A review trying to hold off on bird puns.
Video games, much like almost every piece of media ever devised, needs to have a hook. There has to be some element to them that draws in others, otherwise said piece of media is probably fated to fade away.
This phenomenon can be seen across all of types of fields of video games, in all different shapes and forms. In can be seen in big name games (Blood Borne’s entire hook can summed up as ‘a Souls game, but with guns and werewolves’) to humble indie games (ever wanted to be a piece of toast? I Am Bread fills that incredibly odd dream of yours). The hook can be in the game’s setting, or even its mechanics, such as Super Hot’s ‘time only moves when you move’ core game play feature. I honestly think this does a lot of good for the video game industry: it’s a good way to encourage creative ideas for the most part, even if some end up ill-fated or thought out.
However, the hook we have presented before us today asks a simple question; what if the Ace Attorney games starred anthropomorphic animals in a revolutionary Paris?
As it turns out, a lot of animal based puns, a lot of quirky characters, and a surprisingly heartfelt storyline.
Let’s cover the basics first. ‘Aviary Attorney,’ like its name would suggest, is an investigative visual novel where you balance your time between investigating crime scenes and verbally duking it out in the court house, created by a group called Sketchy Logic. The welfare of your defendants, friends, and sometimes all of Paris will rely on you effectively finding and using evidence in pitched legal battles. This is all presented with an absolutely gorgeous art style, courtesy of one J. J. Grandville, a French caricaturist and artist back in the 1800’s. We’ll look at the art style in more detail in the relevant section below, but rest assured that the development team made absolutely great use of his detailed and extremely colourful designs. Being a visual novel, this game has a strong focus on story and narrative and fortunately the writers made full use of the setting and characters to bring a vivid and often at times humorous Paris to life.
Taking us through Paris is Jayjay Falcon, a…well, falcon defence attorney. Along with him is his trusty assistant and friend Sparrowson (no points for guessing what species of bird he is), who provides some of the game’s comic relief and makes sure that Falcon stays on the straight and narrow. These two are hugely likeable, and their banter marks some of the game’s best writing.
Before we get into the nitty gritty parts of the review, I should probably just clarify some things. For those who are unfamiliar, the Ace Attorney games are a long running series of Japanese visual novels that follow the perspective of attorney’s having awesomely exaggerated legal battles, and are pretty fun games to boot.
The term ‘anthropomorphic’ is applied to various works of art wherein animals are given human characteristics (ie, animals wearing clothes or holding crazy trails for their legal system), usually used to draw attention to a character’s traits via the traits of the animal, such as ‘being sly as a fox.’ Or in this case, make animal based puns.
With those basics covered, let’s actually get into the main features of the game:
Gameplay: An interesting take on a tested formula, Aviary Attorney has enough twists to keep one’s attention.
The core game play of Aviary Attorney is very much like its clear inspiration, Ace Attorney. Both games have you combing over various crime scenes, questioning witnesses, following up leads and gathering other evidence before putting you in a court-house trail where you have to use everything you’ve gathered to defend an accused individual. The game doesn’t try to hide it’s influences (with several gags that couldn’t be anything less than purposeful nods), but conducts itself well: presenting evidence and flipping a prosecution’s entire accusation against them feels intuitive and satisfying, as does pulling a case out from the jaws of a guilty verdict.
However, there are some noticeable and pretty interesting design choices that help to pull it out of Ace Attorney’s shadow somewhat. One of the more noticeable of these is the limited time system: our intrepid heroes usually have a set time limit before the day of the trial, and since visiting locations to investigate them takes time, there is a very real risk that they could miss a piece of vital evidence because they spent too long shooting the breeze with the local bar-fly.
It’s a good addition, giving even the downtime between the actual trails a sense of tension, and encouraging the player to actually stop and think about where they need to go next rather than just forcing them to go down a checklist of locations. At least, on some trials: some do just have a checklist of options, which can feel a little disheartening in one or two of the later chapters. However, for the most part it’s a solid addition to the formula, especially since the game does go out of its way so you always have a kind of goal to work towards, so you’re not just wandering around blindly. Although, that doesn’t necessarily stop it from being frustrating when you waste a day because there was no sure-fire way to determine your destination was the correct one.
