This is the tenth in a series of Ace Attorney reviews and I recommend reading the others before this. This post will contain spoilers for Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice and all the games preceding it. Thanks for reading!
As of writing, Spirit of Justice is the final game in the main series, and the last to be released in English. When I started writing this series of critiques, it was with the assumption that a new game was right around the corner, but that has yet to be announced. Ace Attorney is in a state of limbo, and Spirit of Justice is its parting words. And, although the game ends on somewhat of a cliff-hanger, I wouldn’t necessarily call it an unfitting ending. Likely Yamazaki’s final game as a director, Spirit of Justice feels in many ways a celebration of the entire series, from the trilogy to Dual Destinies. Yamazaki himself has said this in his dev blog, stating “Spirit of Justice is a sort of culmination of all the various threads of the Ace Attorney series.” It’s a game whose most defining feature is a celebratory nature, and in this critique I’d like to discuss how it manages to achieve that feeling while also being one of the most bizarre and unique games within the series.
The game opens not in the courtroom lobby of a “Japanifornia” court, but instead outside, in the newly introduced Kingdom of Khura’in, a South-East Asian inspired fictional country with its own rich history and distant relationship to Kurain Village, a location first mentioned way back in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The introduction of Khura’in is a big reason why this game feels so odd, especially to long-time fans, but I hesitate to call the country a complete failure in either idea or execution, and that’s mainly because of the series’ relationship to spirit channelling as a concept.
If you can cast your mind all the way back to September of 2018 (fuck) when I wrote my first entry in this series, I criticised Takumi for introducing a concept as big as spirit channelling to a game about murder mysteries and then not doing enough with it. It takes until Bridge to the Turnabout for the series to start properly using channelled spirits as devices in mystery cases and the idea is then promptly forgotten for most of Apollo Justice and Dual Destinies. And yet, the series must always reconcile with the choice that Takumi made in that first game, and Yamazaki’s answer to this problem is the Kingdom of Khura’in; a country in which spirit channelling and communion with the dead is accepted as evidence in a court of law.
In fact, it’s on this which the game’s new mechanic, the Divination Séance, rests. The game’s first case, The Foreign Turnabout, wastes little time in introducing it. A holidaying Phoenix is suddenly thrust back into court when his 8-year-old tour guide (don’t ask) is arrested for murdering a security guard and stealing a priceless Khura’inese heirloom. The trial is already decided by the time Phoenix stumbles in, based on the evidence of a Séance that claims to be able to see the final memories of the victim.
It’s difficult to call the Divination Séance anything other than Ace Attorney’s best additional mechanic; the Magatama, Perceive and the Mood Matrix all have their moments, but the Divination Séance is a nearly perfect integration of everything you might want from a mechanic in this series. Firstly, unlike Perceive, it’s entirely logic-based. You’re presented with a video that includes all of the victim’s senses before they die, and a series of statements that interprets those senses. The statements, referred to as ‘Insights’, are critical for making the Séance work both as a gameplay device by giving the player something to cross-reference with, and also as an Ace Attorney mechanic, by retaining the series’ main lust for finding contradictions. Secondly, unlike the Mood Matrix, it’s not something that’s working for the defence. You initially see the Séance as a tool used by the prosecution, but it’s actually better than that – it’s a neutral ground, a piece of evidence to be used and interpreted by four parties; the defence, the prosecution, Rayfa, and the victim themselves.
The Rite of Turnabout, the game’s third case, exemplifies the beauty of the Séance by making it a key plot point that it is nothing more than another piece of evidence, as well as allowing the case’s victim to manipulate that evidence. The first Divination Séance in this case is wonderful, an ever-increasing web of contradictions that somehow leads neatly into the existence of a third person at the crime scene. It’s a great piece of Ace Attorney writing, where something simple is turned ever more complex before being untangled into a satisfying revelation. The Séance, by expanding on the basic tenets of the franchise, is able to achieve that success far better than any other mechanic can.
If the existence of the Séance is the greatest triumph of the introduction of Khura’in, it’s fair to say that The Foreign Turnabout also introduces many of its flaws. The first is clear right from before you get into court, when you’re talking to Ahlbi and he mentions that he knows Maya. Now, this could be excused in a number of ways – such as that Maya introduced Ahlbi to Phoenix – but what’s important for now is that the country feels tiny. In The Foreign Turnabout, you’re only introduced to three Khura’inese citizens; Ahlbi, the Judge and Rayfa. Of those three, only one could really be classified as a Khura’inese layperson. The murderer in the case is a foreigner, as is the prosecutor; a returning Gaspen Payne.
This is something that continues throughout the game. In The Rite of Turnabout, you’re again not dealing with any normal Khura’inese people aside from Ahlbi. The other characters are all high priests, rebels, Justice Ministers and princesses. It creates the impression that Khura’in is extremely small, destroying the potential to cultivate a feeling of popular anti or pro-royal sentiment. The game is about revolution, but without any real contact with the Khura’inese proletariat, you can’t really get a sense of the country as a whole. The game clearly recognises the need for this, which is why the crowds in the courtroom get much more of a look-in in this game, but their comments are so cartoonish and stupid that they’re easy to ignore. In fact, the crowds of Khura’in are so loud and interrupt the flow of gameplay so much, it’s easy to simply turn against them anyway. Khura’in often brings to mind the town of Labyrinthia from Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney, so it’s a shame that Yamazaki’s team didn’t take a page from that book and fill the country with unique inhabitants that could create more of a sense of what Khura’in is like. As a result, when the people turn to revolution in the final case, it feels hollow.
