Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law Review
Posted by Zach Kaplan
Take the case! ...I think.
If you're a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, job security should be the least of your worries – just as long as you don't mind your occupation's title changing a bit. In 2000, winged warrior Birdman saw a resurrection in the suit and tie of a third-rate attorney. Other characters from the low-budget animation house came along for the ride, most often as the titular lawyer's clientele.
This was Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, airing in eleven-minute episodes on [adult swim]. Viewers would come to expect a hilarious marriage of brilliant writing, off-colour innuendo, blissful nostalgia and sharp cultural commentary, all within a semi-erratic rapid-fire framework animated in Flash. Blink and you might miss a joke or three.
When the game comes the closest to recreating the feel of the original program, it's at its best, and often it does a fantastic job. Most of the original cast returns with the notable exception of Colbert, who played the paranoid, miniaturization-obsessed Reducto as well as hyperbolic, euphemism-revealing boss Phil Ken Sebben. While the creators found a suitable Sebben sound-alike, the fan favourite former is largely absent from the proceedings.
Many of the laughs, however, come from the protagonist's text-based observations. While not a clear-cut point-and-click adventure game, Birdman takes many gameplay cues from the genre. You'll spend a lot of time observing environments and collecting clues, the descriptions of which are often downright hilarious.
For example, when the firm is in financial woe, his thoughts on a nondescript tarp overhanging half of the building's front door are "This is the greatest tarp I have ever seen. We should get one for the other door, and then it will be like entering a Big Top!" And when Birdman spots a bust of his absent boss, he thinks "The plot thickens. Perhaps Phil didn't go on vacation, but instead he had a run in with Medusa! Damn you Medusa! At least she only got your head."
While the game usually captures the tone and intelligent silliness of the television program well, when it comes to the rapid pace from which the show derived a large portion of its humour, it struggles as it's not an easy fit for a video game. This sees more success during sections driven by in-game videos, which, of course, take control away from the player.
Presentation-wise, it feels like the original show. Anyone expecting to be blown away by the graphics should definitely look elsewhere as while not ugly or glitchy, the visuals and animation are what you would expect of a small, Flash-based studio. The navigation system, music and sound effects are all quite smooth and attractive, while the controls unproblematically utilise the point and click method.
You start by visiting and observing locations, collecting clues and talking to characters. Each segment leads to a trial at which you're tasked with examining witnesses' testimony, pressing them on certain points and presenting evidence to prove your case and disprove theirs. You are given a number of crests like that on Birdman's helmet and from which he draws his power, and for every incorrect piece of proof that you present, you lose one. When you run out, it's game over.
It's an interesting mix, but neither the adventure section nor the trials seem fleshed out enough to fully support the experience. None of the environments are expansive enough to really draw the player in, and once you've collected every piece of evidence (a task which shouldn't take too long), it's off to trial. You go from one place to the next by selecting them from a menu, making the areas seem disconnected. Characters appear when they're relevant and often disappear after your conversations are through, and when they show up it's usually with very little explanation. Sometimes when you visit a place you know why, while about half of the time you're tyring to figure out why you've yet to proceed to the next stage of the game.
When you get to trial, evidence selection is always either ridiculously obvious or seemingly random, and when there are crests at stake this is all the more frustrating. Your other option is to press the witness on a questionable portion of their argument, a task plagued by the same unpredictability. As you're not faulted here for errors, though, your strategy will likely become to try out each and every point they've made before bringing out anything from your inventory. The developers somewhat clumsily lay this out and it can be a bit confusing until you get the hang of it.
The game is segmented into five short portions that follow separate storylines and end in a credits reel, feeling more like playable episodes than portions of a fully fledged interactive universe. Every relevant occurrence feels geared toward bring you closer to the finale, meaning that there are no diversions along the way and very few environments to re-explore. Everything is more or less a way to get from point A to point B.
Additionally, the storyline's lack of malleability makes the game feel woefully non-immersive. Presenting faulty evidence doesn't hurt your actual case but instead is simply treated as a wrong move. You don't actually see what would happen if he tried to argue the case along the lines that you've wrongly chosen, which could have added a great level of depth, and a much-needed one at that considering the game's length.
It'll take you very little time at all to get through the whole thing, especially as the first episode mostly serves as a court tutorial. There's also not much replay value as there's little reason to go back except to hear some jokes that you might've missed the first time.
Yet with all of its lack of longevity, depth and focus, Harvey Birdman is still a very fun game. It's got enough personality and wit to absolutely carry the experience, which is saying a lot. It just feels downright good, and while the entire package is pretty shallow and a bit muddled at times, checking it out is still quite worthwhile.
Harvey Birdman is witty and entertaining but ultimately too short and shallow. Presenting a sample platter of point-and-click adventure and puzzle elements as well as its own variety of an interactive court trial, it never explores any area of gameplay enough to be terribly immersive, and so the entire experience feels a bit sloppy. Nevertheless, it's fun enough to warrant a try, but don't expect that try to last long – the game is a very short one.