In early 2017, I began my journey through the Ace Attorney series after the music convinced me I couldn’t wait any longer. It took me almost two years, but I’ve pressed through countless testimonies and shattered Psyche-Locks until I finally completed the most recent entry into the Ace Attorney canon: Spirit of Justice. At last I can say that I am current with what has become one of my favorite video game series. Now that I’ve completed both the main story and the DLC case for the game, I’m ready to share my spoiler-filled thoughts on the full experience.
Let’s start with the basics. Spirit of Justice picks up after the conclusion of Dual Destinies, and it takes us far away from the world Phoenix Wright has become accustomed to. On a trip to visit his old assistant Maya Fey in the kingdom of Khura’in, Phoenix manages to find himself in the courtroom of a foreign country where defense attorneys are seen as evil – and punished just as much as their clients if they don’t get an acquittal. While he intended his trip to be a friendly visit, Phoenix instead gets caught in the midst of a revolution that centers on the legal system. Between his cases, we also see his students Apollo and Athena at work back in the US, but little does he know that his pupils will soon be caught up in the revolution even from such a vast distance.
On a grand scale, Spirit of Justice serves as the finale of a second Ace Attorney trilogy. The first is made up of the original Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, along with Justice for All and Trials and Tribulations. This second trilogy begins with Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, and then continues its story through Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice. While the original trilogy has a tighter focus on the long-lasting impacts of the DL-6 incident and the machinations of the Fey family, the second trilogy is more loosely tied together by a focus on the Dark Age of the Law and the growth of Apollo Justice from a fledgling attorney into a true lawyer.
Focusing in on the structure of Spirit of Justice itself, the game has five cases which jump around between America and Khura’in. The tutorial case introduces us to the trials in Khura’in and the new mechanism of Spirit of Justice, the Divination Seance. This is a ritual which allows the court to literally see the final moments of the victim, and the insights drawn from these visions by the Royal Priestess (who is also the princess of the kingdom) are considered to be infallible. You learn quickly that even the final moments of a murder victim are quite open to interpretation, and the Divination Seance will play a key role in every trial that takes place in Khura’in.
Not every trial happens in the distant kingdom of spirit channeling, though. The game’s second case takes place in America and sees Apollo and Athena working together to defend Phoenix’s daughter Trucy from a false accusation. It is this trial that introduces us to the game’s main prosecutor, Nahyuta Sahdmadhi, who like most of his country distrusts defense attorneys as a rule and allows his religious beliefs to seep into the courtroom. The second case also establishes a connection between Apollo and Nahyuta, though in these early hours we learn nothing about how in the world these two know each other.
The game continues on like this, switching between Khura’in and the States to break up the gameplay. This method is even more effective because each lawyer in the Ace Attorney franchise has a different specialization that translates directly into a game mechanic. As Phoenix Wright, you’ll use his magatama to see and break the Psyche-Locks on close-mouthed witnesses while also figuring out alternative interpretations for the Divination Seance. As Apollo, you’ll watch witnesses closely for physical tells which indicate that they are lying. And as Athena, you identify the emotions behind testimony in order to heal the emotional discord of witnesses on the stand. Fictionally, each of these abilities is essentially a different way to overcome lying and secrets, but they feel mechanically different from each other and fill the gameplay with variety.
There’s only one thing that I felt was off structurally about Spirit of Justice, and that’s the game’s fourth trial. This case is a single trial day with no investigation focused on Athena Cykes and her relationship with the prosecutor from Dual Destinies, Simon Blackquill. She must defend the owner of a soba shop accused of murdering a rakugo storyteller. Rakugo is a form of Japanese comedy storytelling using only a fan to portray multiple characters in various situations. While the case is not a bad case at all – the characters are funny and we get to see the kind of opposition Athena faces as a fledgling attorney – it doesn’t connect to the larger narrative of Spirit of Justice in any meaningful way. None of the rest of the game’s story is about Athena, the case has no influence on the events happening in Khura’in, and we don’t learn anything more about Prosecutor Sahdmadhi’s backstory or motivation.
Compare this to the fourth trial in, say, Trials and Tribulations. It is structured identically – one trial day, no investigation – but it serves as a grand introduction to the fifth and final case of the game. We see the beginning of Mia’s relationship with Diego Armando as well as the beginning of her enmity with Dahlia Hawthorne. We become familiar with Dusky Bridge, which will be the site of the fifth case of the game. Dual Destinies similarly uses the fourth case to tie the prologue and finale together meaningfully, connecting lots of loose ends to get you ready for the ending of the game.
In a sense, Spirit of Justice took the opposite approach of the other Ace Attorney titles, where the second and third case are typically less related to the overarching story while the fourth case is a setup for the ending. Instead, the third case in Spirit of Justice ties heavily to the main story and the fourth case is nothing but a break before things get heavy again. I appreciate that they experimented with the structure and Athena’s trial was still a fun case to play – I think for me, though, I like it best when all five cases help to drive the narrative forward in a meaningful way.
What stood out the most to me as I finished Spirit of Justice was the way in which the game delivers a fantastic ending for the character arc of Apollo Justice. Even though Phoenix Wright’s name is plastered onto the titles of both Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice, I think a strong argument can be made in favor of Apollo being the true protagonist of the second Ace Attorney trilogy. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he and Phoenix share the spotlight equally. We see Apollo coming into his own in the way we did with Phoenix during the first trilogy, while also watching Phoenix learn how to be a mentor to his pupils. Phoenix takes a hand in righting the past which led to the Dark Age of the Law, but watching him do so teaches Apollo to become a beacon of truth and justice who can turn the tide of a legal revolution.
Truth is a major theme for Apollo’s character arc. In his first game, his main villain is the corrupt defense attorney Klavier Gavin, who planned to use forged evidence to win a trial and then pinned the blame on Phoenix as vengeance for not being selected as the defense attorney. Both Apollo’s mentor and his rival were caught up in the twisted web of false evidence – Apollo untangled that web and freed Phoenix from the vile reputation which kept him out of law for seven years. In Dual Destinies, Apollo leaves the Wright Anything Agency because he senses dishonesty in the heart of his new companion Athena, and he cannot bear knowing that he is being lied to. His determination to reach the truth helps to finally bring an end to the Dark Age of the Law in the States.
Apollo spent two games discovering the truth of other people. Phoenix and Athena both grew and learned from Apollo’s focus. In Spirit of Justice, the search for truth returns Apollo Justice to his true family in Khura’in. The story turns inward and focuses on the truth of Apollo Justice himself – where he came from, why he is the way he is, and what it means for his future. In the process, he brings the truth to light for an entire country blinded by the machinations of a desperate queen grasping for power. It’s a powerful ending to the story of Apollo Justice, and the fact that he leaves the Wright Anything Agency to start his own law firm wraps up his arc nicely.
Spirit of Justice is a great ending to the story of Apollo Justice, and it proves like Trials and Tribulations before it that the third time is the charm for the Ace Attorney franchise. This team delivers excellent wrap-ups to story arcs, carefully building up the journeys of individual characters over time to reach a satisfying conclusion in epic cases of grand scale. I don’t know what’s next for the Ace Attorney franchise, but if the story ends here, I’ll be happy that the series has such a great ending.