Every Phoenix Wright game features an array of over-the-top trials, each of which builds to a dramatic turnabout in which players use logical inconsistencies to prove a client’s innocence. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice, the sixth main entry in the series, is no exception: It’s filled with plenty of colorful characters and all the obligatory twists and turns of the courtroom genre. It’s just a bit disappointing that after 15 years, the series shows little interest in overturning its own formulaic proceedings.
That’s not to say there’s been a lack of innovation: The Mood Matrix introduced by 2013’s Dual Destinies allows players to find contradictions between what a witness says and what they feel, and Spirit of Justice utilizes a mystical “Pool of Souls” through which a victim’s last sensations can be analyzed and submitted as evidence. But these are nothing more than fancy investigatorial flourishes, much like the ability to use the 3DS’s microphone to “blow” fingerprint powder across a crime scene. Each case is still tightly scripted and requires players to present contradictory evidence at precisely the right moment, with none of the margin for error or alternative theorizing provided by Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments.
These complaints, though, aren’t exactly damning. In fact, it could be argued that this stylistic sameness is the game’s biggest asset: Fans know exactly what they’re getting from Phoenix Wright, and Spirit of Justice doesn’t disappoint. Each character is a living embodiment of their punny name, from the lute-strumming hippie Pess’lubn Andistan’dhin to the noodle-haired soba proprietor Bucky Whet and magician Manov Mistree (who goes by the stage name Mr. Reus). Fan service abounds, from the brief return of prosecutorial punching bag Gaspen Payne to cameos by Pearl Fey and Simon Blackquill. All three protagonists, Phoenix, Apollo, and Athena, have their own moment to shine as defense attorneys. As a result, the game features its widest variety of courtroom techniques, from Maya’s channeling of a dead witness back onto the stand to Phoenix’s cracking of a reluctant testifier’s “psyche-locks.”
For those inclined to judge Spirit of Justice too harshly—yes, it suffers from the exact same problems faced by its predecessors, in that the game sometimes forces players to make poorly established logical leaps. Worse, the rigid restrictions upon submitting evidence, which must be done at precisely the right moment, can actually work to the detriment of those who figure out a case well ahead of an episode’s sometimes glacial pacing. Likewise, while the trial scenes are at least buoyed by the flamboyant, comedic characters (similar to, say, Boston Legal), the game’s investigatory sequences are lengthy dumps of exposition, broken up by that hoary old adventure-game staple: clicking every pixel, looking for missing evidence that will advance the plot.
Thankfully, these sometimes irritating quirks pale beside Spirit of Justice’s strong narrative thread. Though each episode still features its own unique victim and case, they serve on the whole to demonstrate the importance of criminal defense. In the fictional, mystical land of Khura’in, defense lawyers have been demonized for over two decades. In Wright’s first case, the stakes are immediately raised by the revelation that, thanks to the “Defense Culpability Act,” he’ll face the same verdict as his client. Emotions run high, too, once Apollo finds himself compelled to join Phoenix overseas. As it turns out, he was raised in Khura’in, and it’s there that he must defend his rebellious father…from his own brainwashed brother. The gameplay might continue to play it safe, but at least the plot features a revolution.