Speaking of Labyrinthia, although Khura’in mainly invites similarities with the magic and suspicion of the Labyrinthia from Vs.’ first half, it too often slips into the mistakes of the crossover’s second half. Take, for example, the final puzzle in The Foreign Turnabout, where the key to opening the treasure box comes in the sacred Song of Ceremony. It’s a really good puzzle on paper and is something you actually are made to think about a little; changing the meaning of a piece of evidence to reveal a truth about some other evidence. However, the other effect of this is something more subtle. It turns a piece of Khura’inese culture into a solution to a riddle. Time and time again through puzzles such as these, Khura’in becomes less like a real country and more like an escape room where everything is simply an amusing puzzle to be solved. Although slightly less obnoxiously than Labyrinthia, the game still veers too far into treating Khura’in like a mystery in and of itself, rather than a place where mysteries are solved.
The final big concept introduced in The Foreign Turnabout is the ‘Defence Culpability Act’, or DCA for short. This law means that those who aid a culprit in any way, including defending them in court, are subject to the same punishment as that culprit. It’s a frankly ridiculous concept, and yet I don’t really mind its inclusion all that much in principle. If Yamazaki and his team were set on making a game about political revolution, which it seems they were, it’s good that it’s so tied to the core themes of the series; an underdog defence attorney risking it all for belief in their client. It’s a crucially legal revolution as much as a political one. And yet, the most important thing it does is up the stakes from the very first moment. With both Phoenix and Ahlbi’s life on the line, the stakes could literally not be higher. It’s certainly one thing that makes the game feel so final – it’s hard to see where the series could go from here, and, in fact, almost hard to see how the game itself could up the stakes from the first case onwards.
The murderer of The Foreign Turnabout also exemplifies a version of Ace Attorney turned up to eleven. Pees’lubn Andistan’dhin is pretty fun and memorable for a first case villain and he does an admirable job from the get-go of demonstrating the game’s capable new visuals, which are a very clear step up from Dual Destinies and prove the 3D engine as a pretty good match for the 2D sprites of old. His singing testimonies also show that the team is willing to get more experimental with their presentation, something demonstrated with most of the game’s new characters. His transformation, while fun, should also give some pause for thought. The first case villains of previous games have almost always been eccentrics, but never have they been this silly and over-the-top. Even the previous game’s Ted Tonate, with his strange eyes and computer voice, seems like a bit of a square in comparison to Andistan’dhin. Most of the game’s villains now have some huge, exaggerated transformation and personality, but comparing Andistan’dhin to Frank Sahwit is a pretty good indication of just how far the series has come, for better or for worse.
With so much stuff to introduce, even a case with as relatively simple a mystery as The Foriegn Turnabout becomes overstuffed and far too long. This isn’t to say that it’s a terrible case, but by nature of everything it has to do, it quickly starts to feel drawn out. That’s nothing, however, in comparison to The Rite of Turnabout, a huge, sprawling case that has so much on its plate it’s a wonder it manages to finish at all.
The big thing it has to do, of course, is re-introduce Maya. Maya has been missing in action since Trials and Tribulations. She gets a brief reference in Turnabout Corner and an effective moment in Turnabout for Tomorrow, but bringing Phoenix back as a playable character does call for Maya’s reintroduction in some way. Khura’in seems to be the perfect opportunity to do this, and Yamazaki jumps at the chance to write for such an important character. Or I say that, but Spirit of Justice is oddly reticent to actually use Maya after hyping her return up so much.
Let’s quickly deal first with what we do get, which is for the most part quite good. Maya is now an adult woman, but she’s kept her youthful energy which I think is pretty important. I can at least say I know people older than her who act younger. The most pressing thing is whether she’s matured at all, and although some people think to the contrary, I think that the writing does support Phoenix’s repeated claims that she has. It’s not a lot, but scenes where she stands up to Rayfa in the Detention Centre, or when she talks to the princess at the end of the case show a level of maturity that I think the previous incarnations of Maya haven’t ever really shown in the same way.
But of course, there’s a big problem. Maya is arrested a scene after our first meeting with her, and then isn’t really on screen for much of the case. This is a problem in Turnabout Revolution as well, but that case isn’t the one tasked with re-introducing her. To put her in prison so quickly just to have an excuse to raise the stakes yet again and get Phoenix back in court is cheap, and it feels it. The intention was probably to allow Rayfa more screen time, but we’ll get to her later. Maya does get to be your companion in court again, which is nice, but for the second day spends most of her time channelling Tahrust, so we still don’t get to interact with her. This is similar to how she spends all of the first trial in Turnabout Revolution channelling Dhurke, simply making her appearance more of a useful plot device for the writers, rather than the return of a fan favourite.
