This (massive) review contains major spoilers for the entire Ace Attorney series and both Ace Attorney Investigations games (and minor DGS spoilers).
Before playing Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice (henceforth Spirit of Justice), I had some assumptions about what this game was going to be like, based solely on the trailers and what I knew from past experiences as an Ace Attorney fan. I even had a rough structure in my head; first talked about what worked, then move on to the larger subject of what didn’t work and why, incorporating short and long term causes of the game’s failure. When I came to play the game, however, at around half way through the second case (The Magical Turnabout), I realised that not only did I like the game much more than I was expecting to; I thought it was perhaps the best game the Yamazaki team has made.
For those less well-versed in the behind the scenes world of Ace Attorney, after the creation of Apollo Justice Ace Attorney, series creator Shū Takumi went off to create Ghost Trick, and a separate team for formed to handle the creation of the Ace Attorney Investigations spin-offs; a team headed by Takeshi Yamazaki. Takumi would later return to the series to write Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney and Dai Gyakuten Saiban but Yamazaki’s team would take over core development of the mainline Ace Attorney series starting with Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies. Yamazaki’s writing style is certainly more pronounced than Takumi’s; I think anyone playing Yamazaki’s games would notice two distinct features. Firstly, Yamazaki tries to create a grand theme for his games in a way that Takumi does not, and this means that they often feature grand finales with spectacular, often political, ‘final bosses’. Ace Attorney Investigations and Spirit of Justice both end with you taking down a politician (Spirit of Justice actually has two (if you can call Paul Atishon a politician)), and Ace Attorney Investigations: Prosecutor’s Path and Dual Destinies both get final bosses whose takedown carries some political impact. Dai Gyakuten Saiban seems to be trying similar things, but this isn’t a Takumi hallmark as it is for Yamazaki. The other noticeable feature of Yamazaki’s writing is that it really drags. Points are repeated ad infinitum, and some cases become very hard to play because of too much teasing and not enough telling. This is one of the reasons that I’m less fond of Prosecutor’s Path than some other people; the third case and the final case are both so much of a slog to get through that it feels like a struggle to reach the (admittedly brilliant) final boss.
Yamazaki’s trait of overly long writing certainly comes through in the first case of Spirit of Justice; The Foreign Turnabout, which sees Phoenix take his first case in the kingdom of Khura’in, the setting for this game. And my god, is this case long for an introduction to Spirit of Justice; it takes forever before the culprit of the case Pees’lubn Andistan’dhin (the puns in this game are kind of next level so bad they’re good, including one that gets oddly self-referential) takes the stand. The problem here is not that the first case is long, but that the mystery that supports it is weak. Apollo Justice also had a long first case, but it had a killer twist (geddit?) and a great premise in taking up the defence of Phoenix Wright. The Foreign Turnabout’s mystery is alright, but could have taken up much less time, and this feels even longer when a camera pan is triggered every five minutes, in case you forgot that the crowd isn’t on Phoenix’s side. The crowd had been a fun part of Ace Attorney games prior, and can be used to ramp up the tension, but overuse leads quickly to fatigue, and this game sure loves its crowd work. The first part of the game introduces us to the Divination Séance, this game’s new mechanic (because every Ace Attorney game is now required to have some new feature in it). Luckily, the Séance is fantastic, easily surpassing Dual Destinies’ feeble Mood Matrix (more on that later). The Séance feels fresh for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s difficult. Yes, you actually get penalised for slipping up, but even if you didn’t working out the solution is often hard but always fair. Secondly, this isn’t a tool of one of the protagonists. In fact, when the game starts, the Séance is regarded as a tool for the prosecution to provide flawless convictions. Thus, reinterpreting the Divination Séance as a piece of unbiased evidence for the two sides to fight over feels triumphant, and an actual realisation in gameplay terms of the main theme of ‘revolution’. The Séance gets further expanded on brilliantly in the third case, so I’ll talk more about it there, but suffice to say, I’m a fan.
The second half of the case focuses on taking down the real culprit Pees’lubn, who gets a great visual and auditory testimony. This seems like a good a time as any to talk about the presentation, which gets a huge upgrade in Spirit of Justice. Although Dai Gyakuten Saiban still holds the top spot for Ace Attorney visuals with its hugely stylish Joint Reasoning segments, Spirit of Justice looks great; the character design is classic Ace Attorney, and the animations translate the fluid sprite artwork of Apollo Justice into 3D much better than Dual Destinies did. The music is similarly improved from that game, and I’ve included a playlist of my favourite tracks from the game to listen to as you slog through this review. One track, entitled ‘A Cornered Heart’ fills a role in Ace Attorney that no other track has filled, but works really nicely in a game of this scale and ambition.
