Phoenix Wright is an amazing series no one suspected would be as big as it is in North America, not even Capcom. The first game sold out almost immediately after release, and so did subsequent printings, leaving Capcom scrambling to meet demand. Who the hell would have pictured a visual novel about a lawyer (of all the evil and vile things) attracting so much attention on these shores?
But the charming, wonderful series is beloved over here, and rightfully so. The stories are fun, the characters are iconic, and everyone loves a whodunit. Plus, there’s the fact that writers just love to write “No objection!” in headlines and think they’re clever. Now we are up to the sixth main installment, the second for the 3DS… and it may be the finest one yet.
Phoenix Wright: Spirit of Justice sees Wright being thrust into acting as a defense lawyer in a foreign country, the Kingdom of Kura'in, so this one is definitely more supernatural than most. Kura'in is the heavily religious place that his former protegee Maya Fey’s family is from, and as such spirit mediums are everywhere. Wright is there to reunite with Maya as she’s been gone for many games to complete her training and lead her village back home. But as per usual being a friend of Wright’s is never a good idea, and she quickly ends up a suspect in a murder case. (Seriously, no one become this guy’s friend. Every single person who knows him has been either ended up fingered for a murder or murdered themselves.)
The court in Kura’in is quite different from back home, as Wright learns from his very first case. The judge is shocked at the very idea of a defense lawyer, because the trials generally take minutes. That’s due to divination seances, which allow the court to see the last experiences of a murder victim in a pool of water. This generally leaves no doubt as to who was responsible but as the country is soon to find out, it’s not infallible. Wright is able to poke holes in the interpretation of the visions and show that lawyers are a necessity, but there’s a catch - a pretty big one. There’s a law on the books called the “defense culpability act” that charges any lawyer dumb enough to defend a guilty person with the same sentence they end up with. Since many offenses seem to warrant executions in this country, this means that you’d be literally putting your life on the line to defend somebody, as Wright soon finds himself doing. This twist is a great way to make the now thoroughly experienced lawyer feel like the underdog yet again without the benefit of a hit on the head and some convenient amnesia (as happened in the second game, Justice for All.)
What could have turned the country against lawyers in this way, besides good sense? You will find out over the course of all five cases. The game flip flops from cases involving Wright in Kura’in to what’s going on back at his Agency back home, where his protegees Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes handle a few more cases. One involves Wright’s magician daughter Trucy getting accused of murdering someone during her act because, again, you never, ever want to be involved with this guy.
The game plays out as you’d expect from the series. In each chapter there’s a murder, there’s an investigation, there’s a trial where the evidence you collected must be presented to catch people in lies, and then you always end up finding the real guilty party during the trial, just as it happens in real life. Mostly you’ll be reading so it’s best to think of this series as a good book that occasionally asks you to point something out.
The trials are as thrilling as ever, although there have been a few slight changes. The divination seances have you inspecting a video of the victim’s last moments, giving you something new to play with. Instead of a life bar, the game has gone back to the five strikes and you’re out method, but nothing is too terribly tricky to figure out and the game is gracious with checkpoints. Having all of the series' lawyers in the game means all of their powers come into play as well, from Apollo’s perception to Athena’s therapy, and it changes things up nicely.
As someone who has played through the entire series from the beginning, this may be the finest Ace Attorney game yet (I still think Phoenix Wright vs Layton is the best of either franchise, but that’s an argument for another day.) While the puzzles and trials are simplistic, they are also more gratifying. No one here can just kill someone without making a big deal of it, so the cases have plenty of convoluted and ridiculous twists, but they make sense in the game’s world. In the last game (Duel Destinies) there’s a chapter that everyone gets stuck on because it’s almost unplayably boring - thankfully nothing similar happens here. The trials are thrilling and the villains are truly despicable, and since everyone in Kura’in hates lawyers even more than most sane people you always feel beset against. Each one of the five chapters builds on the main story, all culminating in a finale featuring a suspected murderer that doesn’t remember the act. Unlike a certain recent TV show with a similar premise Spirit of Justice manages to stick the landing, culminating in a finale that’s surprisingly emotional and completely earned. It also avoids the fate of not knowing when to end or getting wrapped up in sentimental garbage, even though it tries its best.
It also works as a handing over of the torch to Apollo, which is amusing since he’s had his very own game to do that. But in many ways this is the best introduction to Apollo Justice yet, working as an origin story for him without feeling like one. It’s happened before but this is the first time you see him truly flourish under Wright’s teachings and come into his own.
It’s altogether long and satisfying but since this is the modern age of gaming, it will continue. DLC will add three more cases, two of which are considered short stories and cost $4 even though they were originally free with the Japanese version (grumble), and one full-length case called "Turnabout Time Traveler" that will ring it at $6. We shall see if Wright calls a killer whale to the witness stand this time.
Look, with visual novels you either understand them and love it or you don’t, and you likely know what to expect from the series at this point. Spirit of Destiny is at the very least on par with the finest game in the main series (Trials and Tribulations) and I hope this series continues forever. Perhaps it’s time for another meeting with Layton?
Phoenix Wright: Spirit of Destiny is available now exclusively in the 3DS eShop for $39.99. This was reviewed from 30-40 hours of play from a code provided by Capcom.