Monday, September 26, 2016

Modern Classics: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice (3DS)

I want to try something a little different this time. For once, I'd like to break from my formula of planning out a script--of rigidly organizing all of my notes--and instead relinquish some control and let my thoughts take me where they may. This feels like the appropriate route to take in commentating on my first play-though of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice, the latest in a series of games that has a reputation for subverting the player's expectations, flipping the script at every turn, and generally turning the world on its head.

Truthfully, I've been meaning to do something like this ever since the summer of 2006, when suddenly I found myself thoroughly engrossed in the unforgettably epic Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which managed to firmly implant itself inside my head and take over my life in a way no game ever had before. It had my wheels turning endlessly for weeks, night and day--so much so that I wished I had a friend with whom I could discuss the game's storyline twists and share my theories as to where I thought the cases were headed. But there was no one here who would care, and the Internet was light on viable outlets; blogging was still in its infancy (and I was oblivious to its existence, anyway), domains were too expensive, and I could think of no platform that would tolerate a compulsive monkey-boy babbling on incessantly about the likelihood of an epidermically challenged hobo being the prosecutor's real dad.

More than a decade later, a desired opportunity has finally presented itself: Spirit of Justice arrives at a time when I'm eager to dive into a game that's currently at the height of its relevance and communicate my thoughts to those who are presently enjoying the game along with me. And it just so happens that I've since found a platform that's perfect sharing my ideas with like-minded enthusiasts.

Now, I should mention that I played a few minutes of the demo, since I wanted to get a feel for the game (normally I make it a point to completely avoid anticipated games until their release, but I just couldn't help myself), so I already know a tiny bit about the first episode: It takes place in a foreign land, and Phoenix Wright is up against a court system that plays by its own archaic rules. I exited out of the demo after reading only a few lines of dialogue, so I know virtually nothing about the plot. Really, it's going to be all new to me.

I assume that a great many of you are already familiar with the series, so I'm not going to use this space to go in-depth about how the Ace Attorney games play (typically a case alternates between point-and-click-style investigation sequences and courtroom scenes in which you advance the trial by countering witnesses' lies, misconstructions and distortions with contradicting evidence). I won't be chronicling my adventure, either, as is so common with these appraisals. Rather, what I intend to do here is react to the story--check in after each play-session (following the conclusion of any investigation sequence or courtroom scene) and present any opinions I might have and share my theories for where I think the episode is headed.

And when the game has sadly ended--when the book has closed on another of Wright and company's undoubtedly surreal adventures--I'll bring an end to the proceedings by slamming down my hammer of judgement and giving my final verdict on Spirit of Justice.

I'm not going to focus much attention on the minute-to-minute goings-on of the first episode, because those of its type are usually courtroom-centric and tutorial-based in nature. As they offer no intermission--no recess wherein I can stop and reflect without losing focus--it makes no sense for me to suddenly break from the elapsing action and spend an hour by the computer typing up a blog entry. I'll instead withhold any thoughts I have for Spirit of Justice's first episode until it has drawn to a close (and that'll be the main content of this particular blog entry).

So look out, Justice--here I come!

Episode 1: The Foreign Turnabout

Scenario: At the western end of the Far East lies the Kingdom of Khura'in, a peaceful country of spirit mediums and mystery. For unexplained reasons, the country has been scorched by the flames of revolution. When Phoenix Wright arrives in the Kingdom of Khura'in, he has no reason to suspect as much, since there are no visible signs of strife. As Phoenix stumbles about the town, obviously searching for a contact, a young boy spots him from afar and flashes him a confirming smile. The scene fades out as we cut to the introduction of the episode title.

The viewpoint then shifts to a channeling dojo, whose wall scroll explains to its reader that death is not the end. After death, the soul lives on in a place called the Twilight Realm, and priestesses can commune with its spirit occupants. "Fear not death," it tells us. "In the name of the Holy Mother, fear only the impurities of your soul." The prime visual, a slowly rotating sacred box, was concurrently projecting images of channeling priestesses.

Suddenly we hear a thud as blood splashes across the screen. Both a man security guard and the sacred box crash to the ground. The camera pans up to find a pale, sleeveless-robed aggressor (hippie Jesus, apparently) standing over the fallen victim, to whom he refers as a "blight." He then declares his intention to frame "the child" for his violent actions.

While Phoenix and Ahbli are in Tehm'pul Temple, observing Her Benevolence's Dance of Devoution, the police storm into the venue and point their guns at an unidentified party. It turns out to be Ahbli, who they arrest on the spot.

Ahbli is immediately put on trial without any legal representation. We find that Khura'in's denizens harbor a deep hatred of defense attorneys, whom they perceive as lying rats--borderline criminal in their activities--thus all of their ilk have since left the practice or moved out of the country. No defense attorney has been present at a trial for 23 years; rather, alleged criminals are denied representation and are promptly subjected to a "Divination Seance" in which a priestess conjures a vision from the "Pool of Souls" and somehow transmits the deceased victim's final moments into a viewable projection.

