In one of my many fits of catch-up in gaming, last year was the first time I ever played any Phoenix Wright game. I bought the trilogy from the 3DS shop and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The writing was engaging, the characters were charming, and more than once I found myself way too emotionally invested in what was really a silly, silly plot. Honestly, I have lots of thoughts on the Phoenix Wright series, and may one day go more into them. I bring this up today because I found a game that is heavily inspired by Phoenix Wright, one that has you take up the role of defense attorney and gather clues to confront witnesses and attempt to exonerate your client. The twist here is that this game, put out by Sketchy Logic, is for the birds.
Aviary Attorney puts you in the role of Jayjay Falcon, head of the Aviary Attorney Law Office. His faithful assistant, Sparrowson, aids Falcon in his investigations, also providing you with gameplay instructions and tips. Together, they explore a menagerie of realistically sketched animals in what loosely passes for 19th century France. Much like Phoenix Wright, the game splits into the visual novel-style investigation and the interactive trial scene, with Falcon detecting lies, and Sparrowson cracking wise. By basing itself on a proven formula, Aviary Attorney is set up to be a great success of stylistically twisting the already enjoyable Phoenix Wright style. And it does manage to be a good game. However, there are some small hiccups that prevent it from shining on its own that perhaps relegate it to “successful homage” instead of “successful addition” to the genre.
Simply put, I like the style of Aviary Attorney. Its art is charming, its theme entertaining, and its music is chosen well. Much like the Phoenix Wright games, the minimal animations always cause you to crack a smile when they appear while adding important dimension to the characters. The dialogue does well to flesh out their personalities, which simultaneously attempt to be both 1800s dignified and humorous. This, however, becomes a small stumbling block in the game’s path to success.
Creating an affect that one can find silly while not sacrificing their seriousness is a difficult balancing act. It involves putting enough work into the character that they can be called complete—a real, believable entity who is capable of both upstanding good acts, dubiously immoral acts, and ridiculous slapstick humor in a way that is true to them. It’s what made Phoenix Wright such a great series (until the most recent game, in my opinion) and it would be wise to commit as much attention as possible to creating complete characters if your goal is to create a game like Phoenix Wright. Aviary Attorney does a respectable job creating something similar, but there are ways that the writing just falls short.
Firstly, the game starts rather abruptly. Phoenix Wright began with an easy case to also introduce its setting. Aviary Attorney does give you an easier case to get used to the mechanics of the game, but it doesn’t introduce its world as well as it could have. Falcon and Sparrowson begin vacillating between 19th century gentlemen and wisecracking slackers. Eventually they do settle into their characters—Falcon a somewhat lazy, but proud lawyer, Sparrowson a pun-making glutton—and begin to grow accordingly, but the introduction is jarring and leaves you confused about how to take these two. We also know very little about this hybrid 19th century Paris/anthropomorphic world. In Phoenix Wright, we don’t need much to understand the premise, but they still give it to us. The legal system has been drastically streamlined, forcing trials to end within 3 days, and there’s an air of mistrust around the police department and prosecutor’s office. You also learn the legacy Phoenix is walking into, giving a vague idea of his past and a better idea of the people around him. You don’t quite get that in the beginning of Aviary Attorney.
I’m not saying that Aviary Attorney needs to do everything like Phoenix Wright in order to be any good. Far from it! Aviary Attorney has its own unique twists and quirks that make it a good game on its own merit. My concern however is that the missteps in characterization and consistency deter the player from loving the setting as much as they could. Occasionally you run into unnecessary outbursts or references that are just too anachronistic to overlook. It’s one thing to have birds joke about Twitter, but for a core reference menu in the game to be called a “Face Book” is just a bit much.
It isn’t just the writing that, for better or for worse, strays from the beaten path Phoenix Wright provides—Aviary Attorney tweaks the familiar game mechanics, as well. When given the chance to investigate, you are granted a certain number of days and list of locations to snoop around in. Plot-relevant locations will be indicated with a clock by their names, which means that it will take a full day to travel to that area and gather information. I found this to be a nice addition, actually, as Phoenix Wright could often feel like you were wandering around just hoping to encounter a new person or piece of evidence. This conciseness does take away from some of the more exploratory aspects that Phoenix Wright had, which makes Aviary Attorney feel more like a strict visual novel, but it’s not too restricting. What is disappointing, however, is that Aviary Attorney leaves other locations available to visit, but gives you nothing to do while there. In fact, you are typically scolded for being somewhere not relevant to the plot and thrown back out to the map anyway, so there seems to be little point in doing things like return to your office or hang out with the security guard. It would make more sense to remove the option, rather than tease players with the illusion of choice.
The court scenes also deviate from the Phoenix Wright formula. Cross-examination is done by reviewing a transcript of the testimony, rather than having the character repeat themselves. There’s nothing wrong with this—in fact, this decision suits the game. Where Phoenix Wright’s style was bright and busy, Aviary Attorney’s is simple and sepia-toned. The repetition would be too much to bear if one had to slog through the text again and again. Rather, you are simply handed a sheet of paper with key points.
Another interesting addition to Aviary Attorney, something that Phoenix Wright game Apollo Justice: Attorney at Law hinted at, is the inclusion of a jury. Rather than have a limited number of blunders you could get away with before having your case thrown out, Aviary Attorney makes you curry favor with jurors. It is how persuaded they are that determines whether or not you properly defended your case. In a few ways, I like this better than Phoenix Wright’s set up. It gives a sense of ambiguity throughout the trial and provides more pressure when making bigger mistakes. Though in theory, the two systems aren’t too different, it’s still an interesting experience.
Aviary Attorney is definitely worth getting. The game has a funny and unique style stacked on top of tried and true game mechanics. Though a few shortcomings prevent it from being a resounding success, if you are capable of overlooking those flaws then you will still find yourself enjoying the game. After a bumpy start, you’ll likely grow to love Jayjay Falcon, Sparrowson, Rabbington, and the rest of the fauna in their facsimile of 1840s Paris. At the very least, you’ll have a cute and clever diversion to tide you over until the next Phoenix Wright game.