Even after six main-series games in the meme-spawning trials and tribulations of the Wright Anything Agency, Capcom's visual-novel/adventure franchise remains the kind of game you can set your watch to.
Although a decade has passed since the series' unique brand of courtroom melodrama made its way to the US and Europe, early graduates from the Ace Attorney law school of questionable witnesses, flagrant perjury and wanton bluffing would struggle to find any major curriculum changes in its latest outing: Spirit of Justice for Nintendo 3DS.
While each entry has wavered in quality – quite literally on a case-by-case basis – the sublime writing and heroic localisation efforts have frequently glossed over recurring mechanical foibles. The last Ace Attorney title – 2013's Dual Destinies – took small, promising steps to advance the enduring formula, streamlining the experience, but sometimes at the expense of the series' more bizarre and fanciful elements.
Spirit of Justice performs a sharp u-turn in this regard, summoning the spiritual and magical story-beats back from the dead with unashamed gusto. The switch brings with it an entirely new courtroom setting based in the Kingdom of Khura'in – a land of superstition and prejudice that's on the cusp of a judicial revolution.
Phoenix Wright's excursion to the hallowed mountaintop realm of Khura'in is the perfect proxy for Spirit of Justice's outlandish themes – such as spirit channelling and deities – and provides a welcome change of scenery from the well-varnished confines of the legal buildings and detention centres in 'JapAmerica'.
The opulent buildings and bustling marketplaces of Khura'in are a visual treat, with the broader range of character animations and increased quantity of voice clips and anime cut-scenes moving even further away from the static, cut-out backdrops of the Nintendo DS-era.
With the new location comes a delightful array of colourful, incorrigible fruitcakes – most with the kind of name that would make even the most ardent pun-lover cringe in embarrassment in any other context – monastic hippy Pees'lubn Andistan'dhin and enigmatic magician Manov Mistree, for example.
Khura'in's strangely eloquent, sweetly abrasive Rayfa shines the brightest out of the new cast who, alongside Phoenix Wright's once-maligned protégé Apollo Justice, rightfully receive the narrative spotlight in the intense final turnabout.
At times, the sheer quantity of returning favourites almost threatens to dip into the murky depths of fan-fiction, but aside from seeing Phoenix's once chirpy, burger-loving compatriot Maya occasionally and disappointingly drift into the damsel in distress role, and the plucky, multi-lingual attorney-in-training Athena Cykes getting a bit lost in the shuffle, the chucklesome banter is as delectably charming as ever.
And in all honesty, if you have come this far into the series, that will likely be enough. Ace Attorney is at its best when a courtroom-quip or arm-flailing animation from a particularly madcap witness transports your funny bone to tickle town. But, the other side of the coin – the murder mystery, the intrigue, the screams of "Objection!" – still lacks the teeth of original creator Shu Takumi's tightly-woven initial trilogy.
Part of the problem can be levelled at Spirit of Justice's resident prosecutor, whose meditative movements and dismissive statements create a discord with the raised, life-threatening stakes of the Khura'in courts.
The darker, emotionally-charged moments are often overlooked when it comes to Capcom's lawyer-'em-up, and while Spirit of Justice shows flashes of the sinister side of criminal law – especially in its closing act – it only teeters on the brink of fully realising its narrative potential.
This effects the logic-bending trials more than it does the point-and-click-style investigation segments. While some mechanics are far more engaging than others – breaking Psyche-Locks is far more rewarding than scrambling around for 'tells' via Apollo's awkward Perceive ability – the examine-every-square-millimetre frustration-fests of old have become a distant memory.
The same cannot be said the trial sections, however. Producing clear-cut evidence that does not fit the game's mind-bending logic and pre-determined structure is as frustrating as ever, and the arbitrary 'lives' system too often punishes the player for its own clunky mechanics. Debunking Rayfa's "Insights" in the new Khura'in-only Divination Seances is a treat, and each 'Euraka!' moment is as exhilarating as ever, but expect to save and reset more than a few times along the way to litigious enlightenment.
Spirit of Justice is yet another enjoyable entry in a cherished franchise, which doubles-down on the delightfully zany aspects of the series to great effect. The back-and-forth courtroom disputes suffer from a weak presence on the opposing bench and several decade-old mechanical flaws, but none of its sins are egregious enough to quash the divine character work and enchanting anime style.
An imperfect, but nonetheless victorious, return for Capcom's distinguished defence attorney.