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PSP Review - 'Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 8, 2008 @ 2:59 a.m. PST

Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law is a fully animated interactive adventure, allowing players will step into the shiny wingtips of Harvey Birdman, a third-rate superhero turned third-rate defense attorney charged with exonerating parodied classic cartoon characters.

Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: High Voltage Studios
Release Date: January 8, 2008

For those unfamiliar with the concept of "Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law," it goes something like this. Hanna-Barbera superhero Birdman has retired from the heroic life to pursue a more mundane occupation: attorney for the defense firm of Sebben and Sebben, run by his old boss, Phil Ken Sebben. His new job requires him to do everything from defending Scooby-Doo and his owner Shaggy from drug charges to proving that Fred Flintstone isn't a "Sopranos"-style Mafia kingpin. Of course, being an Adult Swim/William Street production, this rather simple concept often descends into absurdist humor and nearly incomprehensible in-jokes. It's one of those shows, much like its fellow show-turned-game, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, where you either get it, or you don't. However, the basic concept of defending obscure cult television characters like Pixie and Dixie Mouse or Huckleberry Hound seems ripe for being made into a video game. When Williams Street announced that not only would Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law be made into a game, but would be done in a fashion similar to Capcom's Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, it seemed like a match made in heaven. So what went wrong?

Much like Phoenix Wright, most of your time in Harvey Birdman for the PSP is spent searching various locations for clues and evidence to use in your case. Unlike Phoenix Wright, however, Harvey Birdman holds your hand throughout the entire process. There is no way to miss evidence because you simply scroll between items, and completely investigating a room takes about 30 seconds. Talking to witnesses is pretty much the same: They spill their beans instantly, in short, canned phrases, and that's that. Rarely do you need to solve a puzzle by presenting an object to a witness to advance the plot, but these "puzzles" are laughably simple.

To be fair, however, Harvey Birdman has an interesting feature: Occasionally, you can utilize evidence in unique ways, such as using a fortune cookie combination that you found to unlock an office safe. This will earn you Crests, which function like life bars on Harvey's court dates; they give him a backup chance in case he screws up. However, the overall ease of the court dates means that gathering these extra Crests is rather pointless and not worth the time it takes to find them. It's still an interesting idea, and one that adds preciously needed play time to this incredibly short game.

The court cases are incredibly unsatisfying. Rather than taking advantage of the video game format to have Harvey defend video game characters or new Hanna-Barbara characters, Harvey spends most of his time challenging the exact same characters he regularly encounters in the television show. Even more frustrating is that there's no satisfaction to winning in court. All of the cross-examinations are done in a Phoenix Wright style where one scrolls through each part of the testimony to search for contradictions, and they're incredibly easy to break through. They involve paying only the slightest attention to the plot, and require presenting evidence that is so obvious it might as well have a giant glowing neon sign on it.

When you try to press the witness for further details, it's also completely unsatisfying. Unlike Phoenix Wright, where each defendant would react to pressing no matter the situation, Harvey will only press the witness if he or she says something important. Otherwise, you get one of three canned responses about how there's nothing to press there. Once you win a case, it follows the tradition of the television show in that the accused doesn't seem to care if he wins or loses, and even if someone gets a guilty verdict, there is no punishment. They just get up, make a quip and that's your reward for breaking down their story.

The "Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law" television show consists of 15-minute episodes, and regrettably, that length translates to the game as well. Each case can be blown through in roughly 15 to 30 minutes, and once you've finished a case, there is very little reason to replay it. To be fair, there are a number of hidden unlockables, such as outtakes or cameos by various Capcom characters, but unlocking them is generally a matter of making a wrong choice at a certain area, or something similar that requires extremely little effort. Once you're done, you're done. There are only five cases to go through, so even slow gamers can probably tear through Harvey Birdman in a couple of hours. With the minimal number of extras and the extremely short game length, Harvey Birdman is slightly overpriced even at the fairly budget price of $30, especially when one can purchase 15 episodes of the show on DVD for the same cost.

As anyone familiar with Williams Street knows that they're not ones for cutting-edge animation. Most of their home-brew shows use extremely cheap techniques such as reusing old character animation, extremely low frame rates, and low-quality visuals that simply provide a face for their off-kilter writing and quality voice acting. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, this same low-grade style translates over the video game, and it looks even cheaper here than on the show. There are only a handful of sets, an extremely small cast, and a staggeringly small amount of animations and it looks like one of the shoddier episodes of the television series. It's not enough to turn off fans, but newcomers to the franchise may want to be warned that, while Harvey Birdman uses animated and voiced cut scenes unlike Phoenix Wright, that doesn't necessarily mean it looks better.

One area where Harvey Birdman does quite well is with its sound effects. Almost all of the voice actors from the television return to reprise their roles, and there are even a few cameos from popular comedians such as the always cranky Lewis Black, here taking the role of the Deadly Duplicator. As per usual from William Street productions, their voice actors are the highlight of the show, easy surpassing the lackluster animation and, in the case of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, the complete lack of gameplay as well.

The problem with Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law for the PSP is that … it isn't a game. It's actually five new episodes of the show, only you occasionally get to make a choice about Harvey's next action. It's sort of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" take on the show. While this title is sure to please fans who are desperate for new material after the show's cancellation, it leaves the gameplay feeling almost non-existent. It's difficult, if not impossible, to not compare Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. They use almost identical interfaces, have functionally identical game design and are released by the same company. Yet while Phoenix Wright is a clever and well designed adventure game that combines humor with puzzle-solving, Harvey Birdman is a hollow-feeling experience that, while occasionally humorous, leaves one wishing he could just watch the episodes on TV instead. This game would be good for fans of the show only, and even they might want to be cautious, due to the title's gameplay brevity and lack of replayability.

Score: 5.0/10

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