In a world plagued by legal manipulation, political corruption, and a general lack of fairness for the underprivileged, there’s something comforting about a video game where justice is always served. Sure, everyone lies under oath and one out of every four witnesses is a murderer, but at least the innocents always go free.
Phoenix Wright: Spirit of Justice, the sixth mainline game in the Ace Attorney series, takes us on yet another trip to a world where the good guys always win. With a combination of convenient evidence, astounding persistence, and savvy lawyering, Phoenix Wright and his ever-expanding team of attorneys have already managed to defend something like 25 clients from false murder charges, and Spirit of Justice brings us even more, both old and new. It’s the same rhythm, again and again. Any client Phoenix takes is always innocent. Phoenix always exonerates them. After stories like Making a Murderer and Serial, the idealism of this world is refreshing, no matter how ridiculous the stories might get.
Spirit of Justice hits all of the beats you’d expect from a Phoenix Wright game. There are endless puns, conveniently placed blood splatters, and plot twists within plot twists within plot twists. There are a couple of long, convoluted cases with multiple crime scenes to investigate, and then there are some breather cases that don’t add much to the overarching story but are fun to play through nonetheless. Just about every old Ace Attorney mechanic is back for this game, including luminol blood testing, psychotherapy, and the “perceive” mechanic in which Phoenix’s disciple, Apollo Justice, must hold a magnifying glass to a witness’s body and try to p out which parts twitch when they’re lying. It’s a cool concept but it’s always been tedious in practice, and it’s one of the very few low points in Spirit of Justice. (Another low point: frequent flashbacks to events that happened 20 seconds earlier.)
Nigglings aside, the Phoenix Wright formula is always a winner. Over the years, the developers at Capcom have streamlined some of the old games’ clunkier systems—no more pixel hunting!—and added some essential improvements like optional hints and faster text loading. There’s a great rhythm to courtroom battles as they escalate and unravel in dramatic fashion. Spirit of Justice doesn’t have a single “AHHHHHH!” moment as great as its predecessor, Dual Destinies, but it does pull off some cool feats, including a late-game adventure sequence that’s as thrilling as any great book.
A large chunk of Spirit of Justice is set in the fictional nation of Khura’in, where the citizens hate lawyers because of a mysterious incident that happened 23 years before the game. As a result of this, Khura’in’s authoritative government has enacted a law that defense attorneys must share culpability for their clients’ actions. In other words, if someone is sent to death, their lawyer goes with them. This has scared most lawyers away from Khura’in entirely—except for our boy Phoenix, who knows that things will always work out in his favor. Phoenix is in town to visit his old assistant, Maya, who returns in glorious fashion after a two-game absence. It may not shock you to find out that he has to defend some people from false murder charges along the way, fighting against a Khura’inian prosecutor who likes prayer, insults, and pseudo-Japanese tirades whenever he’s feeling frustrated.
By setting several cases in Khura’in, the developers had an excuse to add yet another new mechanic to Spirit of Justice: divination seances. The royal princess of Khura’in, an arrogant teenager named Rayfa, has the ability to evoke visions of a murder victim’s last moments before death. Except Rayfa’s interpretations of those visions are always wrong. You, as Phoenix, have to pick apart each of her insights based on how they contradict with reality. It’s a neat system. Figuring out the contradictions can occasionally be frustrating thanks to those good old Phoenix Wright logic leaps, but most of the time it’s fun to pick at Rayfa and watch her melt down every time she’s proven wrong.
I should add: This is a long, challenging game. I saw the game over screen quite a few times as I ventured through Khura’in and Phoenix’s home country of Japanamerica. There are five cases. Two are short; three are sprawling and twisty. The middle sections can get a little sluggish, but the final case picks things up in a wild way.
As the story unfolds and gets more complicated, Spirit of Justice gets into heavy questions about courage, parenthood, and fairness. The game throws some traumatic obstacles at Apollo and Rayfa—incidentally, the game’s two best characters—and it’s fascinating to watch how they grow and handle each challenge. By the end of the game it’s clear that both of their lives will never be the same.
Spirit of Justice also excels at everything Phoenix Wright has done so well over the years. The music is great, the character animations are superb, and the localisation is very good, handled deftly as always by longtime Phoenix Wright editor Janet Hsu and her team of pun lovers. (Only Phoenix Wright could get away with giving its characters names like Tahrust Inmee and Ahlbi Ur’gaid.)
Just before getting a code for Spirit of Justice, it occurred to me that Phoenix Wright is one of those video game series that I’ll just never get sick of. There’s just something about these games—the logical threads, the ridiculous courtroom antics, the outlandish plot twists—that makes me really happy. Spirit of Justice is no exception. I hope Capcom never stops making these things.