Developer: High Voltage Studios
Release Date: January 8, 2008
This may very well be one of the most difficult reviews I've ever had to write. Not very often do I sit before a title from an A-list publisher, one that's got advertising everywhere and is being hyped by the company as something I absolutely must play during my lifetime. It's always a complex task, as a reviewer, to try and describe a genre-defining game like Harvey Birdman, particularly when it turns out to be a huge disappointment. So join me, fellow reader and gamer, as I regale you with a tale of a game so dismal that the people around me forced me to stop playing it.
A quick primer: Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law is based on the animated series of the same name from Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" programming block. Up until its cancellation in 2006, it followed the extremely questionable exploits of former superhero-turned- attorney Harvey Birdman, as he tries to actually act competent (and it's certainly an act) while defending various cartoon legends in the a most surreal courtroom environment. The show gained some fame as one of studio Williams Street's early successes; it was fast paced, completely silly and nonsensically funny. It was notable as well for spinning well-known characters on their ears, like portraying Fred Flintstone as a Mafioso or Race Bannon as a homosexual partyboy.
The game is exactly like the show, perhaps too much so. The player gets to take a backseat role in five of Harvey's cases, trying to ... reach the goal at the end of the chapter, although that may not necessarily involve making sure that your client is innocent. You'll need to keep Harvey from getting beaten up in prison, killed by angry duplicators, and not getting disbarred in the process. Your only interaction is the Wiimote is to use it to work through a very simple interface to find clues, interrogate witnesses, and embarrass Harvey at every opportunity.
If this is starting to bear a streak of familiarity, you're not far off the mark: Harvey Birdman is an unblushing rip-off of that other Capcom courtroom franchise, Phoenix Wright, coated in the thick veneer of the Harvey Birdman series. In essence, it should work just fine, since the Wii is the platform of choice for something of a simple point-and-click nature, and well, Harvey is an attorney, isn't he? There are even generous Capcom references thrown in a few places for those fanboys who just can't get enough Street Fighter II in their daily dose of gaming.
But the underlying problem is that it doesn't work in just about all possible aspects. Visually, it's a dreadfully boring bag because although it copies directly from the Williams Street program, that's actually more a problem than an aid. The show's simple animation and nearly identical settings make wandering around about as fun as sleeping on a park bench in December.
Character voices grate after the first half-hour or so. I don't know about anyone else, but I find it very difficult to listen to the super-enthusiastic Birdgirl, effete-yet-still-murderous Mentok The Mindtaker, or con artist Peanut without getting tired of the overblown nature of it all. (For those playing at home, Stephen Colbert is not featured in the game, either as Mentok or Phil Ken Sebben.)
Every character — every single one — is designed to be completely over-the-top, which is fine in the 15 to 20 minutes the show lasts, but it quickly grows tiresome in the game, which can last several hours, if you can bear it. That's really one of the greatest problems in Harvey Birdman: the zany antics (I can't believe I just used the word "zany") don't work well when stretched out into these longer game segments. Some chapters can take an hour or more to work out, and it becomes exhausting when you don't get a break from Harvey's incompetence or Peanut's fifth attempt to make money illegally or Gigi's ninth reference to sleeping with someone else in the courtroom while insisting she's married to Harvey. It gets boring fast, even for someone like myself, who likes the show upon which the game is based. Listening to the same stupid gags about "nut sacks," for example, made me want to shoot the person who penned the line.
The game isn't much of an improvement, either. As I said earlier, the only interface you have is the lovely Wiimote, which you ... point at the screen. If you can point and press A, you've mastered the controls pretty much in their entirety, much like Phoenix Wright and the stylus. Depending on whether or not you're interrogating or exploring, the game will either present you with a simple five-button, adventure-style interface (Move, Talk, Examine, and the like), give you a list of things to choose from, ask you to select an item, or let you review testimony. That's it.
I can't quite put my finger on why, but this was fine in Phoenix Wright, but exhausting and dull in Harvey Birdman. It may stem from the huge bursts of non-interactive sequences that occur every time you do much of anything that motivates the plot. For example, picking up a paper bag outside of the Sebben & Sebben offices (Harvey's reluctant employer) results in a long sequence during which Harvey stands around and talks to Peanut about the bag. You can skip it if you've already seen it (and only if you've already seen it), but this leaves you clueless about things the game may actually expect you to remember. This contrasts sharply with unessential items, where Harvey will pop a single, unvoiced window of dialogue and move on. Courtroom sequences are full of back-and-forth conversations that go on for minutes at a time (a long time in game terms) before Harvey gets in any more interaction time.
Quite possibly the most awkward and yet most important segment of the entire game is cross-examination. Those of you with Phoenix Wright experience will remember this as one of the more fun parts, where you take apart testimony simply by pressing, objecting, and presenting evidence, eventually wearing down falsehoods and revealing the interesting truth behind the original crime.
It's here, to be sure, and Harvey does it in every chapter, but a couple of changes to the basic mechanic ruin any sense of pleasure in slowly picking at half-truths until the facts come out. For one thing, objections are gone. Harvey can't object, unless the script calls for it during the initial examination by the prosecuting attorney. Otherwise, he can only present evidence and press, which must be done in an exact order to keep Harvey from stumbling and losing the case. Each mistake costs Harvey one point of gravitas, and if he runs out, the case is over and Harvey loses.
The issue here is the way you have to work through testimony: While Phoenix always had you work forward to find the one glaring flaw a witness presented, Harvey lets you go forward and back, with changes popping up almost unannounced as you press and present evidence. It makes figuring out what to do next unnecessarily difficult, as you're forced to notice that three-word change in a given page of testimony that the game didn't tell you was there and is now the key to moving things forward.
A spoiler-free example: In one case, you have the aforementioned bag of nuts and are talking to a witness about a bank robbery he may have witnessed while he was, um, enjoying the company of several women who didn't know he was there, if you follow. (This game isn't family-friendly in a great many ways, despite being on the Wii.) If you present the bag of nuts that he may have been eating when it's mentioned, the game will dock you gravitas and say you're an idiot for wandering down the wrong path. The goal is to go to the next statement and press it, which will modify the statement about the bag and allow you to present it! The flow of testimony seems random and pointlessly difficult for the only part of the game in which you can actually lose.
I could go on and on and on about the stark and overly simple interface, made more difficult to use by an unbelievably small and poorly contrasting pointer; the inability to save between chapters (you must start the next chapter and make it to the first checkpoint, or else you'll have to redo the end of the previous chapter); bad writing in many places leading to dialogues that go on forever; a complete lack of flow leading to lots of random wandering (people pop in and out, places go unannounced with alarming regularity); poor pacing; and lousy bonus rewards that are nearly impossible to earn without a guide (there are exactly five bonus videos, and you receive them for selecting the right option at the right time in each chapter, with no indication of what exactly that right choice is) .... I'll just stop. This is a train wreck of a production, a demonstration of how not to handle a license, and a good example to developers on how not to rip off your own most popular works with any kind of success. I can't recommend this to anyone, at any price.