The Ace Attorney series is something special for me. Starting with the original on Game Boy Advance and DS, all the way up to Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney on 3DS, I have played every localized entry in the series to completion. Few series have a hold on me quite like Ace Attorney does. And yet, recent entries kind of lost their grasp on me a little. Dual Destinies, while a pretty great game overall, completely dropped plot points, free exploration and characterization from the previous entry in the series, and the crossover game with Professor Layton didn’t reach the heights of either series. This entry promises to shake things up a little by introducing a new setting, the kingdom of Khura’in. And while it does differ significantly from the other games’ Japamerica, being the source of spirit channeling and a land where defendants and defense attorney share the same sentence, the game surrounding it fails to exploit its potential to the fullest.
Throwing everything but the kitchen sink
The basic structure of the game is basically unchanged compared to previous Ace Attorney entries. In every chapter, a murder happens, and it’s your job to find the truth behind each crime. To do so, you must first find points of interest in the environment in the investigation phase, then interrogate witnesses and prove your client’s innocence in the court phase. Like Dual Destinies before it, Spirit of Justice follows three different defense attorneys as they protect the wrongly accused across five chapters, which unfortunately has the effect of spreading everything thin. Phoenix Wright and Apollo Justice get two cases each while Athena Cykes only gets a single one, which is the most out of place case in the series’ history. Indeed, it gets no investigation phase, it has no relevance to the overarching plot whatsoever, and it’s super basic.
This feeling of the game being spread too thin extends beyond the main characters. Maya Fey, a returning character that was prominently featured in advertisements, doesn’t do much at all during the course of the game. The soundtrack, possibly due to the game’s structure being split between three attorneys, opts to reuse existing tunes which makes the soundtrack less memorable overall. Additional gameplay mechanics are aplenty like Apollo’s bracelet, which lets players detect a character’s nervous tics, or Athena’s Mood Matrix, which analyses emotions to find the true feelings of a witness. When you add in Phoenix’ Magatama, Ema Skye’s forensics and Rayfa’s Insight, there’s a lot of gameplay elements that end up feeling neither special nor in-depth.
A fragmented tale
One of the main draws of the Ace Attorney series is definitely its script. While the soundtrack and visuals are appealing elements in their own rights, seeing elaborate crimes unfold before your eyes and bringing a criminal to justice is where it’s at. And, until now, the series has done a great job of making new cases and characters exciting and fresh. Unfortunately, in its act of balancing Khura’in and Japamerica, this too falls flat at times in this entry. The new prosecutor in particular, Nahyuta Sahdmadhi, is underwhelming. He doesn’t ever do much outside of telling the attorney’s side to give up, despite being not much of a threat. He and Ema Skye, the cute forensics detective, also keep bouncing between the two countries featured in the game. My suspension of disbelief doesn’t cover a single prosecutor being used for every case across two countries. Another low point of this game’s writing is that it keeps adding more backstory to Apollo Justice, on top of his existing backstory of his titular game and the added backstory of Dual Destinies. As a result, his origins are confusing and far-fetched. Will the next game introduce yet another long lost relative or friend of Apollo? I sure hope not.
That isn’t to say the game’s writing doesn’t have high points, however. As far as characters go, Rayfa is a great addition. Her dialogue rarely failed to bring a smile to my face, and she went through actual character development too. Case 3’s unexpected developments were enjoyable all the way through. Case 5, despite starting with some strange characterization for Phoenix Wright, has a lot of things going for it. Characters are fun to break in court, and the twists are very satisfying.
Not the attorney I’m looking for
I must stress that this is still a good game. The core court gameplay is as fun as ever and the soundtrack is also great, if a bit uninspired for the franchise. The graphics are also great for the 3DS, even if the framerate drops way below comfort at times. My experience with the game was very good overall, despite the title’s annoyances.
The main issue here is that the series has traditionally been excellent. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice falls short compared to the quality standard I expect from the series. Had the game focused more on a tight set of mechanics and characters and happened in a single location, I’m sure it could have been just as special too.