17 January 2016

'Aviary Attorney'

Bird Puns For All

The Ace Attorney series lost my continued interest some time ago after its somewhat lacklustre fourth instalment and, dare I say it, Aviary Attorney has won it instead. The Kickstarter-backed gameoriginally released incomplete but now featuring four chapters and three endings, is a minimum six hour adventure detailing what might have happened in 1840's France had everyone there been a witty anthropomorphic animal. With a stunning classical score that adds tremendously to both the game's particularly dramatic moments and the general feel of its setting, and wonderfully detailed visuals by an actual 19th century French caricaturist, it delivers a rare and positively charming experience that I can't help but recommend to anybody who's looking to be swept off their feet and transported to a world of feels, fun, and bird puns.

While certain aspects of Aviary Attorney give off unmistakable Les Miserables vibes (its militantly law-enforcing police inspector is just one), its main inspiration is clearly the aforementioned legal thriller franchise from which it derives its name. The gameplay recipe is nearly identical: a visual novel interspersed with point and click crime scene investigation segments and line-by-line cross examinations of witness testimonies during trials. There are two deviations from the usual: firstly, that you are often required to spend a whole day visiting a single location, meaning that you must choose how to manage your time between court dates and failure to do so correctly risks missing something crucial in one or more areas; secondly, that the player can be lose favour with the jury for needlessly pressing a witness at any point during the trial and not, as those who have played Phoenix Wright will be familiar with, only at its most crucial moments. These changes may sound revolutionary but in practice they act as little more than decorative garnish since you are also given ample indication where to go, when to go there, and when and what to say. Let it be said: this game is not hard, and there is certainly no Ace Attorney-level brain-rattling thinking to be done here.

Be that as it may, there is a blackjack mini game which actually presents a hell of a lot of challenge. Without a good amount of luck and skill the prospect of winning five francs per game can easily trick you into losing five times as much in half as many minutes. Thankfully for those like myself who aren't so favoured by fortune or experienced in Jacques-Noir, money isn't all that important as there other, readily available ways besides forking over your hard-earned cash to complete objectives and find out information; again, the gameplay isn't taxing by any means, which might be off-putting for some. But let it also be said that it barely detracts from the overall experience because this game is all about the storytelling, and that part is sans équivoque, vraiment fantastique.

The plot begins with a simple murder mystery and soon evolves into feathered protagonists Falcon's and Sparrowson's full scale, hands on involvement in both the French Revolution and the decades-old case of one 'Viridian Killer.' Aviary Attorney is quick to hit you with a few well placed, key plot twists that are genuinely unexpected - especially if you're accustomed to the relative predictability of Ace Attorney - and keep you hanging on tenterhooks throughout. There are also a number of moments which will surprise you with how profound they are, bringing in to question the true nature of justice and to what extent murder, directly or indirectly caused, can be justified in its name. It's worth noting that while this theme also features in the Ace Attorney games, the way in which it is addressed here is comparatively much darker and more visceral.

The characters too are all well written; none of them feel like Ace Attorney clones, even those that were in a sense intended to be. A great example is rival prosecutor Séverin Cocorico, the Miles Edgeworth to Jayjay Falcon's Phoenix Wright: similar enough for their similarities to be obvious but with adequate variation in action and reaction to seem like a separate person (or rooster, rather) whose uncanny resemblances to Edgeworth are merely coincidental. In contrast, the 'Phoenix Wright' and 'Maya Fey' of Aviary Attorney are so original and multidimensional that they bear few remarkable parallels to their human counterparts. Initially I felt that Falcon's assistant Sparrowson (the 'Maya'), with his energetic daringness and sharp comic relief, somewhat overshadowed the primary protagonist, but later developments of Falcon's grey-area morals and mysterious past firmly placed them on equal footing in terms of depth and likability.

One minor issue I did find with Aviary Attorney's writing is that although its various visual and literary references to the source material were nice to see, some elements of Act 3's latter half imitate it almost past the point of flattery; whether or not it crosses that line will likely vary with personal opinion. Another is that what could be considered the 'best' ending felt abrupt and underdeveloped. Such overt simplicity to end what turned out to be a fairly emotionally complex game was inevitably bathetic. Admittedly however, this was quickly remedied when I finally got round to viewing the other two endings, which were chock full of so much death, drama, and disappointment (the good, intended kind) that instead of feeling underwhelmed I was actually relieved to have seen everything go so unbelievably smoothly the first time round.

Tl;dr: while their game wasn't perfect (what game truly is?) and probably isn't for those who seek a puzzling challenge, it was perfect enough that I already want to see more of birdbrained lawyers Falcon and Sparrowson. Badly. Although Phoenix and the gang of the first three Ace Attorney games will always hold a special place in my heart, Aviary Attorney has been captivating in a way that none of their adventures since then have managed to be, and that's because although its roots in the Ace franchise run deep (and arguably deeper than they should at times) Aviary Attorney is still its own tale, one that adds something fresh and to a pre-established line of narrative with its unique setting, charming and original characters, and grittier implementation of the same themes of death and justice. And - of course, who could forget? - it's got bird puns.