Another interesting addition to the formula is the fact that you can lose a trial and still continue on in the story, rather than being forced to restart. This does help in creating the impression that the world changes and reacts to the player’s successes or failures, since dialogue and certain events change if they managed to defend our bird-brained hero’s clients. This change to the usual is especially welcome, since this connects pretty snugly with one of the game’s core themes.
In terms of actual mystery, most the trails follow pretty reasonable sense of logic; even the most ‘out there’ trials have the characters following believable arguments. While not every trial is legal-battle-epic with twists and turns, there’s a fair selection on display here. I would just say, however, that the trials in the game are perhaps a mite bit too easy. True, most the difficulty is supposed to come from actually gathering said evidence without screwing up and forgetting a vital clue, but sometimes the trials can feel like they’re being too generous with the hints. This is kind of an issue that’s going to be pretty subjective, since the main appeal of the game lies in its story and characters, and thus a low difficulty might not even be considered a negative aspect. It’s slightly easier difficulty might just means you can focus all of your attention onto the characters, rather than agonising over every little part of a trail.
Aesthetics and Sound/music: One of the main hooks of the game; the game has an absolutely glorious art style, accompanied by a solid sound direction.
So, a little bit of back-story. Back in the 1800’s, an artist and caricaturist by the name of J. J. Grandville (which was actually a pseudonym for his real name, Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard) gained a small amount of fame due to his extremely skilful drawings of comedy works, in part due to the fact that all the characters involved were anthropomorphic in nature. This small boost in popularity led to being hired as a caricaturist for numerous French publications, and for a while he enjoyed a general appreciated view by the population. When there was a crackdown to censor news publications by the government, however, his drawings were one of the things to be banned, and he was forced to find a new outlet. He would go on to draw illustrations for various books (including Gulliver’s Travels), but the one set to look at in this case is the drawings he made for a book called ‘The Public and Private Life of Animals.’ The drawings in this book, and several other pieces he made, would serve as the basis for Aviary Attorney’s artwork.
The developers at Sketchy Logic did a fantastic job of extracting and animating the illustrations. Not to mention they definitely picked some of the best of Grandville/ Gérard’s work, as well as using their writing to synch up how a character looks to how their personalities stand. The designs are varied and visually interesting, and all fit together well on the screen. I’m not really sure what else to say: I adore this art style.
That being said, there is kind of weird point about it that I wasn’t 100% sure of, namely the scale of everything. At one point, our intrepid heroes run into a mouse, who is as small as a realistically scaled mouse to them, and likewise a giraffe whose neck and head tower above them. This is all fun and fine, since this is keeping to realistic proportions while making some pretty good jokes about the whole thing. However, I do sort of question why our two intrepid heroes rival the size of the local crocodile. Now, I grant you that you can have REALLY big falcons and surprisingly small crocodiles in the world, but for an overall portrayal it feels kind of off. But this is a minor gripe, just a little case of artistic liberalities at work.
As for sound, the game has a good attention to detail. The sounds that make each character’s “voice” is widely varied, and helps to reinforce what tone each character has. The dramatic sound cues and effects during the trials really sell the over-the-top nature of the whole thing, and are a real asset to the more comedic moments. As for music, there’s a good selection at work: low and intense when the need calls for, triumphant and jubilant when necessary, etc. Nearly all of the music is transcribed or inspired by various classic pieces that came out of the era the game is based in, and perfectly fit the setting.
Story and Narrative: The story of one bird defence attorney and his assistant as they try to wrangle with the building revolutionary feelings of the people of Paris, all the while Jayjay must address the past he would rather leave buried.
