A Harvey Birdmanttorney at Law review
It wouldn't take long to count up the number of console-exclusive adventure games ever made, unless you include the time it takes just to think of any. Sure, there have been a handful over the years, but to call them few and far between would be an understatement. Much credit goes to Capcom, then, first for advancing the recent wave of Nintendo DS adventures with its Ace Attorney series, and now for championing the cause of original adventures on home consoles. Unfortunately, if such games are ever to see an increase in popularity in future, it will take much better efforts than Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law to lead the way.
Harvey Birdman, for those not up on their modern day cartoons, is the star of his own television series aired in the U.S. during the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim late night programming. The show revolves around the legal wranglings of law firm Sebben & Sebben, with a cast made up of former superheroes, supervillains, and other animated characters from Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the 1960s, including the original Birdman. Ever the defender of justice but never much of a superhero, Harvey is now an equally inept lawyer who still manages to land plenty of bizarre cases from the most unlikely of clients. It's all utterly absurd, but the show revels in its nonsensical silliness with entertaining results. Believable it's not, but hey, it's a cartoon played for laughs.
Against this backdrop, enter High Voltage Software (of Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude infamy) and Capcom, who naturally thought that the idea of a quirky courtroom comedy had plenty of interactive potential. As well they should, since the Japanese publisher has been successfully riding that particular premise with Phoenix Wright for several years now. The sky seemed the limit for such a logical combination, and so with a hot new license behind it and virgin markets ahead (Ha ha! Let the double entendres begin!), Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law was hatched on the Sony PlayStation 2, PSP, and Nintendo Wii.
Before attempting to draw comparisons to its TV counterpart, I'll openly admit that I'm not a regular follower of the show. That's no reflection on its quality, however, as I have seen enough episodes over the years to remember its offbeat humour and wacky scenarios fondly. From my limited exposure, I can safely say that the game stays quite faithful to its source material, though if your appreciation of the game depends on intimate knowledge of all-things-Harvey, take that with a qualified grain of salt. Even so, I'll go out on a limb and suggest that any discrepancies are trivial enough not to matter much.
On the flip side, I can also say that a certain degree of familiarity with the show would be a real benefit going into the game. While not strictly necessary, there is no gradual introduction and very little effort made to bring newcomers up to speed. Right from the outset, it's a baptism by fire (somewhat literally, as your first case is discovering who burned down Harvey's house), with a rapid-fire sequence of new characters and events. There is a "Profiles" screen that offers a brief synopsis of the various players (and is used as a secondary inventory), but it's pretty bare bones. Most of the key characters have recurring roles, so eventually you'll catch on, but you'll likely feel a little lost at the start, and may miss out on some of the finer details at first. Even knowing what I did of the series going in, I found that I enjoyed the character interaction more on a second play-through, once I had a better grasp of the relationship dynamics.
Many of the television regulars make appearances in the game. As you'd expect, Harvey himself gets most of the screen time, sporting a dress suit over top of his wings and masked costume that looks like a dorkier version of the X-Men's Wolverine. While zipping about the office, you'll interact with sidekicks like the sarcastic and side-scheming Harvey lookalike, Peanut, and the over-zealous, not-so-secretly-identified Birdgirl. You'll also encounter various colleagues, as purple hippo Peter Potamus routinely sends you "that thing" you never get, while your boss, the eye-patched but ever-dapper Phil Ken Sebben, drops by to laugh at his own (mild) sexual innuendo.
As in any superhero series, of course, the villains get all the best roles, and Harvey's foils are no exception. Your opponents in the courtroom will include the likes of Stan Freezoid and Myron Reducto, who aren't afraid to use their thematic superpowers in a pinch, and the sophisticated Vulturo, who's as oblivious as always to his speech-impeded garble. From the bench, Judge Mightor continually butchers Harvey's name and coughs up evidence (literally), and Mentok the Mindtaker frequently enjoys some telepathic mischief, while the poor bailiff still feels the impulsive need to zip up his fly at regular intervals. Not to be outdone, the supporting cast is equally well represented, from obsessive foe-turned-überfan X the Eliminator to the Gigi the flirtatious polygamist to the Get Smart-inspired Inch High, Private Eye. If you do watch the show, you'll find the game to be a who's who of familiar characters; if not, you'll find a endearingly diverse cast of dysfunctional misfits.