Now is also as good a time as any to talk about Phoenix in this game. Despite being the titular character, Phoenix Wright is somewhat shafted in this game, which is actually not a bad thing. Yamazaki has stated that he wanted Phoenix to be challenged again by putting him in a fish out of water scenario, and for the most part this works. Sure, Phoenix’s inner monologue is too similar to Apollo’s, and his persona in Turnabout Revolution is so different from how he plays it’s almost absurd. However, the challenges of Khura’in are just enough to hold suspension of disbelief that such a skilled lawyer could be so nervous. Having Phoenix experience Khura’in before Apollo is also useful in that we can once again see Phoenix take up the mentor role just before Apollo leaves for good. Phoenix know Khura’in by the final case, so there’s a good excuse for Phoenix to act as the senior of Apollo, and makes Apollo’s takedown of Ga’ran without relying much on Phoenix even more impressive. By the way, not how this paragraph on Phoenix has shifted to talking about Apollo? Yeah, that’s because Phoenix has little to do in this game, especially in terms of character development. Yes, this is a problem that has been in play since he returned to court in Dual Destinies. Yes, I will try and address what they could do with his character going forward when I talk about the ending.
For now though, it’s finally on to the second case, The Magical Turnabout (slow progress… (A lot like playing the game, I might add)). This case is really what sold me on the game; it’s sort of like finally playing Apollo Justice 2, but with a better prosecutor, better villains and a really solid little mystery. Mr Reus is one of the best Ace Attorney villains to date, and even before his eventual transformation from Roger Retinez to full on scorned Gramarye (transformation of witnesses is something that happens a little too much in this game), he is still such an infuriating presence that the final confrontation feels extremely satisfying, even more so than the takedown of Ga’ran. Some have complained about Yamazaki retconning the Gramarye backstory to include Reus, but it didn’t really bother me; in fact, not having heard of Mr. Reus before this case actually makes a funny sort of sense and adds to his motivation of being pissed off that he’s ‘the forgotten Gramarye’. As for the whole prank storyline, this feels more far-fetched in retrospect, but the fact I never questioned it while playing is a point in its favour. The return of the Gramarye storyline also allows Trucy to get some much needed character development, and although her mantra rings a bit familiar it’s way better than her getting completely shafted as she did in Dual Destinies, especially as this game has such a focus on Apollo. (Let me just also add before we move onto talking more specifically about characters that the return of free-investigation is another thing that Spirit of Justice improves from Dual Destinies. I can’t believe how much I’d missed it).
Speaking of returning characters, Ema Skye makes her return as a fully-fledged forensic investigator. While this means that the Ema we see in Spirit of Justice is a happier Ema than the one in Apollo Justice, that’s about it for her development. New Ema brings with her new forensic technology, including amazingly tedious fingerprinting sections that give you a huge 3D object and finicky controls and ask you to find annoyingly placed fingerprints. One segment involving a suitcase in Case Five took me upwards of 20 minutes as the fingerprints weren’t placed where you might expect them to be, despite characters telling you to ‘look where you might find fingerprints on a suitcase’. Ema is also useful for this review in terms of providing a neat Segway into talking about new prosecutor Nahyuta Sahdmadhi, who she strikes up a reluctant friendship with. Nahyuta is a much needed improvement in terms of a prosecutor from Simon Blackquill. Whereas Blackquill had a needlessly complex background and a pretty predictable character arc, his biggest flaw was just how many different prosecutor concepts were shoved into him. A prisoner prosecutor would be cool, as would a Japan-obsessed prosecutor and a manipulative prosecutor (although we sort of already have one of those). Blackquill tried to be all of these at once, and he ended up a bit ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Nahyuta is much simpler, at least concept wise. He’s a monk. He’s rude. That’s all you need to know, and it makes facing him easier to grasp. His movement from slave of the regime to secret rebel isn’t exactly inspired (Darth Vader, much?), but the writers play up how much under the thumb of Ga’ran he is that when he finally reveals the tattoo it’s a great moment. I’ll talk more about Nahyuta’s relationship with Apollo when I get to him, but it’s just different enough from Phoenix and Edgeworth that I didn’t mind it, and I almost like Nahyuta as a prosecutor more than Edgeworth, even though as a character he’s much shallower.
