Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Spirit of Justice 3DS Review: Big Trouble in Fake China

After nearly a decade of trying to find itself, Ace Attorney makes a great return to form with this newest sequel.

Review by Bob Mackey, .

Ace Attorney has certainly traveled a long, strange road during its 15 years of existence.

Series creator Shu Takumi originally intended to wrap up the series as early as 2004 with its third game (released here for the DS in 2007), which did an excellent job of closing the book on Phoenix Wright and friends. But in the video game industry, nothing with a notable degree of popularity can ever truly die, so after a few games spent sitting on the sidelines, Phoenix found himself headlining once again in 2012's Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright and 2013's Dual Destinies—the latter of which mostly serves as an informal "back to basics" reboot for the series. Even though Capcom has done an admirable job of keeping the Ace Attorney fires burning, the games to follow the original trilogy have mostly struggled to form their own identity, or prove their worth as more than just works engineered to capitalize on something else's popularity.

After close to a decade of trying to figure itself out, Ace Attorney's latest (and sixth) installment, Spirit of Justice, represents a true return to form for the series. While it's couched in the reliable mechanics and rhythms fans of Phoenix Wright know and love, these elements are delivered with a degree of confidence that's been missing since the original trilogy's finale. Those hoping Ace Attorney would evolve beyond the fairly simple interactions of its predecessors—as Takumi's great Ghost Trick did—may feel a little let down by Spirit of Justice, but if you're looking for a collection of complex, satisfying murder mysteries told via the series' trademark anime melodrama and unbelievably believable plot twists, it doesn't get much better than this.

Change of Venue

To keep things fresh, Spirit of Justice drops Phoenix into the land of Khura'in, a vaguely Chinese country where lawyers are hated, and all murder cases are decided by the means of an ancient ritual that displays the victim's final moments from their perspective. While this new setting mostly justifies SoJ's slightly fan service-y angle by reuiniting Phoenix with his former assistant, Maya, it also gives him a formidable challenge after winning a dozen harrowing, high-stakes cases in his home country of Kinda-Sorta-America. In Khura'in, Wright is essentially knocked down to the lowest rung of the social ladder, and, thanks to a government act that states attorneys must suffer the same sentence as their clients, every case is literally a life-or-death situation.

If you've played a Phoenix Wright game before, Spirit of Justice's beats should seem very familiar. You have your pompous, stone-cold-serious prosecutor with a heart of gold, a cast of colorful, ridiculous, prop-wielding characters, and a series of seemingly unrelated cases that add up to a surprisingly interconnected story by the finale. Again, there's a bit of a focus on fan service this time around, but Spirit of Justice works hard to justify its choices. Rather than putting fan-favorite Maya front and center (as Layton vs. Wright did), Spirit of Justice waits until the third chapter to introduce her, then immediately swaps her out for a cranky, belligerent replacement. Even Ema Skye, another returning character, is used pretty sparingly; even if Ace Attorney can't completely divorce itself from its past, the developers have found a pretty tasteful way to make these callbacks work.

One of the more surprising elements of Spirit of Justice can be found in its overarching theme, which is incredibly consistent but not vague and/or overbearing—like "THE DARK AGE OF THE LAW" that popped up so frequently in Dual Destinies. Essentially, SoJ pits faith against reason, as each of these concepts stand as a means of explaining reality. The people of Khura'in take things at face value, while Phoenix and his crew believe the final moments of the victim amount to just another piece of evidence to be analyzed. While it would be easy for a series built on logic and reason to come down hard against faith, Spirit of Justice goes for a much more nuanced and surprisingly smart approach. Plus, this is a series where ghosts regularly testify in court, so Phoenix can never be too dismissive of theological leanings.

Law and Disorder

Unsurprisingly, Spirit of Justice plays out nearly identical to its predecessors. Over the course of the game, the length cases expands nearly exponentially, and while your first legal adventure doesn't leave the courtroom, afterwards, you'll be asked to do some investigating yourself—the members of the Wright Anything Agency are detectives as much as they are lawyers. Since the SoJ experience adds up to 25-30 hours of reading—with some choices to make here and there—the developers do a great job of mixing up your activities so you're never stuck in one mode for too long.

