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Phoenix Wright is back, and gaming’s best crime drama is weirder than ever

Phoenix Wright is back, and gaming’s best crime drama is weirder than ever


Ace Attorney returns with Spirit of Justice on the Nintendo 3DS

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Picture this: a courtroom full of loud, impatient onlookers, all dead set on seeing your client jailed for a murder she didn’t commit. The prosecutor is a deeply religious lawyer who claims to have the ability to see the outcome of a trial before it happens, thus allowing him to prepare for every rebuttal you might have. You start to sweat. The judge is demanding a piece of evidence right now, one that will prove your client’s innocence.

Unfortunately, you have no idea what that crucial bit of evidence is.

Such is the norm in the Ace Attorney series, a long-running adventure game franchise that puts you in the role of a defense attorney constantly up against seemingly impossible odds. This week sees the launch of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Spirit of Justice on the Nintendo 3DS, the sixth game in the series, and the first English release since 2010. It might just be the best — and weirdest — entry in the series to date.

'Law & Order' reimagined as a strange, hilarious anime

The best way to describe Ace Attorney is that it’s sort of like Law & Order, only reimagined as a strange, hilarious, heartwarming anime. Spirit of Justice takes place over the course of five episodes, and they’re primarily structured just like an episode of Law & Order. You start out with the investigation, combing crime scenes for clues and evidence, while also interrogating witnesses for any bit of usable information you can get. You’ll dust for prints, analyze security footage, spray luminol in search of blood, and all of these moments make very satisfying use of the 3DS’ touchscreen. After that, the scene shifts to the courtroom, where you’ll use everything you’ve found to poke holes in the prosecution’s arguments, and prove your client’s innocence.

Where Ace Attorney differs from Law & Order is that it is downright ridiculous — and Spirit of Justice is among the craziest in the series. The first case has series hero Phoenix Wright — now a veteran attorney with his own small firm — traveling to a fictional country with a vaguely Tibetan vibe, where defense attorneys are despised and sentences are laid down based on the visions of a spiritual medium. Naturally, Phoenix is immediately roped into defending his tour guide from murder charges. The second case has Phoenix’s protege, Apollo Justice, defending a magician who looks to have killed someone during a magic show. The case involves multiple instances of secret identities.

Here are just a few of the colorful characters you’ll come across:

  • A forensic analyst who can’t stop snacking during a trial
  • A prosecutor who believes it’s his religious duty to punish criminals
  • A high-level monk who testifies via heavy metal songs
  • A lawyer who can hear emotions
  • A magician’s assistant who thinks of herself as a bat

These wild personalities are made even wilder thanks to the series’ brilliant character design, which is even better now as Spirit of Justice makes the shift to 3D characters. Everyone has a series of animations that help define their personality — a TV executive who tweets every dumb thing you say, a young boy with an energetic puppy sitting on his head — and they look incredible this time around. It’s especially fun watching characters break down on the witness stand as you point out inconsistencies in their story.

The real joy of the series comes from how much heart it has

What makes the game work so well is that even with its crazy characters and scenarios, it still feels grounded in a way. Spirit of Justice’s crimes may be outlandish, and at times nonsensical, but you’re still able to solve them primarily through logic. (Though it's logic that involves channeling spirits and using a magic bracelet that can help determine when someone is lying.) Whereas previous games often forced you into guesswork, every solution I’ve found in Spirit of Justice has been a result of carefully analyzing evidence and testimonies to find contradictions. The "ah ha!" moment that comes from finding these contradictions is immensely satisfying.

The real joy of the series, though, is just how much heart it has. The Ace Attorney games in general, and Spirit of Justice in particular, are incredibly well-written, filled with characters and moments that will stick with you long after you stop playing. For fans of the series, it’s hard not to smile at familiar sights like Phoenix dripping with sweat or yelling his trademark "objection!" with a firm pointed finger. The new characters are equally lovable, even the villains; in almost all instances you understand their motivations, and often feel sorry for them.

There are very few great crime games, and Ace Attorney continues to build its own very specific niche within that category. It’s a game about solving crimes and protecting the innocent, but also one filled with terrible puns and a hilarious, lovable cast of characters.

It’s also the only series I know of that can make you smile while you’re solving a murder.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice is available now on the Nintendo 3DS.