The biggest insult to Maya, however, comes at the end of The Rite of Turnabout’s second day of investigation. By this point, Phoenix and Maya have both been sentenced to death, their execution only stayed by the discovery of another body. You’ve discovered quite a bit of new evidence that could help save your lives, so you’d expect Phoenix and Maya to reconvene and talk about the case and the potential of their deaths. Instead, you spend the scene before the case with… Ahlbi. Despite the case revolving around her, despite her life being on the line, the writers decide you should recap the case with a character who has nothing to do with the case and who has already had more screen time in the investigation than Maya.
The case itself is a good old-fashioned locked room – a closed off shrine at the top of a mountain which inexplicably has a prison on top of it despite being one of the most sacred places of Khura’insm. Ema returns as the detective in this game, for both California and Khura’in. I get not wanting to crowd the game with too many characters, but seeing as they’re doing that already, I think the addition of a Khura’in detective wouldn’t go amiss. Again, that would go some way to address the problems of filling out the cast with some laypeople from Khura’in. Perhaps a detective who starts as a devout Royalist but eventually comes round to your side? Still, it’s nice to see Ema again, cheerier now that she’s achieved her dreams. It’s a lot less interesting as a take on the character compared to what Takumi did in Apollo Justice, but again, looking at the game as a celebration of the series, it makes sense. It’s fan service in a way that I don’t necessarily hate; giving popular characters a nice sense of closure is better than just shoving them in like what happened to Ema in the Investigations games.
Joining Phoenix for most of the investigation is Rayfa. Truth be told, I used to not be a fan of Rayfa in this game, but the years have been kind to her in my estimations. We first really get to spend time with her in this case, where she steals the assistant role from Maya. Her introduction here is far too soon – Phoenix isn’t even given one scene investigating alone to emphasise the loss of Maya before she’s swapped out for the younger model. Rayfa is aggressive and mean towards both Phoenix and Maya, which seems like it would be annoying and occasionally is, but it’s also a dynamic we haven’t seen before, and not one that I’m totally opposed to. Her desire to channel spirits and become the next queen, as well as her love of the Plumed Punisher, makes Rayfa into a parallel of Maya, but one that’s raised better. Luckily, their similarities are never overly harped on, so it makes it a slightly more subtle commentary on the importance of good parenting than say, whatever Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright was trying to say.
Rayfa’s actual arc, though, bears much more comparison to Sebastian from Investigations 2 than Espella’s. It’s hard to say who fares better in this comparison seeing as they’re almost exactly the same, right down to the cartoonishly cruel prosecutor parental figure who turns out to be a murderer and the head of an evil system that is opposing the main character. Eventually, the main character teaches them the importance of thinking for themselves and after suffering a bit of a mental breakdown, they find the courage to stand up to their parents.
Ultimately, it’s hard to decide which of these two I prefer. Rayfa certainly loses something in the novelty factor, but there are a few things I think she does better. Firstly, I like her a lot more before the major developments with her character – she mostly manages to tread the line between obnoxious and annoying, while Sebastian too often falls into being ‘the best’ at being a pain in the ass. I also like her breakdown a lot better – her crying in Inga’s house while you wait outside, her fainting when she’s made to experience her father’s death. Sebastian’s moment in the spotlight is mainly to do with his logic chess where you help him recover, but Rayfa gets longer to dwell on her pain. Her trauma feels real and hard and grounding amongst all the craziness.
Best of all, there’s some real subtle storytelling done with her relationship to Inga. Inga feels like the most cartoonish of all of Ace Attorney’s villains – sometimes even more so than his spider wife Ga’ran. He’s got the double-breasted suit, the cigar, the mafioso lingo and the power to execute people on the spot. As you investigate him more closely you realise that he’s a bit more subtle than he seemed when he was alive; more of a stressed workaholic suffering from back pain and a cruel wife than simply just a Scooby-Doo bad guy. Brilliantly, although everyone assumes Inga was seeking the orb to stage a coup against Ga’ran and get ultimate power, he’s also the one who can’t get it, being face-blind. Rayfa guesses he wanted to steal the orb for her sake, but Phoenix and the player dismiss it at that point. But Rayfa’s birthday being the code to his safe, a card she’d written to him being hidden in there and his face blindness preventing him ever using spiritual power for himself all point to Rayfa being correct. It’s one of the most macabrely sweet parent-child stories in the series, and it all takes place in the background.
The first day of court mainly revolves around an excellent Divination Séance and a less excellent cross-examination with A’nohn Ihmus TBD, who even the slowest player will probably quickly realise is actually rebel prison escapee Datz Arebal. It’s a shame that the whole first day is practically pointless save for parts of the aforementioned Séance. The case only begins in earnest when you find the secret rebel hideout – a discovery, I may add, which goes against a lot of the good etiquette of making a locked room murder. Datz’s testimony is basically just padding, and while he’s an amusing character, it’s also frustrating to see that Yamazaki and co. haven’t learned their lessons about wasting player time from Turnabout Academy.
Phoenix and Maya are eventually found guilty and sentenced to death at the end of the first day, which is at least a pretty well-done dramatic moment. I think the biggest comparison point here is Maya’s ‘death’ at the end of The Golden Court. While the actual moment of tension feels better done in The Rite of Turnabout – the death isn’t an accident, and the saving grace isn’t a get out of jail card as much as it is a go further into jail card – as is always the problem with Yamazaki’s games, the dramatic moments are a success, but the follow-through is disappointing.