While The Magical Turnabout sold me on Spirit of Justice, The Rite of Turnabout was what made me really respect this game, and highlights what a leap has been made in terms of writing from Dual Destinies. This case features the return of Maya Fey, somewhat of a tragic inevitability for the series since the return of Phoenix to ‘protagonist’ role. Yes, I realise I might get some flak for this, but Maya’s story ended in the trilogy, and while in real life people’s stories don’t just end (and yes, someone raised that as an argument when I gave my views on the return of Maya), they do in fiction. Luckily, count me pleasantly surprised on how Maya was handled here. No, it’s not perfect, and she feels a bit tacked on given her strangely lacking amount of screen time, but it’s certainly better than I was expecting. Maya actually seems to have matured in between games, giving sound advice to Rayfa and talking with Phoenix about taking things more seriously, even if her trilogy character shines through sometimes. It’s simple stuff, but it’s good. Even Phoenix starts to feel older with his bouts of back pain. Given that Maya is either in prison or channelling Tahrust (in one of the creepiest moments of body horror I’ve seen since that episode of Monster Factory with Bart), most of Phoenix’s investigation time is spent with Rayfa Padma Khura’in, because even Back Pain Phoenix™ can’t keep teenage girls from swarming him at all times. That would be bad in and of itself, but it might be excusable if Rayfa was fun or interesting to be around like Kay was in Ace Attorney Investigations. Instead, the writers try and deviate from the standard fun sidekick, but unlike Susato in Dai Gyakuten Saiban, who is refreshing in her seriousness, Rayfa is just annoying. The best word I can use to describe her is tsundere, a trope from anime that has always infuriated me and I’m sad to see crop up in a series that can otherwise pride itself on the characterisation of some of its main cast. Nothing about Rayfa, from her introduction to her redemption made me care even a little, because her storyline was so predictable I could see each story-beat coming a mile away. I complained earlier that Nahyuta had some familiar elements to his arc, but at least him being held captive by the customs of the country was a neat twist. The closest Rayfa’s storyline came to surprising me was the revelation that Nayna was Amara, but that had little to do with Rayfa herself.
Why do I like The Rite of Turnabout so much then? Well, because unlike Dual Destinies’ third case, it succeeds in getting across the problems with the legal system that the main cast is supposed to be railing against. While I do have a soft spot for the comedic sides of Turnabout Academy, nothing about the case itself screams ‘Dark Age of the Law’, instead it’s the characters who have to constantly remind us that it’s the ‘Dark Age of the Law’, in case the funny tone of the case made us forget for a minute. In The Rite of Turnabout, everything points the player towards the game’s central theme of overthrowing a corrupt legal system by actually seeing that corrupt legal system drive a sweet couple to murder and suicide. Not only that, but it also uses Farewell, My Turnabout’s trick of a central mechanic (in this case, the Divination Séance), being used against you by the true criminal. The first half of the case is a bit of a slog, but the second half wowed me. Neither Phoenix nor Tahrust have to constantly remind you that the legal system is wrong, because the player is seeing it first-hand. In the end, when Beh’leeb fully commits to revolution, it makes total sense.
The Rite of Turnabout also begins to hint at the final case, be it Maya challenging a man, the introduction of Datz Are’bal, or the revelation that Apollo and Nahyuta are ‘siblings’. Rather than satiate our appetite for more information, the game decides to take a left turn, most likely because it had forgotten the existence of Athena, and we get to experience the bizarre Turnabout Storyteller. In a way, this is fine; I like Athena and it’s more Ace Attorney, after all (bear in mind that without this case, the final case would most likely be split into two so as to make sure that the game had five cases). Still, I like this case, mainly because it treats Athena and Blackquill way better than Dual Destinies ever did. Having removed the ‘prisoner’ aspect of his character, Simon becomes simpler and better written. Plus, we actually get to see his psychological manipulation for the first time when he plays Uendo’s multiple personalities off of each other in order to get them to testify (see how easy it is to show and not tell – again, this is simple stuff, but it works in Spirit of Justice’s favour). I really like Athena as a playable attorney (unlike Apollo and Phoenix, she feels more unique to play as), and the Mood Matrix gets an improvement with a new feature that adds…penalties! (Hooray for less hand-holding). There isn’t that much else to say about this case, the actual mystery being pretty decent but nothing to write home about (good twists with the murder weapon and the Time Soba trick), but I will quickly mention the much welcome return of the Thought Route, even if it looks a little weirder this time around.
So then, finally we move onto Turnabout Revolution, and my complex motives emotions regarding this case. This case actually separates into two parts, one a civil trial (ish) which features the inevitable face-off between mentor and mentee, and the other a grand murder trial in Khura’in that sees the future of the revolution put on trial in the form of Dhurke Sahdmadhi. But before we can get to that, let’s have a quick look at the civil part of the case. Let’s be honest, this is pretty cool. Not only is it nice to see a civil case in Ace Attorney, Paul Atishon is one of my favourite witnesses/murderers to date. He’s hilarious, and his great theme and breakdown are just the cherry on top. As I mentioned before, facing Phoenix creates an odd disconnect from playing as him – why isn’t he this on top of things when I’m controlling him? – And the whole ‘Phoenix forced to stand in court because Maya is being held hostage’ is completely ripped off from 2-4, but I did get a bit of a chill when Phoenix outsmarted Apollo, and then when Apollo finally turns it around to save Phoenix.