The real meat of Ace Attorney has always been pointing out contradictions, and Spirit of Justice finds a number of ways to dress up this basic act to keep it interesting. Of course, you have your standard Ace Attorney gameplay, which involves countering faulty testimony with contrary evidence, but SoJ also incorporates every other character-specific version of this concept from past games. The biggest addition, "divination seances," amount to some of the biggest challenges you'll face, as these pieces of evidence task Phoenix with finding inconsistencies between a summary of the vision, and the vision itself. And you're not just limited to what a victim sees in their final moments: other senses like smell, touch, and hearing play into these visions as well. Essentially, divination seances are a much more complex version of the "mood matrix" puzzles from Dual Destinies, and I always enjoyed when these pieces of spiritual surveillance footage challenges surfaced in court.

The recurring, slight flaws of the Ace Attorney series haven't disappeared, though. As with past games in the series, there are times when you know what you want to say, but aren't sure exactly how to say it with the limited means of interactivity available. Spirit of Justice also includes some irritating edge cases where two pieces of evidence could possibly work as a solution, but only one is "correct." One particularly egregious example asked me to identify a particular person, yet would only accept one of the two pieces of evidence I had that clearly contained a picture of him. These situations make for some slight speed bumps during the Ace Attorney experience, though they do make me wish the developers were a tiny bit more thoughtful about the pass/fail system they've established. And I also wonder why the series still retains its "health meter" when you no longer need to save-scum your way to success: Failing and restarting a trial simply kicks you back to the question that sunk you, and with full health to boot.

Spirit of Justice may fall back on some familiar Ace Attorney beats, but no entry in the series has ever looked this good. Dual Destinies and Layton vs. Wright were fine-looking games, but SoJ doubles-down on character animation in a very impressive way. Every character you meet is guaranteed to have at least a few minutes of expressive and entertaining bits of animation—often with an innocuous prop that gradually reveals their true colors—which does much to add flair to a mostly passive experience. Plus, it's always satisfying when the downfall of the guilty party involves a lavishly animated "finishing move" that has them freaking out, breaking down and keeling over in an always-hilarious way.

The Verdict

Even though I found the last few Ace Attorneys a touch misguided and disappointing, Spirit of Justice has done much to restore my shrinking faith in the series. While the machinery for the series has essentially been in place for 15 years, Spirit of Justice stands as the first AA game since 2007's Trials and Tribulations that didn't feel like it was aimlessly treading water for the sake of extending a series past its supposed expiration date. While Dual Destinies took the form of a somewhat rocky reboot, the developers at Capcom have finally established an identity for the series in the absence of its original creator. Even if Ace Attorney isn't due for drastic changes anytime soon, I'll keep returning to its reliable brand of complex, melodramatic mysteries so long as Capcom keeps making them.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Interface: Spirit of Justice's straightforward interface doesn't complicate the game's fairly simple interactions.
  • Lasting appeal: This is a linear adventure game, so it's not exactly designed with replayability in mind. But it'll keep you busy for at least 25 to 30 hours, which amounts to a pretty lengthy experience.
  • Sound: As expected, Spirit of Justice features many remixes of past tunes, but the new ones are equally worthwhile.
  • Visuals: For being a game so reliant on simple text, Spirit of Justice is downright gorgeous. Characters pop with personality-laden animations, and beautiful backgrounds make good use of the platform's 3D effect.

While Ace Attorney has had its ups and downs since the original trilogy came to a close, Spirit of Justice amounts to the fresh start Phoenix Wright needed to break away from his past. A great setting, fantastic mysteries, memorable characters, and a consistent, thoughtful theme make this a must-play for anyone interested in Ace Attorney's anime-infused take on Law & Order.

