Monday, February 13, 2017

VN Talk: Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

Ace Attorney has always revolved around crazy cases, outlandish witnesses, and other things that would never stand up in a real court where often the player protagonist comes off as the only sane person in an insane asylum. Spirit of Justice continues this irreverence as the sixth entry in the main series, but it took me a while to get into it.

Usually the Ace Attorney games are structured so there is an intro case (short, one trial session, no investigation segment), somewhere in the middle there is a throw-away case that has little to do with the main storyline, and then the remaining cases build on each other so the finale is a culmination of everything that led up to this point.

Spirit of Justice actually has two throwaway cases that are largely skippable except for minor details that could have been introduced at another point in story. It's not that they aren't fun. I loved the magic show trial, and the rakugo trial was fascinating since it covers an art form we don't have in the west, while still making it easy to understand.

But they have no context in the greater story. Their only contribution is the introduction of Nahyuta Sahdmadhi as the prosecutor for the magic show trial and we don't know why he's really suddenly back in the US (story-wise) for the rakugo trial since he just finished the previous trial with Phoenix back in Khura'in. It's a lot of jet-setting and while I know the LA of Ace Attorney is now short on prosecutors thanks to the events of the last game, it seems strange for the characters to not at least comment on that.

The result is that the storytelling feels uneven. I'm used to having one breather case, but two was a bit much (and the rakugo one didn't even have an investigation phase).

Part of the problem is the Ace Attorney series' burgeoning cast. Capcom put Phoenix back in the saddle with the start of Dual Destinies, resulting in at least two active lawyer protagonists, since Apollo Justice had taken the protagonist's seat in the fourth game while Phoenix was disbarred.

But Dual Destinies also added Athena Cykes, who is a fantastic character, but brings the number of lawyers at the agency up to three. It worked in Dual Destinies because the central story that ran through all cases encompassed Athena and Apollo's personal stakes in different ways as well as integrating how Phoenix became a lawyer again with the meta-plot.

Spirit of Justice doesn't have that, but it still (by narrative necessity) has these three protagonists that it has to deal with. The player base isn't going to be happy if the three don't get a turn at the wheel, and the result is that Phoenix gets two cases, Apollo gets two, and Athena gets one.

Unsurprisingly, being the junior lawyers at the agency, Apollo and Athena get the two standalones that don't have much context.

And given the number of game installments, there are so many beloved characters that the plot bends over backwards to accommodate them. Though Maya returns in a way that completely makes sense, Edgeworth feels shoehorned in because the player base would be hugely disappointed without him. Dual Destinies' antihero Simon Blackquill makes a guest appearance as well, and while I really like the character, he's in Athena's throwaway case that has no bearing on the rest of the story.

Spirit of Justice unfolds with Phoenix meeting his friend Maya Fey in the fictional country of Khura'in, which has a screwed up legal system which makes the lawyers share the fates of their clients, which means that if the client is guilty, the lawyer is as well. This is naturally a deterrent since failing to prove an accused murderer not guilty means that the lawyer may also be executed. Thus, the country is largely devote of defense attorneys.

Phoenix, being who he is, can't let someone face a trial undefended, and jumps in protect those he believes in. But because Phoenix's trip was intended as a visit, Apollo and Athena aren't with him, and half the game takes place in the US with the two of them holding down the fort while the boss is gone. I assume this was done because there's no reason for all three of them to go to Khura'in (until the last case makes it so) since their relationship is a professional one. People don't usually go on vacation with their boss and coworkers after all.

It would have been fantastic if somehow the cases in the US turned out to be connected to the cases in Khu'rain but with the exception of the two-part final case Turnabout Revolution they're not.

Fortunately, Spirit of Justice ends on a high note, with what is probably the longest case I've ever seen in an Ace Attorney game, and I can only assume that the rakugo case Turnabout Storyteller was intentionally so short because of all the effort being piled into Turnabout Revolution.

There is still that unevenness over the game as a whole though, because Turnabout Revolution makes it clear that Spirit of Justice is really Apollo's story, not Phoenix's. Yes, even though the game starts with Phoenix and even brings back fan favorite Maya Fey, they aren't the ones who have the greatest reason to fight. In a way, Spirit of Justice is the culmination of all the character growth Apollo has had since his debut in the fourth game.

I actually didn't like Apollo very much when he was introduced, because I had come off the first three games wanting more Phoenix, and not only did I have to deal with a time skip that made Phoenix look like a wino, but I had this new guy who was wound up way too tight and he just didn't feel as compelling to me.

But Dual Destinies gave Apollo's personality some meat, and he had a few badass moments that built out his backstory, which was further elaborated on in Spirit of Justice (to the point I think he now has the most detailed and convoluted past out of the entire cast). Phoenix doesn't have a personal story arc in Spirit of Justice, but Apollo does, so I was really glad when he's the one who takes the reins in the final case.

It's a pretty heady one that brings the legal system of Khura'in crashing down and beginning a revolution while also solving a twenty-three year old assassination attempt (only in Ace Attorney would that happen through a court trial). And it worked, because not only was it pretty convoluted, building on the prior cases in Khura'in, but it integrated Apollo's personal story into the revolution. He's not defending his client just because it's his job or he's a nice guy, but because the outcome has a personal meaning for him as well.

I can't help wondering if the game's staff is aware of the too many protagonists problem though, because the ending features Apollo choosing to remain in Khura'in to help rebuild the legal system (now that he's the only practicing lawyer in a country that had just about eliminated them). For future games it'll make it easier to find things to do for the lawyers of the Wright Anything Agency if designers only have to worry about two of them instead of three.

But I feel bad about losing Apollo now that he's finally come into his own.

The final scene does tease that he'll come back again though, in an exchange between Phoenix and an off-screen speaker who is his mother. The only known part of Apollo's past that hasn't been brought to light at this point is a leftover plot thread from Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice.

Tangential to the final AA:AJ case, it's revealed to the player (but not to Apollo) that Thalassa Gramarye is his mother, which makes Apollo the half-brother of Phoenix's adopted daughter Trucy. This doesn't come up in Dual Destinies and the two of them are still clueless in Spirit of Justice, which we know because when Dhurke teases Apollo about Trucy being wife material neither of them react with disgust.

At this point, since they've gone on two games without knowing better, I imagine that it'll only come up in a court trial, and it would have to be a plot point.

The exchange between Phoenix and Thalassa make it sound like she's finally ready to reveal her existence to both her children, since Trucy thinks she's dead and Apollo just doesn't know who she is, and I'd really like that. Spirit of Justice brought his family into the picture in a big way with both the his biological father and his adoptive father, so it would be an easy segway into him wanting to discover the fate of his mother.

As for Phoenix, he's considered the main character of the series since he was the protagonist of the first three games, and since they brought him back for the fifth it seems impossible to lose him now. I just hope the next time around they give him his own plot.

It doesn't have to deal with his past since he's older now and I think those depths have been plumbed, but he can still have personal stakes through the people he knows and what compromises he is willing or unwilling to make for the sake of a trial. That would bring the focus back on him.