Whether a series veteran, casual fan, or total rookie, there is plenty to like in the "cartoon" portion of the game. Much of the game is simply spent watching non-interactive cutscenes, during which the characters engage in lengthy conversations. This could easily be boring, but Harvey Birdman delivers enough amusing dialogue and zany hijinx to maintain interest throughout. It's not generally thigh-slapping hilarity, but there are certainly some laugh-out-loud moments to be had, mixed in among a few eye-rolling misses. The bulk of writing, however, continually provides the sort of ludicrous repartee that can't help but keep a goofy grin on your face while you play. It may not be quite up to the standards of Sam & Max, but at least the Freelance Police will be given a run for their money for funniest adventure this year.
With so much emphasis on cinematics, one nice feature of the game is the ability to replay any cutscene immediately afterwards with just a button click. Which button you'll be clicking depends on which system you're playing on, of course. I played the Wii version of Harvey Birdman, which uses the remote to turn the game into a very traditional point-and-click experience. The two Sony versions play out much the same way, though obviously using their respective gamepads to navigate menus and move the cursor around the screen. Regardless of the version, the controls are basic and intuitive, if a little no-frills. Unfortunately, the Wii's motion-sensing technology is completely neglected, which is a waste, particularly considering the Wii version's higher starting price point.
There are a few small interface issues, though none are likely to impact the experience too negatively. Movement through the game can feel a little clunky, mainly because there's no actual "movement" allowed. Each screen is considered its own individual "location" that you need to depart through the navigation menu, which feels a little overblown when you're simply backing out of a close-up into the same room. You also can't reach every other location from your current spot, and sometimes remembering which specific area leads to which can be a nuisance. Never a big one, as there just aren't that many locations at any one time, but it's a pointless restriction. And while the game is fully voiced during conversations, all monologues by Harvey are done in text only, which seems a glaring omission. There is also only one save slot, and while the game provides save points between case-specific sections, it inexplicably does not allow saving between cases, forcing you to sit through the start of the next case until you have a chance to do so manually. Again, not a big deal, but not a big deal to get right, either.
With so much carryover from the TV series, it was imperative for the developers to accurately reproduce the look and sound of the show, and in that they've done an admirable job. Visually, Harvey Birdman is done in the same clean, simple style, with little attention paid to such pesky next-gen details like lighting and shadows, which makes it ideal for the three graphically underwhelming systems it was designed for. Quite appropriately, it's all very "weekend TV cartoon" rather than "Disney feature film".
Meanwhile, virtually all of the actors who provide voicework for the show reprise their roles here, including Gary Cole as Harvey, and each does a great job of breathing life into their game version personas. The one notable exception is the absence of Stephen Colbert as Phil Ken Sebben and Reducto. Here is one of the few points where series diehards may take exception, but the actors used here are perfectly adequate replacements, though not identical to Colbert's originals. The jazzy instrumental numbers playing throughout the game are pleasant enough as a background. They're a bit repetitive, but the game is so shockingly short that you likely won't ever get sick of them.
And here at last we come to the main grievance of the game: namely, there isn't much "game" here at all. Heck, there isn't even that much non-game. As effectively as Harvey Birdman manages to emulate its TV origins for the most part, it does an extremely poor job of melding the license with any kind of engaging gameplay. The basic format has been blatantly ripped off of the Ace Attorney games, which isn't itself a bad thing, however unoriginal. The real problem for Harvey is that the game has been all but lobotomized – "mind-taken", if you will. It's obvious that the goal was to tap into a more casual gaming audience, which is pretty common for adaptations of popular licenses. And I'm generally all for streamlined experiences that eliminate purely contrived filler, but Harvey Birdman simply goes way, WAY too far in its pursuit of simplicity, leaving it little more than an animated series of connect-the-gags.