4.5 /5

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Spirit of Justice 3DS Review: Big Trouble in Fake China Bob Mackey After nearly a decade of trying to find itself, Ace Attorney makes a great return to form with this newest sequel. 2016-09-08T07:01:00-04:00 4.5 5

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Comments 12

  • Avatar for TheDarkKnight9113 #1 TheDarkKnight9113 A year ago
    Bob Mackey should buy me this game
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #2 Godots17thCup A year ago
    While I've pretty much accepted that Ace Attorney probably won't ever reach quite the same heights as the original trilogy did, I still get incredibly excited whenever we get a new game. AJ, DD and the two spin-offs that have been localized were all flawed, but on the whole I still enjoyed my time with all of them. And it should be nice to have another mainline entry that isn't intended to be a reboot of some sort.

    Also, reading such a glowing review immediately after watching another review where a longtime AA fan could barely contain their dislike for the game gave me emotional whiplash. It's put me in a place where I no longer know quite know what my expections should be for Spirit of Justice, which is kind of exciting in its own way!Edited September 2016 by Godots17thCup
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  • Avatar for tigergt33 #3 tigergt33 A year ago
    Just recently finished the original AA trilogy on 3DS and interestingly enough, I'm not craving to play the later games anytime soon. This probably speaks to how superb and masterful the original trilogy is. That being said, I'm excited that SoJ is excellent and I'm looking forward to play it in the future. Probably will buy it on the next couple of weeks to support it though !
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  • Avatar for swamped #4 swamped A year ago
    I'm relieved to see a good score on this one since I just finished Dual Destinies and was left with kind of a bad taste. I personally don't mind the lack of innovation in the series' gameplay, but the tone and story never seemed to really gel, I was dissatisfied by the end villain, and there were too many moments where the right answer was obvious and the player was forced to play dumb anyway. I think it was my least favorite in the series, which wasn't to say it was all bad, but definitely didn't end strongly.

    So I was feeling a little apprehensive about this new entry, but I'm feeling better knowing some of the issues I had with the previous game were resolved.
    @tigergt33 Don't forget the costume DLC is free if you can buy the game in the first week. If you care about that kind of thing. :)
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  • Avatar for FalcoT #5 FalcoT A year ago
    I was pretty burned out on the series after the Apollo Justice and Edgeworth spinoffs, so I'm glad they're back on track.

    Also, this is as good a place as any to mention Ghost Trick is a gem and still worth playing today.
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  • Avatar for Joethius #6 Joethius A year ago
    It's good to hear that the series' quality is going back up; I didn't like Dual Destinies and couldn't even finish Layton vs Wright. I have a couple questions, though:

    Does this game restore the old level of interactivity in investigations? One of the things that really annoyed me about DD was how streamlined it was, while the games that preceded it were great about letting you check everything out. Sometimes that meant also giving the player little to no guidance, but I preferred that system.

    Also, is the localization better in SoJ than in DD? DD was riddled with spelling errors; it was clear that just a little proofreading would've made a huge improvement.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #7 bobservo A year ago
    @Joethius To answer your questions:

    - The investigating isn't nearly as limited as Dual Destinies, though it goes for a similarly streamlined approach. In any case, it's better than the last game.

    - I only spotted one typo, and I have a pretty good eye for them. It's a great localization all around.
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  • Avatar for Joethius #8 Joethius A year ago
    @bobservo Phew, that sounds great. Thanks!
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  • Avatar for zidanix #9 zidanix A year ago
    I've been slowly replaying the original trilogy to get ready for this game and it sounds like I need to step it up.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #10 Kadrom A year ago
    Excellent. I was happy to see Dual Destinies get a release here, but it felt a little too safe to me. No memorable cases stick out in my mind like the way 1-5 or 2-4 did. Even just playing the eShop demo of this one I could tell there was more polish on the game now that they're more comfortable with the hardware.
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #11 Godots17thCup A year ago
    @bobservo How's the voice acting in Spirit of Justice? While I thought the voice acting in PLvsPW was mostly adequate, Dual Destinies often sounded like a subpar anime dub whenever the characters spoke.

    Granted, the old blips and bloops will always be the character's true voices to me, so I think I'd probably be all "Old man yells at cloud" about voice acting in Ace Attorney even if the dub was great. :P
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  • Avatar for bobservo #12 bobservo A year ago
    @Godots17thCup Honestly, there's so little voice acting in the game that it isn't even an issue (I think it's just limited to anime scenes).
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