The moments following Maya’s death in The Golden Court are some of the best in the series, showing Phoenix at his lowest; angry and depressed, unable to think of anything else. If anything, The Rite of Turnabout, in which he was unable to save either his best friend or himself, should show him at an even lower point. But as I pointed out in my critique of Dual Destinies, Yamazaki is unable to write Phoenix in any other state outside of his trilogy self. The first scene of the second investigation is truly awful – it’s filled with flashbacks to moments that just happened, each complete with its own pace-breaking loading screen and with Phoenix a little downtrodden, but mostly focusing on the next investigation. This would be fine in any other case, where Phoenix is hanging on by a thread but still surviving, but here he is literally on death row. Once Rayfa comes in and feels bad about having fucked up her insights, Phoenix decides to comfort this girl who wants to see him dead, rather than, say, going to see Maya. Past this, his conviction is mostly forgotten, reduced to a cheap joke that Rayfa occasionally throws at Phoenix rather than any kind of serious threat.
The second day of court is mainly focused around the high priest and his wife, with the aim of convincing the people of Khura’in that the DCA is, in fact, not such a good idea after all. In a way, the effort is admirable; the game has a similar set up to Dual Destinies in using the third case as a way to highlight the flaws in the legal system, but Spirit of Justice takes a much more ‘show don’t tell’ approach; it actually makes a case whose murder is based around those flaws, rather than a case in which the only real reference made to the ‘Dark Age of the Law’ is one character constantly spouting it.
However, to call this case a well-executed version of this idea is slightly more of a stretch. Tahrust kills himself and frames Maya in order to help his wife who killed the rebel hunter Lady Keera. But the logic here of why the DCA forces his hand is messy. Firstly, Beh’leeb killed Keera in self-defence, so probably wouldn’t have had to go to prison. Tahrust, however, doesn’t trust lawyers despite being a rebel, meaning they would have had no one in court to help them convince the charge of self-defence. On top of that, claiming self-defence would also probably expose them as rebels, so them having to find another solution to this problem is understandable. However, Tahrust’s explanation for why this is the direct fault of the DCA is far shakier. Tahrust claims that the only other person he could have implicated for the killing of Lady Keera besides Maya was himself, and that doing so would have been helping Beh’leeb and would result in both their deaths, as to aid a criminal is punished the same as being a criminal under the DCA. Here’s the problem – that’s the case in the rest of the series as well. The hitch of the DCA is that aiding a criminal is expanded to defending them in court – to aid them by hiding a body (which could have easily been done, given that the crime scene was a location that no one else could visit aside from the High Priest), or covering for their crime in any other way would simply mean Tahrust was an accomplice to murder, and would still go to prison even if the DCA weren’t in effect. As such, it’s an unconvincing case for the obvious problems inherent in the DCA.
This problem with the case isn’t entirely immersion breaking and I do think the ending carries some emotional pathos – but there’s also no denying that thinking about the actual circumstances of the case ruins much of that pathos. Much like The Foreign Turnabout, The Rite of Turnabout bites off more than it can chew, but the issues it suffers because of this are further reaching. Foreign simply has to introduce the player to the concepts, but Rite has to actually develop them into something meaningful, while simultaneously reintroducing Maya, and formally introducing the rebels. This leaves the case both underdeveloped and incredibly bloated at the same time.
Still, I don’t hate either of these cases, because the moment to moment writing within Spirit of Justice has an advantage over that of Dual Destinies; it’s simply better. The game still has some major pacing problems in terms of how it’s written, and a tendency for conversations to cycle, but compare this to the Investigations games or Dual Destinies, and a marked improvement is clear in mitigating this problem. The cases are still too long, but a lot of this now tends to be the fault of their overly complex plots rather than as many extended periods of talking about nothing, which I find easier to bear. It’s also worth saying that I find this the funniest of the Yamazaki team games, something helped in large part due to the return of free investigation and some good character dynamics within investigations.
Although the majority of Spirit of Justice is focused on Khura’in, the second and fourth cases; The Magical Turnabout and Turnabout Storyteller, are still set back in the old familiar courtroom of games past. The former case features Apollo back in the driver’s seat, with the game’s advertising highlighting that the protagonist role in Spirit of Justice is split between Phoenix and Apollo (although notably it’s still Phoenix’s name in the title).
The Magical Turnabout makes a big stride to convince the player that this is in fact partially an Apollo Justice game by returning to the subject matter of his game; magic. Where the Khura’in sections feel like a return to the spirit channelling of the Trilogy, here the focus is back on Apollo, Trucy, Ema, the Gramaryes and a good old-fashioned murder at a magic show, complete with Turnabout Serenade style video analysis.
Despite being part of the ‘main cast’ for two whole games now, this is Trucy’s first time in the defendant chair and it’s funny that this seems to give her more importance to the game than Maya occupying the same role in The Rite of Turnabout. Context and novelty are everything, so actually seeing Trucy behind the glass for once feels fresh and interesting and manages to somehow still give her more screen time than in Dual Destinies. What’s more, Trucy in this game is actually written pretty well and given more to work with on an emotional level than in either of her previous appearances. Using Perceive in the detention centre to tell that Trucy isn’t as fine as she claims to be is such an elegant trick I’m shocked it hasn’t been used before. Ace Attorney games have a nasty habit of characters plastering over hidden pain with smiles and the games simply telling us they’re suffering without showing it – in my critique of Apollo Justice, I mentioned this happening exactly for Trucy when Phoenix tells us he’s the only one who knows her true pain. But in The Magical Turnabout, they finally show it, and in a way that uses my least favourite mechanic for some good character-based storytelling.
