[Review] Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice
Posted on September 8, 2016 by Jakob Vujovic(@jakovujo) in 3DS eShop, Reviews
System: 3DS (eShop)
Release date: September 8, 2016
I won’t dance around saying that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice is kind of a mess, albeit a lovable one. If you think too hard about the overall plot, setting aside a few genuinely good and surprising twists, it’s full of laughably bad inconsistencies and weak writing choices. However, if you shut that part of your brain off – the one that checks for internal consistency – and focus on the moment-to-moment mystery plot and absurdity of what unfolds in these courtrooms, then it’s a much better experience. In other words, Spirit of Justice is yet another Ace Attorney game made in the absence of series creator Shu Takumi.
If you’ve never played an Ace Attorney game, don’t start here. Spirit of Justice is the sixth entry in the main series, and considering that the original trilogy of (mostly) fantastic games are so easily accessible on 3DS, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by skipping them.
Setting aside the nitpicking of small inconsistencies and strange character motivations littered throughout Spirit of Justice, my biggest issue with it is the sheer inefficiency of its script. This entry’s overarching theme is ‘courtroom revolution’, and so it starts with Phoenix Wright visiting Maya Fey in the kingdom of Khura’in, a small Himalayan country, where he inevitably gets caught up at trial in the foreign court. The first case is where the game’s clumsy in-your-face writing is at its worst. I understood that Khura’inese people hate defense attorneys the first five times we got a slow panning shot of the courtroom with the gallery heckling and booing Phoenix – you don’t have to keep doing that every few minutes. This kind of redundant fluff seriously bogs down the pace of what would be, with a lot of editing, a strong first case.
The writing bloat is by far at its worst in the first case and is mostly annoying in later episodes with the constant recycling of short flashback sequences that mostly serve to remind you of things that happened only an hour ago. In one case, I saw the exact same flashback three times in the span of about 40 minutes. The writers don’t seem to trust players to understand character arcs in the same way they trust them to unravel complex and convoluted murder mysteries, and it makes for a weird disconnect. At one moment doubting the reader’s attention span to recall key story moments and in the next expecting the player – who is that same reader – to solve some convoluted courtroom case. The game’s puzzle designers weren’t afraid to loosen the leash and get reasonably obtuse, and I wish the rest of its writing reflected that.
All of that isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of areas where Spirit of Justice excels. For starters, the new seance vision system might be my favorite mystery solving contrivance that any Ace Attorney game has added. How this works is you get a video through the victim’s eyes of their final moments with words appearing on screen in accordance to what they sense at the time (touch, smell, sound, etc.) all while you’re provided a testimony of the court’s interpretation of events. By cross referencing that testimony with what the victim saw and sensed, you then point out inconsistencies to make for a signature turnabout case. This system made for some really fun puzzles and memorable moments, as well as tying into the story in a meaningful way, which is something the other special character abilities added throughout the series never did for me.
The presentation is another element the game does well. The 3D character models introduced in Dual Destinies have been further refined here and this is definitely one of the prettiest games on the 3DS. Along with the same kind of slick animations as seen in Dual Destinies and punchy music and sound effects, I’m willing to forgive many of its writing and plotting shortcomings. If you can get into the right mindset, then it’s one of the best produced dumb-fun visual novels.
The localization was given the kind of time and care that it needed. I didn’t notice any typos and there’s plenty of the expected long running stepladder, Charley, and “grape juice” jokes. With the new setting of Khura’in, there are plenty of hilariously bad faux-Sanskrit pun names. Paht Rohl and Pees’lubn Andistan’dhin are just the tip of this next level pun iceberg.
In order to really understand what makes the game so messy as a whole, I have to talk about the general flow. Aside from the aforementioned need of editing down the script, there’s a large glaring filler case that feels completely out of place sandwiched between two of the game’s best cases that hardly relates to them. Just as the story is really picking up, suddenly we’re dropped in a mercifully short, “oops, we forgot to give Athena something to do” scenario that feels like some kind of side story that would have taken place in between Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice. Really, it has no place among the main episodes and should have either been given more development and relevance to the greater story at hand just been or left as some pretty boring optional DLC.
I have a lot more to say of both my biggest compliments and some further criticisms, but they would be delving deep into the spoilery abyss. Before the defense raises any objections, I just want to say that while I may seem harsh on the game, it’s only because I really did enjoy my time with it and the series overall despite their respective flaws. I only want to see the post-Shu Takumi writing team hone their strengths because, as was shown in Apollo Justice, Dual Destinies, and now Spirit of Justice, when they have a strong direction and you trudge through the weaker elements and episodes, these games reach the heights that I know and love from the best of Ace Attorney.
Spirit of Justice is a good Ace Attorney game with moments of fleeting greatness, but it gets bogged down by some serious writing issues and bizarre pacing choices. Looking at the big picture, it’s very messy and all over the place with some very high highs, low lows, and everything in between. As much as I could go on all day about the problems with its writing and plot, I can’t deny that I still had a great time with it. If you’re already invested enough to have played five games into this series, then Spirit of Justice is certainly still worth playing – and generally on the same level of quality of the last few entries.