Facing potential guilt by association, Phoenix trespasses upon the court and demands that it honors his request to defend Ahbli, who likewise is his suspicious of his kind. Though, Phoenix, undettered by his client's mistrust, convinces the skeptical court to allow him to represent the child.

Final Thoughts

Well, that was one lengthy, emotionally exhausting first episode. As I noted earlier, it's usually the case that the first episode of any Ace Attorney game is a relative squash match, with one of the Payne boys predictably playing he role of jobber. Surprisingly, though, Gaspen Payne (now calling himself "The Incredible Payne") was particularly formidable this time around; he actually performed resourcefully and cagily, and he had us on the ropes, leaning close to a literal death penalty, more times than I can recall (Khura'in's cynical court system operates under the Defense Culpability Act, an ordinance specifying that a defending attorney will suffer the same sentence as the defendant he or she represents). And Payne would have won his case by default had he not talked the judge into letting Phoenix cross-examine Ahbli! For a while there, I thought he'd seen the light and had become one of those truth-seeking prosecutors, but naturally it was a trap meant to take us out of the picture forever.

It should be apparent to any Ace Attorney fan that a games' characters are never who they appear to be on the surface. In recent entries, though, there have been those whose true identities have been hidden under multiple layers of camouflage; if they're not deceptive triple agents shifting from one persona to the next, then they're genuine people whose true roles in these labyrinthine conspiracies remain comfortably cloaked by the game's roundabout way of delivering its narrative. The episode's epilogue suggests that such attributes are applicable to either one or both of the case's active participants.

For the moment, the deceased Paht Rohl ("patrol") and Pees'lubn Andistan'dhin ("peace, love and understanding") retain their identities as common criminals whose paths happened to cross while they were vying for possession of Tehm'pul Temple's (subtle) sacred Founder's Orb. Pees'lubn (our pale-hippie friend who turned out to be a death-metal rocker, his personality shift reminding me of a lite version of Marlon Rimes' drastic transformation) claims that he had personal gain in mind when he became head monk in order to get close to the Orb, but it's since been intimated that he's a key player in a much grander scheme.

I greatly enjoyed his antics, though. Jammin' Pees'lubn was the most entertaining "witness" I've encountered in years. That he had Payne, the judge, and even Phoenix singing their retorts was wacky in a way that defines these games. I just knew that breaking him was going to result in his smashing the guitar against the big speakers and ultimately slamming it into the podium. It was the most appropriate ending to his performance.

It's become routine that the games' seemingly unconnected episodes are actually coordinated verses in an all-encompassing composition, so I expect to learn that Pees'lubn wasn't a tool of the rebel insurgents, as stated, but instead an agent of this Inga Karkhuul Khura'in character--the Khura'inese Minister of Justice who runs his operation as if he were a mafia boss. And he likely is. I'm guessing that his wanting the Orb has everything to do with getting his hands on it before Dhurke can. He practically runs the place, so you'd wonder why he'd want to steal the Orb when he already has free access to it, but I'm betting he'd rather smuggle it out without anyone suspecting that he was coveting it (and he could plausibly deny that he'd ever been near it, citing the his own made-up legend that anyone lacking proper spiritual power will go blind if they as much as look at it). It would be better for him to frame someone else for its theft.

He also needs for his corrupt court system to continue functioning as is (no defense attorneys permitted, and no doubting the "absolute truth" of Her Benevolence's Divination Seance) so that anyone brought in on trumped-up charges--mainly those who would threaten the status quo--are promptly disposed of. I figure that Her Benevolence (real name Rayfa) is secretly Inga's second-in-command, and it's her job to guarantee the defamation and execution of suspected insurgents and truth-tellers.

For certain, Inga doesn't want us around. Our being here disrupts his depopulation efforts.

On the other side of the fence, Paht Rohl was probably acting as a surrogate for Dhurke, the leading force behind this whole revolution (its goal is to seize control and reform the unjust court system). If he's going to be the would-be ruler of Khura'in, he'll need to obtain the Holy Mother's Orb in order to convince the populace of his spiritual worthiness. Surely he'd run a more-just system.

If I'm correct, there's a dangerous chess game being played here, and suddenly we're in the middle of it.

Though, I'm sure the Orb will be revealed to have some ulterior purpose that will be revealed in, say, the fourth episode.

Now that I think about it, Khura'in's struggle for reformation kind of parallels Phoenix's past mission to reinvent the "American" justice system. Remember when he was attempting to replace the three-day inquisitive system with the "jurist system"? Whatever happened to that plot development? It was dropped before it could blossom into anything. Dual Destinies was business as usual.

And that's all I've got for now. Episode 2 will be interesting for how it incorporates into the mix Apollo Justice and the rest of the Wright Anything Agency crew. How will the game link together events that are happening on opposite sides of the ocean? Color me intrigued.

If we're alternating back and forth between Khura'in and America, then it looks as though I'm going to have to wait until Episode 3 to see what a grown-up Maya looks like! I can't wait!

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