It’s a bit of shame then, when the case introduces Trucy’s notebook, which contains the ‘Gramarye Creed’. The creed says that a true entertainer always keeps a smile on their face, and it’s for this reason that Trucy is always smiling, even when she’s being accused of murder. I’ve touched so many times on Yamazaki’s strange obsession with pinning character traits on Kantian creeds that they seem bound to follow no matter what, but this is one of the worst. Was this needed at all? It’s much more impactful to tell us that Trucy keeps smiling because that’s her personality, rather than just because some book told her to. The game instantly undercuts all the good work that it was doing with the introduction of this one piece of evidence and while it does do some work to get that good faith back, it’s a shame that Yamazaki keeps tripping up on this problem.
It’s worth noting that this is finally addressed by the characters of Turnabout Revolution. After introducing yet another new creed in the form of Dhurke’s “A dragon never yields”, Apollo finally comments on the nature of mottos and what they mean to the characters. “They are not merely words. They are what’s carried us this far. So now, it’s time to honour these words and the memories of the ones who gave them to us.” It’s a sentiment I actually really like, but it’s still too little too late for me to not still think that Yamazaki often uses them as a crutch for character development. Were Apollo to be talking about just the mottos of Phoenix and Dhurke, I’d regard this as a more praiseworthy moment rather than just a lame excuse for a recurring problem.
The game’s sense of magic is also a little bit of a problem for the case’s actual murder mystery. Apart from the Bonny and Betty trick, which has already been used in at least one film I know, none of the other magic tricks are properly explained to the audience. The sword switch trick is explained within a really cool testimony, but actually how it works in practice (i.e. how she swaps the swords when she turns around) remains unclear. It’s the same for the central magic trick within the case. Trucy stabs the sword into the coffin, but why? Surely the trick is that she’s escaped from the coffin, and that’s clear without having to see her stab it. There’s a lack of attention to detail which is occasionally a little frustrating, but again is simply another flaw I’ve had to talk about again and again in regards to Yamazaki’s games – plot weirdness for the sake of convenience.
We’ll get back to that later because I’d actually like to take a minute to offer my praise to The Magical Turnabout, it being my favourite case in the game. The investigation is pretty well paced, with continuous moments of excitement and tension – Bonny and Betty aren’t particularly interesting characters beyond the twist that they exist, but Roger Retinz is one of the best examples of the ‘case two asshole’ characters that arguably started way back with Redd White in the first game. Retinz is a bit of a subtler villain than White, L’Belle or Atmey though. He’s still an arrogant, oversized prick, and the veneer of TV executive smarm and his tricks of subjecting Trucy to the court of public opinion are thinly sketched, but they help give him the edge over his equally enjoyably hateable counterparts.
Retinz’s plan also winds up a little overcooked and silly – particularly in his idea of the prank show– but neither is it without some clever aspects. The theme of misdirection is also well-employed throughout the case, especially in assuming that the murderer was someone without an alibi for the case, or even that Mistree was Mr. Reus. Retinz’s reveal is extremely cool, so much that it’s easy to overlook that the leaps of logic taken to get there are pretty odd. There’s some rock-solid evidence that Mistree isn’t Reus in the form of the scar, which I assume is why the picture of him filming the prank show isn’t accepted into evidence. But once again, it shows the power of presentation; both the twins and the Reus reveal are handled so stylishly that you get wrapped up in their charm and can overlook some of the more minor flaws.
All this makes for a case that’s one of the most solidly likeable and charming in any of Yamazaki’s games. It manages to transcend the flaws that plague every one of his cases by offering a fun mystery with great characters and some worthwhile character moments for Trucy, wrapping all of it with fantastic presentation and manageable pacing. Many people consider this case as a sort of vision of a theoretical second Apollo Justice game, and while I don’t feel like this case quite captures the unique mood of Apollo Justice, it does handle that game’s core cast with a respect that Dual Destinies doesn’t have.
If The Magical Turnabout was a tribute to Apollo Justice, then Turnabout Storyteller is a tribute to Dual Destinies, right down to how much of a pace-breaker it is within the main series. Luckily, Yamazaki’s team understands Dual Destinies better than they understand Apollo Justice. The winning element of Dual Destinies was probably Athena and Blackquill, because as much as I’ve complained about Blackquill’s role as a prosecutor, but his character itself is still a fair bit of fun to be around. Here, he’s even better than he was in Dual Destinies, because, removed of the baggage of his chains and of the UR-1 incident, he can simply be the gruff samurai gent that he should have been in his previous game.
Turnabout Storyteller also features a focus on Athena and her analytical psychology, with some of the most complex Mood Matrix puzzles and a witness with a dissociative identity disorder. Uendo is a really fun character to be around and allows Blackquill to demonstrate some actual manipulation in getting him to testify – far more than he ever did in Dual Destinies. Still, Uendo’s version of dissociative identity disorder seems to be less grounded in reality and more in the sci-fi thriller spectrum, including a secret fourth personality that only comes out when he’s drunk.