The game is divided into five separate cases, the last four of which are further split into two distinct activities: investigating crimes and representing your clients in court. It's Law & Order lite, essentially. Extremely lite. Investigation consists of moving around from one location to another, where you'll need to look for clues, talk to other characters, or gather inventory items. This isn't much different from most adventures, but here each location is limited to a single first-person scene, with a large onscreen menu showing you which actions are available to you (because, you know, three whole possibilities might prove overwhelming).
Conversation is done through simple dialogue trees that typically just involve clicking through each available option, with the occasional multiple choice question whose "wrong" answers exist solely for laughs. Inventory application could have presented a small amount of challenge, as you can carry up to twelve items at any one time. But the only requirement is to "present" the item in the correct room and you're rewarded for your ingenuity. Even examining items is largely devoid of challenge. Not that pixel hunting is something to be endorsed, but the drawings are so simple and the interactive items so few that you'd be hard pressed to miss something relevant if you tried. In fact, just to hold your hand the rest of the way, the cursor will automatically "snap" to a hotspot when you get close to it, removing any doubt. Still, just to be sure that even Dum Dum the Dog could play this game, subtle hints are doled out in the early going such as the mysterious "Someone's here! Maybe I should talk to them." Thanks, Harvey.
There are actually a few points of challenge in the courtroom, though these are more the result of arbitrary inconsistencies than anything. Whether prosecuting or cross-examining on defense (and Harvey will do both, sometimes even in the same case), the goal is to move line by line through witness testimony until you find a problem you can challenge, either by pressing them on questionable details or presenting evidence at the right point in their story. Unlike the Phoenix Wright games, however, the "press" feature yields only a small handful of pre-scripted answers the bulk of the time, which all but removes both its entertainment value and its gameplay relevance as a strategic option.
Presenting evidence, meanwhile, can range between painfully obvious and mildly chin-rubbing, but will occasionally trip you up by secretly changing the rules on you. Where normally you're looking for actual contradictions in testimony, sometimes you'll need to simply present an item that clarifies or even confirms a particular point, and it’s impossible to know what's required ahead of time. A wrong answer carries a penalty of one point of "gravitas"; lose all your gravitas and it's game over, forcing you to restart that section or return to your last save point. In theory this prevents merely guessing your way through the game, but in practice the only time it's even remotely an issue is when you're all but forced to guess. Plus you can save any time and quickly skip through dialogues, so the whole exercise is meaningless.
Apart from these few frustrating evidence sequences, though, you can't help but simply sail through Harvey Birdman. Even by trying all possible interactions and optional dialogue, I finished the game in a little over four hours. As far as hourly rates go, the cost might not be bad for a lawyer, but it's unacceptable for a game. There are a few select points where you can go back and try something different, but the payoff is nothing more than a different response that just isn't worth all the repetition. A few "extras" can be unlocked by being thorough, but these are nothing more than a few disappointing visual clips from the game. Yawn. If they really wanted to add some much-needed value to the package, why not include a bonus DVD with episodes from the Harvey Birdman cartoon? It's a natural tie-in that would have served its purpose beautifully, particularly for those unfamiliar with the show. The idea seems a no-brainer, which is fully in keeping with every other part of this game.
Instead, we're left with a semi-interactive, semi-passive experience that can't seem to decide what it wants to be. The gameplay concept is a good one and the license a natural fit, but rather than successfully complementing each other, the end result is a shallow, watered down version of each, neither fully game nor fully show. For diehard Harvey fans, that might be two glasses half full. For everyone else, they're decidedly half empty, even if you're desperate for an adventure to play on your console of choice. There's some fun to be had in the cartoon antics of the Birdman and company, but there just isn't enough entertainment value in Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law beyond what the television series offers for free.
It's fun enough while it lasts, but its shallow gameplay should cause all but the most diehard Harvey Birdman fans to think twice (or wait for a price drop) before declaring "I'll take the case!"