Justice knows no borders as Phoenix goes abroad.
When Phoenix Wright is prevented from entering a court hearing, naturally he asks why. He’s a famously ace attorney, after all. “’Cause you’re a foreigner!”, comes the armed bailiff’s retort. Of this sixth instalment in Capcom’s venerable courtroom drama series, nobody could say it’s not on message for 2016. Not that Spirit of Justice could seriously be considered a commentary upon the political zeitgeist – this is even more mental.
Full disclosure: the only Ace Attorney game I’ve finished was the first. While I’ve dabbled in the rest, a whole lot of history behind the recurring cast might have taken place in the intervening entries. As an experience that is more a visual novel than a traditional game, latecomers might feel daunted at the prospect of having missed too much. Be assured, this latest is immediately inviting.
Inviting for the player, that is. As for Phoenix himself, you may already have gleaned the hostility towards him. Visiting his old friend Maya Fey in the kingdom of Khura’in (a fictional land inspired by Nepal) he becomes embroiled in a case to defend his tour guide from accusations of theft and murder. Little does he know, the local justice system is deeply suspicious of defence attorneys, preferring the swift and certain results of spirit mediums and a ritual called the “Divination Séance”.
It turns out that Wright’s client, Ahlbi Ur’gaid (get it?), was the last person the victim saw. We know, because the séance reveals those final moments as seen through the victim’s eyes. And yet, Wright is not convinced that this vision reveals the whole truth. He’s even less convinced that a trial without defence can be allowed to go ahead, choosing instead to impose himself on the process at any cost.
That cost turns out to be greater than he expects when he hears about the Defence Culpability Act – a law that subjects attorneys to the same sentence as the criminals they defend. And the sentence for murder? No less than death. It’s a grim situation for Wright, beset on all sides by an aggressive audience who consider his presence to be almost blasphemous, and who are unprepared for what might be the first not guilty verdict in decades.
But here’s the thing: however grim it gets, the overriding sense is somehow one of joyous hilarity. Spirit of Justice is laugh out loud funny. There’s the script with its pitch perfect localisation (how rare is it to hear that recognised?). There are the exquisitely detailed and animated 3D characters that exude comic personality. Then there are the ludicrous dramatic turns that punctuate Wright’s meticulous dissection of evidence and testimony. The combination of these things is supremely engaging.
In a sense, it would be a shame to disrupt this experience with conventional gameplay. Those who’ve played a Phoenix Wright title before will be familiar with the fairly hands off approach to interaction. It’s point and click in nature, with background scenes to comb for evidence and a cast of witnesses to interview via almost linear dialogue choices. This all culminates in the court case itself, where loose threads entwine and the drama peaks to a crescendo, presided over by a judge with hysterical unprofessionalism.
The opening case drops you into that Khura’in courtroom straight away, building familiarity with the inspection of testimony for weakness or contradiction. Line by line, the witness can be pressed to elaborate, or be challenged with evidence from Wright’s inventory. Each item of evidence must be pored over to find the subtle descriptive detail that breaks open the case. Let’s take the wild eyed, metal-playing monk that attests to seeing a murder through a window. With evidence to show that the window was closed, you must then present it to challenge the statement.
Subsequent cases (in the series of five on offer) take the experience back to familiar territory in terms of location, while mixing it up in gameplay terms with the appearance of Apollo Justice – Phoenix’s fellow attorney holding the fort back home. Apollo’s unique bracelet identifies when a witness exhibits nervous tics (of course it does), allowing the player to pinpoint which statement is less than honest. He also happens to have turned Wright’s office into an agency for entertainers and magicians; I’m sure there is an explanation of sorts in previous games.
I suppose the beauty of Phoenix Wright is that it just doesn’t need to make that much sense. Of course, the trails of evidence and processes of deduction are always logical, fair, and rewarding. In gameplay terms it rarely gets in the way of delivering its story, doing enough – and this is the point – to make that story feel like it’s yours. For its absurdity, comedy and drama, it’s a world that I can recommend without any guilt to assuage.
Phoenix Wright: Spirit of Justice was provided to us by Capcom via a download code for Nintendo 3DS.