You’re going to have to forgive me, but writing about the final part of the last case is a little tricky, because I have yet to formalize my opinions on it like I have for the other cases. The finale is pure Yamazaki; it goes on forever and has more twists than a slinky. Initially, I was disappointed that I guessed the Nayna is Amara twist, but that turned out to be just one twist on top of many. Certainly the most successful of the twists was that *gasp* Dhurke was dead the whole time (duh duh duh)! Yes Dhurke, leader of the revolutionaries and an oddly lovable character considering he just shows up at the beginning of case five in a poorly written intro to the character. Yet, because of Turnabout Revolution’s length and Dhurke being (as BoltStorm put it) ‘Such a dad’, the revelation that he was just being channelled by Maya, having died at Inga’s hands earlier is a real shocker that actually made me a little bit weepy. The less surprising twist is that Ga’ran, or little Miss Spider-Hair, was actually the big bad and both Inga and Jove Justice’s murderer. Ga’ran is a pretty weak villain, so cartoonishly evil it’s hard to overlook. Simon Keyes undergoes a similarly evil transformation at the end of Prosecutor’s Path, but the revelation of him being the mastermind is so shocking that it’s easier to forgive. I think, then, were Ga’ran to have stayed composed while being the prosecutor, it would have made more of an impact than her looking like Ursula the Sea Witch. Her breakdown is also slightly underwhelming, but it comes after the well-executed twist (yes, another one) that she is not the rightful queen.
You’ll notice that we’ve gotten to the end of the game without talking about its star Apollo Justice. That’s because he gets the silliest treatment of any protagonist in any Ace Attorney game to date. Spirit of Justice’s very premise is silly; Khura’in is cool but makes so little sense in the wider context of Ace Attorney and suddenly springs out of nowhere to provide a setting for the game. The idea of taking down a monarchy in a country made of spirit mediums seems like ripe potential for a spin-off, not a main series game. And yet, Yamazaki and his team have not only tied Maya and Phoenix to this country, but Apollo as well. The constant drip feed of Apollo’s many siblings and family ties becomes absurd about half way through case five, and is then topped off by a post-credits reminder that Phoenix has yet to tell Apollo and Trucy about their connection (making a comment by Dhurke slightly uncomfortable). Still, Apollo manages to brush this stream of siblings off to assert himself as an Ace Attorney in his own right. In his own game, Phoenix did most of the heavy lifting for him, while in Dual Destinies he was pushed to the side-lines in favour of a ‘courtroom revolutionary’. Here, he finally gets to prove himself, saving Phoenix Wright and becoming a literal courtroom revolutionary, as opposed to whatever Athena’s exclusive Mood Matrix did to the courtroom. Were Apollo not such a mistreated character by the Yamazaki team, I’d feel that his send-off here feels earned, but because this is the closest he’ll get to a full game where he’s the driving force, the ending becomes bittersweet. Apollo finally gets the character development he always deserved, but we know he’ll never get to bask in it like Phoenix, because he just doesn’t bring in the dough for Capcom.
This analysis has been a long exercise in me spouting my thoughts about the game, but has it actually gotten us anywhere? Did I like the game? In short, yes. But I think the impact of the game has been stifled by the old foe Dual Destinies. Before you complain, I do like Dual Destinies, but its impact on Spirit of Justice has done little but lower the overall quality of this game. A better Dual Destinies would have gotten rid of the need for the Athena filler case, and given Apollo more time in the spotlight to have his ending here feel deserved. Still, I can’t give Spirit of Justice any more praise than saying it is the best post trilogy game we’ve had (note that I consider Dai Gyakuten Saiban unfinished at this point). It gives Apollo a nice conclusion to his arc, sets up and demolishes a fictional country that it (luckily) never takes too seriously, handles Maya’s return well, improves on almost every aspect of Dual Destinies that it tackles, and is probably the funniest of all the Ace Attorney games. High praise, indeed then. Yes, of course it’s flawed, including in some major ways, but damn, it’s still good.
There is one question I would quickly like to address before this ends; where does Spirit of Justice leave the mainline series? Apollo could conceivably get his own game helping Khura’in, but I very much doubt that. As for Phoenix, he’ll probably remain on the box, but I’d like to see him become a pure mentor character, emphasising his traits as ‘Turnabout Terror’ rather than ‘Turnabout Unprepared’. A soft reboot also wouldn’t go amiss, but maybe the best thing would be to let the series lie dormant a while. We have Dai Gyakuten Saiban to keep us going, but I think the important thing is for Yamazaki (or Fuse or whoever it may be) to make sure the next step for the series is simple, and effective (yay for buzzwords)!