Developer: High Voltage Studios
Release Date: January 8, 2008
I knew it was a mistake to get excited about a licensed game. Even after all of these years, there are still games that sound like such fantastic ideas that, even though you know it's not going to turn out well, you can't help but think that maybe this time will be different. Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law is one of these games. Combining the incredibly bizarre TV series with the gameplay of Phoenix Wright is a marvelous idea. I suppose the first warning sign should have been that this was created by High Voltage Software, perhaps most infamously known for Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude.
First things first: If you've never watched the "Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law" TV series, or you have and didn't like it, move along. There is genuinely nothing for you here; the jokes will go over your head, nothing is explained, and there isn't much game for your money. For everyone else, the value really depends on how much you enjoy the show. If you don't know the show and are still somehow intrigued, then the story goes that Birdman is an old, largely unknown cartoon character, and he was recreated in a modern TV series … as the lawyer, Harvey Birdman. Most of his cases revolve around defending other old cartoon characters from charges that don't seem too wide of the mark (Shaggy and Scooby Doo in possession of narcotics, and Fred Flintstone as a mafia boss, to name but two), while the rest of the cast is largely comprised of secondary characters from the old show with updates. Some old supervillains are now opposing attorneys, one old foe is now a stalker obsessed with Harvey, and the head of the Harvey's law firm is the man from whom Birdman received his missions.
Harvey Birdman is a faithful re-creation of the series, which is both good and bad. The entire voice cast is present and correct, save for Stephen Colbert which, while not entirely surprising, is somewhat disappointing. The game does noticeably suffer from his absence, unfortunately; while Reducto's replacement voice actor works well enough and is only heard on a few occasions, Phil Ken Sebben's voice actor just isn't right, and Phil's lines aren't nearly as good as most of those from the show. You have to wonder, in the end, whether Colbert had something to do with the writing of Phil. On the negative side, the writing is also a faithful recreation of the series ? specifically, the last series, which simply wasn't as good as the first few seasons. Again, it's funny, but not top-notch.
The first real problem is that the developers also took the show's 15-minute length as something that needed recreating. The game is comprised of five cases, each of which lasts between 20 minutes to an hour, depending on how stuck you get (and while you may get stuck occasionally, the game is also about as difficult as watching the show). Most players will easily be finished with the entire game in four hours.
This in itself wouldn't be too bad if there were a lot of unlockables or alternate paths, but there really isn't much incentive to play through a second time. Both of these features are present, but they come across as more of an afterthought; there are five unlockables, and the alternate paths are more alternate responses that just change the next cut scene. Worse, only one of the five unlockable film reels is actually worth watching, as it's an outtake reel with the characters animated to fit the flubbed lines, with precisely two outtakes. They're admittedly funny outtakes, but still … two. The alternate paths provide a little more incentive to replay, but not by much, as while the new lines are often funny, you have to play through the same cases again and again if you want to hear them, and they're simply not worth the effort.
As mentioned above, the puzzles are also a letdown. The only games that Harvey Birdman can fairly be compared with are the Phoenix Wright titles, as they share the exact same investigate/trial/press/evidence mechanics, and in almost every way, it pales in comparison to its spiritual predecessor. Where Phoenix Wright had some incredibly cunning solutions and a lot of nail-biting moments, considering it's not a real-time game, Harvey Birdman's puzzles are only ever hard because they're so brutally obvious that it's impossible to think the solution can possibly be that simple. Generally, your job is to press the occasional statement — often getting a canned response from Harvey, as he'll usually press one statement out of a given piece of testimony, and not a very useful one, at that — and present whatever piece of evidence is mentioned. Do they talk about an invoice? Then it's not your job to find a contradiction. It's your job to present the invoice on the relevant bit of testimony.
Despite the fact that calling it a "puzzle" game is a bit of an overstatement, Harvey Birdman does have redeeming qualities. For one thing, it's all new Birdman, and while it's not great Birdman, die-hard fans will likely excuse that just to get some more wonderfully surreal humor. In this case, it's not too bad. While you can comfortably blow through the game in a weekend — and that's if you take your time — those who just want another hit of Harvey will get some joy out of it. It does have some hysterically funny lines, too, and it's almost a reasonable deal, considering the asking price. Almost. It's still far, far too short and often too disappointing, which segues nicely onto the final problem with the game.
While the production values are top-notch, and it maintains the show's trademark wit, Harvey Birdman is nonetheless a disappointment. With the publishing muscle of Capcom behind the title, one might expect more than a few deliberately over-the-top references to Street Fighter III and single-shot cameos from Street Fighter characters. One of the first screenshots released of the game was of Guile, and speculation arose that maybe we'd be defending him on some trumped-up charges — but to no avail. There aren't really any new characters, with the all-too-short lifespan being focused on getting in the fan favorites, and while that's understandable, it's not really forgivable when there are still licenses to be pillaged, and we've seen Peanut, X, Blue Falcone and all the others a thousand times before.
It's not unexpected, but the game feels like it's re-treading ground that the show repeatedly covered over the first series alone. If the thought of that doesn't bother you in the slightest, then you'll probably enjoy the game for as long as it lasts, but it's unlikely you'll pick it up again for a very long time. There's more inherent value in picking up the DVD boxed sets if you haven't already, as there are far more laughs and replayability in them, but if you already have them and are desperate for more, you could do worse than Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law.
As the second paragraph implied, if you're a big fan of Birdman, then you'll get something out of Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, but probably not nearly as much as you'd hope. If you're not, then it's not worth your time or your money, full stop. To sum it up with an atrocious pun, it's less Phoenix Wright, and more Phoenix Wrong.