Earlier this year I picked up Phoenix Wright: Spirit of Justice right after finishing Dual Destinies. That turned out to be a mistake – Ace Attorney is one of my favorite series, but there is only so much of it that you can play back-to-back before burnout hits. Recently I picked the game back up to fill the time between finishing my most recent new game and starting any games I might get for Christmas. The amount of time I had to take a break was perfect, and I’m now progressing nicely through Spirit of Justice and am thoroughly hooked by the compelling direction for this story.
Corruption is a frequent theme in the Ace Attorney series. The first game dealt heavily with corruption in the prosecutor’s office through the rumors about Edgeworth forging evidence, and then of course Manfred von Karma and his illegitimately-earned “perfect” record. The additional fifth case in the DS version also explored corruption in the police department via Damon Gant, the police chief. Apollo Justice and Dual Destinies dig deep into a time known as the Dark Age of the Law, where defense and prosecution wield the weapons of false testimony and forged evidence against one another in court and the general public no longer trusts in the justice system at all.
Spirit of Justice changes tracks and explores corruption from a new angle by taking Phoenix Wright to a new country entirely. In the land of Khura’in, where the spirit channeling technique of the Fey family originated, the court system is intimately woven into the religious beliefs of the country. Khura’in has a sort of matriarchal theocracy where the queen is thought to be descended from the Holy Mother, the goddess of Khura’inism. This opens the door to corruption in the courts in a dangerous new way that Phoenix has never before encountered, and that’s what I want to discuss in today’s article.
Before we jump in too far – this piece will have some spoilers for Spirit of Justice, and some theories as well. I’m halfway through the third case at the time of writing, which is to say that I don’t know everything; just enough to be dangerous.
To understand the depictions of corruption in Spirit of Justice, it’s important to understand a few details about how trials work in Khura’in as well as their religious beliefs. Khura’inists believe in a Holy Mother from whom the royal family is descended. The Queen of Khura’in has the ability to channel the spirits of the dead, and she serves as the leader of the kingdom from both a political and a religious standpoint. Her daughter is the Royal Priestess, who is responsible for a significant part of the court process called Insights.
Through a holy dance, the priestess is able to call up the final moments of the deceased from their perspective. This allows the court to see what the victim saw, hear what they heard, and any other sensory experiences they had in their final moments. It is then the responsibility of the priestess to interpret these visions as an Insight. Because she is the princess and a religious figure both, these insights are seen as infallible and therefore effectively render witness testimony and evidence invalid. These beliefs then tie in to another predominant practice in Khura’in, one with more insidious origins and purposes.
There is a law in Khura’in called the Defense Culpability Act. It declares that a defense attorney is effectively as guilty as their client, making them an accessory to the crime and subject to the same disposition. Since the punishment for murder in Khura’in is the death penalty, this means that defense attorneys are literally putting their life on the line whenever they take on a client. This of course discourages defense attorneys from practicing at all, making it so that anyone accused of a crime is convicted and found guilty. This is a useful weapon for the Justice Minister – and husband to the queen – to have in his arsenal, as it allows him to use the court system in order to “legitimately” eliminate any opposition to his rule.
This nasty blend of political and religious authority makes the court system in Khura’in quite corrupt. Inga can use it to eliminate his political rivals with impunity, and because his daughter is the priestess and therefore assumed to always speak the truth during her insights, questioning these decisions is seen as blasphemous. The cycle is then further reinforced by the execution of the defense team along with their defendant, sending a clear message: don’t question authority. Say your prayers, do as you are told, and you’ll be left alone. It’s a tough system for Phoenix to have to tackle, but he and his clients aren’t the only ones who are negatively impacted by this court process.
In the opening of the game, we meet Rayfa: princess of Khura’in and royal priestess who speaks Insights during court proceedings. Rayfa carries significant authority but is actually quite young at only fourteen years of age. To bear the burden of such a significant responsibility certainly shows its affects on her. The princess is arrogant and condescending, seeing other people as foolish because she has been taught to believe that her words are the unquestionable truth. This also leads her to be cruel, as she regularly cheers for Phoenix to die because he dares to question her. These qualities are despicable to be sure but Rayfa doesn’t strike me as a bad person – she feels more like a victim of the unfair environment she has been raised in.
This is clearest during trials, when Phoenix is asked to cross-examine the insights that Rayfa shares with the court. Rayfa’s insights show the final moments of the victim’s life, which are indisputable facts. The issue is that those moments are vague enough to be open to interpretation. As someone who works with justice system data in real life, this is a common problem. Sure, this chart shows that the majority of crimes come from zip code A, but is the reason for that because the people who live in zip code A commit more crimes, or because the people in zip code A are policed more frequently? Facts say what they say, but interpretations of facts can lead to wildly different conclusions, and we see that when someone other than Rayfa gets the chance to analyze her insights.
The more that Rayfa’s interpretations of the facts divinely revealed to her are proven to be wrong, the more it breaks down her perception of herself. She has been told all of her life that because she is the princess and the royal priestess, her word is truth. The blood of the Holy Mother runs in her veins – how could she ever be wrong? Thing is, Rayfa is fourteen; being wrong comes with the territory. But because it is politically beneficial for Inga to maintain the princess’s delusion of perfection, it is only when Phoenix challenges her in the courtroom that someone actually pushes her to ask the hard questions about her beliefs in herself.
For me, seeing this difficult subject tackled in a video game is a fascinating experience. The twisted line of blending political and religious authority is one that feels quite relevant to the current political climate where I live, and it influences my work in many ways. Sometimes, the misuse of religious authority can be unintentional, such as pastors not realizing that ostracizing members of their congregation over divorce can help protect perpetrators of domestic violence and keep victims in dangerous situations. This seems to be Rayfa’s case – she has good intentions but is doing damage she cannot understand. It’s due in great part to the people in power above her who are intentionally misusing their power for corrupt gain.
I still have plenty of Spirit of Justice to experience before I will fully understand what’s happening in the game, but I’m looking forward to seeing how things turn out. My hope is that Rayfa is able to develop a healthy understanding of how her beliefs can be damaging when wielded in concert with her political authority. It seems that Phoenix cares about her and is working to preserve her well-being even as he defeats her in court. He’s proven to be a great mentor to Apollo and Athena, so perhaps he can serve in that role to Rayfa as well.