Still, in almost every other aspect, Storyteller stumbles. I still like Athena as a playable defence attorney, but her still being a rookie makes the case feel like an uphill struggle. Yamazaki’s team’s mysteries tend to involve complex scenarios that are broken down slowly – it’s a process of taking each little problem within the set-up and figuring out, mainly by a kind of process of elimination, what must have actually happened. This is definitely most laid bare when playing as Athena, because in an effort to emphasise her naivety, each of problems are often solved in a way that doesn’t benefit her, before she can slot them together at the end. Compared to a Phoenix story as written by Takumi, where a simple set-up is made more complex before it can be figured out, an Athena story by Yamazaki is a strangely complex set up involving an unknown murder weapon and multiple people entering a room watched by two other people, replete with multiple Athena failures until she finally stumbles into a solution. It makes for a case that’s mostly unsatisfying to play through, as you often feel like you’re engaged in a Sisyphean battle without making any real progress.
The stuff around Athena, Simon and Uendo also feels slightly undercooked. I appreciate the case’s defendant finally being someone you don’t know, but you basically never really get to know him throughout. I’ve seen people compare him to Wocky in being uncooperative, but at least you knew who Wocky was as a person, rather than just seeing him show up drunk a few times. The case’s murderer, Geiru Toneido, also gets nothing more than a few boob jokes worth of characterisation before you’re supposed to accept that she’s a tragic villain in the mode of Acro; it all feels too hollow, like an after-thought. Once again, the case is overly long for what it should be, but still can’t find the time to properly balance all the things it wants to accomplish.
Speaking of overly long, we finally come now to the final case of Spirit of Justice, itself two cases; Turnabout Revolution. The first part of the case mainly revolves around a civil trial involving the ownership of the Founder’s Orb; a first for the series. Before we get there, however, Apollo has to meet Dhurke, his estranged foster father and leader of the insurgent ‘Defiant Dragons’ of Khura’in.
Apollo’s backstory was never really touched upon in Apollo Justice; certainly not to the extent Phoenix’s was in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, where it fed into his first client and his rival, as well as his decision to become an attorney in the first place. Dual Destinies attempts to clumsily give Apollo the backstory he never had in the form of his old friend Clay Terran, and I’ve already explained how that didn’t work, but what’s equally worth noting is that it’s mainly because Dual Destinies was more occupied with telling Athena’s story. Spirit of Justice again attempts a rectification by giving Apollo a more fleshed out backstory, but it really doesn’t feel quite right. I think that’s because it’s an overcorrection – his new past is too grand in scale to feel like it was never mentioned before. Apollo spends more time talking about that one time he had a friend in Dual Destinies than about his brother and his foster father in any case except Turnabout Revolution. Phoenix’s backstory worked in his game because it was kept small scale. When he and Edgeworth kept things unsaid at the end of Turnabout Sisters, it made sense, because they’re old friends and nothing more. When Apollo and Nahyuta have a silent face off at the end of The Magical Turnabout it’s just weird, because they’re siblings. By upping the scale but keeping the same story beats, the whole thing just feels off in a way it needn’t.
Still, I can’t help but like Dhurke and his relationship with Apollo. Dhurke is a character trait the Yamazaki team knows well – he gives off strong Raymond Shields vibes in his attitude and avuncular nature. Despite clearly being a terrible absentee father, he’s instantly likeable, which makes the huge amount of character and relationship building they have to squeeze in quickly actually work. His chats with Apollo feel like they should – Apollo is at first cold and standoffish, but Dhurke tries to rectify the mistakes he made and eventually the two of them develop a bond that makes his death feel justifiably painful to the player.
That relationship may make the first half of Turnabout Revolution somewhat bearable, but the case around it is terrible. Dhurke’s quest to find the Founder’s Orb sends him and Apollo spelunking in an underground cave and makes me question if I’m playing Ace Attorney or Indiana Jones. A bit of action isn’t awful – Phoenix jumping off a bridge in Bridge to the Turnabout is a realistic character action that adds some drama to the investigation, but this takes it to new levels of ridiculous. The orb is also a bit silly – Ace Attorney has had spiritual artifacts before, some of which make a cameo appearance in this case, but it’s treated them with a mixture of reverence and an acceptance that they’re simply things that can be broken and stuck in a museum, rather than the ark of the covenant.
The background characters are also a mixed bag. Apollo’s conversation with Sarge where he recounts the loss of losing his parents is a nice moment of open emotion, but in the end the game finds nothing to do with her except a standard ‘walk on your own two feet’ narrative, complete with her literally getting off a wheelchair and starting to walk. The case’s villain, Paul Atishon, is a fun send up of Japanese politicians, with his family connections and loud roaming campaign vehicle, but his relationship to Phoenix is pretty shoddy.
The case starts off as a civil trial, but it’s only two cross-examinations before that’s abandoned for another murder with Atishon as the obvious suspect. Phoenix is the ostensible prosecutor in the case, a matchup that feels more like fanservice than anything, especially because there’s a far better Phoenix/Apollo court pairing later on in this same case. Phoenix acting as Apollo’s assistant works as a call-back to Turnabout Trump, except this time Apollo is the one truly in charge of the case. Using the same pairing but reversing the dynamics is the perfect representation of how Apollo has grown as a lawyer – making him face up against Phoenix with his hands tied behind his back is just cheap and accomplishes nothing. Apollo is so slow he doesn’t realise that Phoenix is being blackmailed even when Atishon literally threatens Maya in front of both of the whole court.
