Superpower of attorney

The jury’s out on Harvey Birdman
Rating: 2.0 stars
January 28, 2008 5:27:14 PM

NICE TRY The jokes come at the expense of the gameplay.

Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law is exactly the game I wanted it to be, and yet it had the strange effect of changing what I thought I wanted it to be. It looks and sounds exactly like the Adult Swim cartoon that shares its name. Everything’s there: the absurdist gags and non sequiturs, the flat, stilted animation, even most of the voice actors. But because its gameplay is so weak and insubstantial, it doesn’t improve on the experience of watching the show for the same amount of time — which, in the game’s case, is a paltry five hours or so. That prompts the question: why did they make this game, again?

Calling Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law a mere cash-in isn’t accurate for a couple of reasons. The show is a niche product at best and hardly guarantees big sales numbers on the strength of the brand. Besides, real talent was recruited. Many of the show’s writers worked on the original stories in the game, and all but one of the regular voice cast recorded dialogue. As Harvey Birdman, Gary Cole is much better than he needs to be. His awkward pauses and lilting delivery give Birdman the impression of a man blind to his own mental inadequacies. It’s the perfect complement to his appearance: a pointy, black eye mask perched over a blank expression, and feathery wings jutting out the back of a cheap-looking suit. Easy joke, maybe, but it works.

The supporting cast is similarly accomplished. The gravelly voice of Lewis Black as the Deadly Duplicator is funny on its own, because, hey, that’s Lewis Black! John Michael Higgins, a classic Hollywood “That Guy,” is the flamboyant judge Mentok the Mindtaker, accenting his syllables with a flourish. These guys are good, much better than the voice actors who usually work on games. The only significant absence is Stephen Colbert as Birdman’s boss, Phil Ken Sebben, but his replacement performs just fine. As an occasional viewer of the program, I could barely tell the difference.

Birdman’s problems become apparent only when you actually try to play it. The basic mechanics are almost identical to those of the Phoenix Wright series. Harvey tries five different cases; each — with the exception of the first, which is more of a tutorial — involves a discovery phase, in which you search for evidence and interview possible witnesses, and a trial phase, in which you cross-examine witnesses to uncover discrepancies between their testimony and the court record. It’s a formula that’s worked for Phoenix Wright, one of the most consistently engaging franchises around.

Harvey Birdman presents the Cliffs Notes version. Not only are the puzzles too easy, but each witness’s testimony is only a few lines long. And though that’s partly a consequence of using voice actors instead of printed text, it also reflects the writers’ priorities: jokes at the expense of gameplay. Rather than culminating in thrilling twists and turns, the cases tend to halt on a simple gag. Yes, it’s funny when a trial ends after Birdman accidentally kills the witness with a burst of energy from his bracelet, but it doesn’t make for satisfying gameplay. Although the jokes translate to the medium, the story structure does not.

Well, what would you expect from a game based on a 15-minute cartoon show? Harvey Birdman is pleasant enough to play through, and frequently hilarious. But if you’re looking for laughs, you can watch the show. Games need something more to hold them together. And when it comes to games about jurisprudence, Harvey Birdman isn’t fit to file Phoenix Wright’s briefs.


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