of abetting a criminal. Not only that, but they are given the same sentence as their client… which includes the death penalty. Naturally, Phoenix and company get mixed up in several trials in this country.
While the early parts of the game focus on Phoenix trying to reconnect with Maya, who was training in Khura’in, the final chapter is entirely about Apollo and his past. In this way, it seems Spirit of Justice is trying to wrap up a trilogy of Apollo Justice games. This is unfortunate, as it leaves the story feeling like it’s being pulled in multiple directions. The game is simply not sure where it should focus at any point. There’s even a random case for Athena to take the lead on, although it doesn’t connect to any of the others and feels awkwardly attached to the game at times. As such, when you’re not in the courtroom, the story feels awkward. If you’re someone looking forward to seeing how Maya and Phoenix reconnect, you end up having to wait for an hours long chapter to finish up. If you wanted to see more of Athena, Apollo, and Trucy, you’ll end up with the same problem.
For the most part, each individual case is actually pretty good. Some of the series tropes get reiterated here, but there are some genuinely new surprises and a host of interesting witnesses to cross-examine. Of particular note is a scared child that communicates via a flying drone. The problem is that none of this comes to form a cohesive whole. In particular, if you were hoping for some kind of payoff involving Maya’s return to the series, you’re going to be left out in the cold.
The presentation is pretty much what you’ve come to expect from this series. Characters are represented by animated sprites that are designed to be over the top and full of personality. During dramatic courtroom moments, the camera will zoom in or a speech bubble featuring words like “Objection!” and “Hold It!” will pop up on the screen. Getting witnesses to crack on the stand will also yield hilarious animations and reactions. There are a handful of animated cut-scenes in the game, and they always stand out. As for sound, the music is as fantastic as ever. Characters tend to get their own themes, there are fitting songs for somber moments, exciting moments, and so on. While the themes don’t have quits as much punch as the original games, it’s still quite good and more than fitting. Beyond that, a handful of sound effects and pips for speech make up the sound. There are some voiced lines, but these are kept for a few specific phrases and moments. It’s a solid package, and kind of perfect for this kind of game.
Gameplay is split into two different sections: trials and investigations.
Trials make up the bulk of the game. Generally speaking, you’re attempting to get your client declared not guilty for the crime of murder. As pat of the trial, the prosecution will call forth witnesses to give testimony. Cross examining them is your job. To do this you can either “press” their statements to get more information or “present” evidence that contradicts one of their statements. Typically, you’ll have to present evidence before the trial can move on, although pressing might lead to new testimony that you’ll have to counter. The logic here is linear but not too difficult to work out. At other times, the you’ll be asked to make an argument. You’ll be given two or more choices that for what to go with. Again, there’s only one right answer, but it’s usually not too hard to figure it out.
Presenting irrelevant evidence or wasting the courts time with a baseless argument will cost you a penalty. If you take too many of these, you’ll lose the case on the spot. However, you’re allowed to retry immediately without losing much if any progress. It’s a lenient system compared to the earlier games. You won’t need to save scum in order to try out random options when you’re stuck.
During investigations, you need to move between locations, talk to various characters, and examine crime scenes. For examining, you merely slide the stylus or use the analog stick to where you want to investigate. Places you’ve checked will be marked and you generally need to keep going until you’ve seen everything. Occasionally, you’ll be asked to play a small mini-game. This is usually dusting for fingerprints. For these, you tap the screen to apply dust and blow in the mic to clear excess dust. Sadly, the controls are sluggish and unresponsive here. These scenes turn frustrating as a result.
Returning the series are a handful of special mini-games that help you crack witnesses or get new testimony. Each of the three protagonists has their own ability. Phoenix can see “psyche-locks” that can be broken by presenting evidence in the right sequence, Apollo can use his perception to figure out a person’s tell, and Athena can detect awry emotions. These bits are rarer than usual for the series, but break up the gameplay rather nicely when they show up.
New to series, however, are Divination Seances. During cases in Khura’in, the priestess will perform a seance that will allow you to see the final moments of a victim’s life. While you can’t hear what they hear, various words will pop on the screen to represent the sensations they felt. For example, the moment of death might be accompanied by the word “pain”. The priestess will give her insights based on these scenes, and it’s up to you to point out contradictions. You have to choose the statement that is wrong as well as the sensation that goes with it. For example, if the image goes dark before the victim felt pain, then the priestess’ assumption that the victim lost their eyesight as they died is probably not right. These sequences basically add up to another new mini-game similar to the protagonists’ powers.
This is probably the longest game in the history of the series. There are no short cases here, and two of them are especially long. The final episode is split into two very long cases with lengthy investigation sequences to boot. At times, the game can be too slow. For example, a lot of time is spent on talking about the inner working of Khura’in. In addition, the characters constantly stop the trial to remind you that you’re facing the death penalty along with your client. It’s meant to keep the tension up, but it gets old. Honestly, you could probably trim two or three hours off of the game’s thirty plus hour length and lose nothing.
Much of how you personally feel about this game is going to come down to a couple of different things. Firstly, the focus on religious aspects can be divisive to say the least. Characters will berate, insult, and threaten those that don’t agree with their religion constantly in this game. It makes them great villains at first, but quickly grows disgusting as it’s drawn out over hours of gameplay. Secondly, the game focused much of the marketing on the return of Maya. Despite that, her presence in the game is at a minimal. In fact, it appears she makes much more of an impact during the DLC case that will be released at the end of the month. For fans hoping to see Phoenix and Maya work as a team again, it will cost extra money. That’s just not cool. If you were hoping for some sort of romantic entanglement, prepare for a massive letdown. The game refuses to address it.
Short Attention Span Summary
Spirit of Justice, despite having plenty of great moments, is one of the weaker entries in the franchise. The story is pulled into too many directions by conflicting character motivations. One second you’re getting ready to revisit an old friend, and the next you’re across the world at a magic show. Each case eventually finds a groove and delivers the kind of exciting courtroom shenanigans have come to love. It just takes longer than usual. Combined with the heavy focus on supernatural aspects and misleading marketing, and this game might disappoint even the most ardent of fans. It’s worth a look, but it might have to wait for a sale.