Maya’s kidnapping by the Justice Minister Inga is another lazy reuse of an idea already done in a far better case, Justice for All’s Farewell, My Turnabout. There, tying Phoenix’s hands was done to force him to take Matt Engarde’s case and learn about the value of truth in the courtroom above all else. Here, the only purpose it seems to serve is to have Phoenix be able to be saved by Apollo. Apollo doesn’t learn anything that actually helps him grow as a lawyer – he simply applies the same things he always applies in order to save Phoenix. Calling back to Farewell, My Turnabout implies growth, but the case itself doesn’t actually show any.
Once Atishon is defeated, Edgeworth shows up to whisk the Wright Anything Agency to Khura’in, where Inga is found dead next to Dhurke, knife in hand. So begins the final murder mystery of the game, and the actual ‘revolution’ of Turnabout Revolution.
Edgeworth and Phoenix finally investigate a case together here, which makes for a fun pairing. Their banter is so firmly honed by now, and the Yamazaki team has shown they know how to write it in Turnabout for Tomorrow. While Phoenix and Edgeworth investigate Inga, Apollo and Athena look at the locked room crime scene, making this the first time that the Wright Anything Agency have all investigated a case together. It’s during this time that another problem I frequently harp on rears its ugly head; interconnectedness. Spirit of Justice doesn’t pull the Investigations 2 trick of everyone knowing everyone else, but it still tries to make the Khura’in upper classes as incestuously close to each other as possible, with Dhurke being revealed to have also been the late Queen Amara’s wife. It’s not just the royals, however; Apollo’s real father is said to have died in the fire that claimed Queen Amara’s life. I’m not sure why this was done, given that they could have had any other reason for how Dhurke adopted Apollo. There’s not even much of a ‘foster vs. real father’ narrative, despite the potential. Datz and Ahlbi also come back in this case, making me further my suspicions that they might be the only other people living in Khura’in, while also making this the second final case in a row to not introduce any new characters.
It’s probably about time I mentioned the one element that I’ve neglected so far, and that’s Nahyuta, the game’s new prosecutor, who Apollo reveals he already knows at the end of The Magical Turnabout. Nahyuta is one of the most universally disliked elements of Spirit of Justice, so as a fan of his role in the game’s middle three cases, I’ll take some time to defend his inclusion.
In my critique of Dual Destinies, I complained about the messiness of Blackquill as a prosecutor – part prisoner, part samurai, part English gent and part psychological manipulator, he was hard to get a good grasp on in court. Straight out of the gate, Nahyuta is a far clearer idea of a character than Blackquill ever was. Nahyuta is a prosecutor who is simply ‘holier-than-thou’, in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the terms. He’s certainly the most outright rude prosecutor, with only Franziska and her whip coming close. It creates a different dynamic to the courtroom cases, with a much more deliberate air of aggression.
Both Apollo and Phoenix jab back at Nahyuta, with an especially charged atmosphere between Phoenix and Nahyuta in The Rite of Turnabout, but by far the most effective use of him is in Turnabout Storyteller, perhaps the case that best gets Nahyuta. His nature as a well-researched tourist is put to a good gag when he starts reciting rakugo for the court, and his insults work great against both Athena, who’s put off by them, and with Blackquill, who becomes his sparring partner. Blackquill and Nahyuta’s banter is a highlight for both prosecutors. Blackquill’s no-nonsense attitude acts as a foil to Nahyuta’s childish insult fest. Nahyuta is an interesting prosecutor not because he has much depth in the middle three cases, but simply because he’s an almost unmitigated asshole, and bringing him down a peg is satisfying. It’s the most simple form of rivalry, but it works for Edgeworth at the start of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and I don’t see how it fails to work for Nahyuta.
Perhaps his reception is all down to his role in Turnabout Revolution, in which the reason for his behaviour is finally explained. From the time you meet Dhurke, it’s pretty clear that Nahyuta is in some way being controlled by Ga’ran, the Queen of Khura’in. However, it’s not until the second trial, after Nahyuta is forced by Ga’ran to confess to the murder of Justice Minister Inga, that you realise why this is. Nahyuta’s loyalty to the crown is mainly due to him trying to protect Rayfa, because if he disobeyed the Queen, Ga’ran would reveal Rayfa’s heritage and forbid her from getting crowned. This marks one of the worst moments of what I mentioned earlier; Khura’inese culture being used as a puzzle. It’s only one line in a piece of evidence that is used as the motivation for why Rayfa’s heritage can’t be revealed, distilling Khura’inese tradition into a single line to be presented in court as ‘proof’ of character motivation. Still, it goes some way to justifying his cruelty towards Phoenix in The Rite of Turnabout and his conflicted semi-prosecution of Dhurke in Turnabout Revolution. However, it’s unclear why he remains such a bastard when in California, and when seeing his brother again for the first time in so long, or when first meeting Athena and Simon.