A visual novel lives or dies on how invested it can make a reader to its characters and setting. To that end, it’s good thing that our two leads, Jayjay Falcon and Sparrowson, are hugely likeable characters, more or less from the word go. Jayjay is the main protagonist of the story, and one who brings his own emotional baggage to it: saying what kind of baggage would be a spoiler to one of the game’s running sub-stories, but it really does do a lot to flesh out his character. Even without that though, Jayjay is a strong protagonist. He’s a determined and driven bird who is never the less struggling with his own doubts, but he’s also not above getting involved with the sillier moments. Despite the fact that he’s got his own characterisation (and indeed his own history that comes back to haunt him) the game’s writing makes him flexible enough to fit in all of the crazy events that occur. Depending on your choices, Jayjay will develop in a number of ways, sometimes for the worse, but it’s difficult to not sympathise and root for the guy at mostly every turn.
Accompanying Jayjay is the wise-cracking, pun loving Sparrowson, who fills out the comedic relief of the duo, while also being a surprisingly driven force to be reckoned with when he applies himself. While he’s mainly there to ask stupid questions and nearly get Jayjay in trouble with his comments, he also provides some invaluable help to Jayjay, and indeed really pulls him out of the fire on a number of occasions. Another important facet of his character is that he’s one of Jayjay’s most important comrade: both of them go through a lot in the game, and Sparrowson is there to help pull his friend out of the gutter when needed. These two share some really great chemistry, and the jokes that come from their personalities bouncing off each other make for the game’s funniest banter and their more sombre conversations make the most heart-warming.
The more general story of Aviary Attorney follows these two bird-brained-…err, birds as they try to make a living as defence attorneys in Paris, meeting and often cross-examining a number of rather colourful characters along the way. You’ll have to follow them through their successes and their failures as they try to pry the truth out of whatever horrible crime they find themselves embroiled in. Along the way, our two heroes go from Paris’ most ritzy and glamorous quarters all the way down into the city’s infamous catacombs. Your choices will heavily affect how the two birds get on, and how their story eventually ends. The game does a surprisingly good job of connecting the seemingly disjointed cases by snowballing the themes of each into a greater whole, making for a rather grand finale.
Befitting of a mystery game, there is a healthy number of twists and turns to the story, both to each individual case and to the greater narrative as a whole. We won’t dive too much into spoiler territory, but I do believe that game does a satisfying job of subverting one’s expectations, even as early as the first case. Not to mention the game has a great sense of pacing, since we build up from a “simple” murder case all the way up to a solving mysteries and finding conspiracies that threaten to shake all of Paris, if not the entirety of France.
Conclusion: While it is often a game that shows its smaller budget, Aviary Attorney more than makes up for its faults with its great style, instantly engaging characters, and superb writing.
It sometimes becomes clear that Aviary Attorney was made on a fairly limited budget, and the game occasionally suffers for it: while the game has plenty of variety and has a pretty diverse set of endings and outcomes, the game still comes off as a little bit short. There are not exactly a huge number of cases for you to tackle, and each case isn’t exactly over-long. Not to mention, the very few instances where the game makers have had to create wholly original artwork to fill in gaps of Grandville/ Gérard’s pieces are a little glaring since the style they use isn’t close enough to all the other art in the game to blend.
That all being said, it’s easy to overlook such shortcoming when the game’s writing is as good as it is. With a great control of the story’s tone, the narrative flips effortlessly between hilarious and light-hearted moments and more dark and gritty moments in the story, all while presenting some extremely colourful characters to take part in the game’s ongoing narrative. Combine that with the game’s extremely engaging main characters and it’s great use of old art, and the game’s onto a real winning formula.
For all of game’s flaws, I would heartily recommend it. Fans of the Ace Attorney games will get a kick out of the nods and winks to the game’s core influence, while others new to these styles of game will appreciate that it’s a great gateway into the genre that requires no prior experience with either the characters or the game play. Take a look if you get a chance, and let your delight take flight.*
*Look, we’re allowed one bird pun, right? After holding back on just flooding this review with them, I think I deserve that much.