This could be to do with his heart growing colder in general. His own personal mantra is to ‘let it go and move on’, and his insistence that others do that can be read as a reflection of what he’s telling himself. But the writers want to also remind us that Nahyuta is kind at heart, something they mainly achieve with his admittedly kindly relationship with Ema. But it’s messily done, creating an inconsistent portrait. Much more emphasis is placed on his insults than his kindness, so it’s hard to accept such an about turn. Edgeworth’s slow reluctance to accept Wright’s help and change as a person seems a far cry away from Nahyuta’s sudden u-turn back to the light.
So while I like him, I clearly don’t find Nahyuta a perfect prosecutor, nor that I think he ever reaches the heights of some of the Trilogy prosecutors. Another mark against him is the idea of his ‘karmic powers’, a phrase that Apollo, Phoenix and Athena all seems to use as a way of building up tension around facing Nahyuta in court. It’s similar to Blackquill’s ‘psychological manipulation’ in Dual Destinies, with just as much telling without showing. In The Magical Turnabout, Nahyuta’s main role seems to be less leading Apollo one way, and more quickly reacting to his arguments and being able to change the flow of his own pretty quickly, a trick that almost all other prosecutors share. The fact that he has evidence ready even when Apollo completely changes his defence strategy is meant to show that he predicted everything, but gameplay wise there’s almost no change for the player. If Edgeworth or any other prosecutor didn’t have that evidence, they’d simply request it quickly. Speaking of Edgeworth, perhaps the most famous moment in the series is his reveal of a new autopsy report right when Wright starts to win the case, and yet I hardly see anyone making note of his ‘karmic abilities’.
At the trial, however, Nahyuta is quickly replaced by Queen Ga’ran, looking like she’s come straight from a competition for worst character design. Spirit of Justice mainly sees a step up in the quality of murderers from Dual Destinies, with most of them given actual motives for committing the crimes. Ga’ran, however, feels like a step down from the Phantom. While not an exercise in subtlety, there was something intimidating about the Phantom’s controlled emotions. Ga’ran is nothing but pure and stupid evil and power to the extent it becomes nullified. The Phantom’s emotionlessness worked because it contrasted against the bubbly Fulbright we’d grown to know throughout the game. Ga’ran comes pretty much out of nowhere and is instantly as evil as it’s possible to be. Without either contrast or believability to her actions, she’s not actually all that intimidating. Before her costume change, there’s at least some disconnect between her cruel actions and her poised persona which creates an air of something intimidating but once she’s let her hair down she has all the intimidation of a C-tier Spider-Man villain.
Turnabout Revolution is characteristically twisty for the final case of a Yamazaki team game. One of the big twists is that Nayna, the previously silent sight gag that helped Rayfa take off her cloak, is in fact the “assassinated” Queen Amara. It’s a good twist, but it once again lacks adequate follow-through. The amount of people willing to confess to killing Inga in order to cover for Ga’ran is just ridiculous, especially when Amara must know about Ga’ran’s lack of claim to the throne even if she believes Dhurke to be guilty.
The better twist comes slightly after that one, when Apollo realises that Dhurke must have been dead all along in order for his theory to make sense. Although the solution is ridiculously complex, we finally see another case with spirit channelling used as a murder device. It’s another fantastic moment and the follow through is, for once, perfect. It builds on both the gained love for Dhurke from the first half of the case while also exploiting his absence to make the whole thing seem even crueller – it’s only just as we get to know Dhurke that he gets killed. It’s nicely fitting that perhaps Yamazaki’s final big twist is the one that works the best.
By the case’s end, Apollo has toppled a monarchy, acquitted his foster father of two crimes, saved his brother and revolutionised a country (can Spirit of Justice be counted as a white saviour narrative?). Finally, he decides to stay in Khura’in to start his own law office, bringing his whole, rocky narrative to an end. The end of Trials and Tribulations, by comparison, is mainly about Phoenix exposing a serial killer and resolving the issues of a very non-royal family. It’s clear to see how power creep has affected the series; you need only do the same experiment that I did, playing The First Turnabout and The Foreign Turnabout back to back.
So when I said at the beginning that Spirit of Justice was a celebration of the series, it’s hard to often see what series it’s a celebration of. Sure, Phoenix Wright, Miles Edgeworth and the Judge are all still there, and the games are still about solving murders against the odds. However, in trying to incorporate elements from all the games while also upping the stakes to something appropriate for the theme ‘revolution’, Spirit of Justice seems to have given those elements a different quality. In a way, the relatively down-to-earth nature of the Trilogy’s cases gave them a specific mood that can’t be replicated by moving the cast to somewhere as bombastic as Khura’in, just as the unique atmosphere of Apollo Justice can’t be replicated just by bringing back the Gramaryes. I also can’t help but feeling that the game, like many of its cases, is simply trying to do too much. None of its ideas are fundamentally flawed as much as none of them work together well in a game this size.
However, this isn’t to say Spirit of Justice is bad just because it’s different. It may often feel more like a spin-off than a main series game, but it has enough interesting ideas and good writing to propel it further in my estimations than any of Yamazaki’s other games.
Well, that marks pretty much the end of my series of critiques of Ace Attorney‘s main series. But it’s not quite over yet because something smells and it’s probably the Butz. As always, you can support me on patreon or follow me on twitter. Thanks for reading!