One of the rare pleasures that can come for any critic is to see a piece of media overcome preconceptions and become more than the sum of its parts. It occurs more in mainstream gaming because genres bleed over far more: especially in First Person Shooters which is still gaming’s bread and butter. So when you get something like Splatoon, Spec Ops: The Line or Bioshock, the delineation is clear and it’s easier to hold those games up. In visual novels, especially in English Visual Novels, the task is much more difficult.
There is little, if any, demand for anyone to experiment with the established visual novel formula. That goes equally for groups like Winged Cloud as it does a, say, Seraphim Entertainment (Seduce Me the Otome) or even the up-and-coming Alienworks (Human Reignition Project). I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because there is a place for narrative formulas in any medium of entertainment. I am saying that when someone fights against the current and tampers with the tried and true, they deserve a few kudos. Why? Because they’re doing something that not only isn’t asked for by the current visual novel audience, in many ways they’re gambling that they won’t be hated for it just on their experiment alone.
All of this is especially true when you’re talking about a fan favorite series like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The formula for this series is about as definitive as you can get: you collect evidence for a trial, go to trial and attempt to defend your hopefully innocent client. While there is a connecting narrative in the games, it matters that you gather evidence and correctly defend your client. So when visual novel fans play an Ace Attorney fangame, many probably expect for the formula to be untampered with and the trial mechanics to be the central focal point of the game with a healthy dose of reverence for the source material.
Yeah, Sketchy Logic did not get that memo.
- Genre: Historical Fiction, Courtroom Drama
- Release Date: December 21, 2015
- Developer: Sketchy Logic
- Language: English
- Platform: PC
- Website: Steam
- Edited By: Ozzytizer
Paris, France: Winter 1848. Once again, the air is thick with unrest. Rumors of revolt keep King Louis-Philippe I and the merchant class on edge as the proletariat struggle to survive the corrupted system. In the midst of this tension one
man bird, Jayjay Falcon, and his assistant Sparrowson struggle in their own fight: creating a successful legal practice. Their work will put them right in the middle of the storm to come and their survival will depend on their quick wits and devotion to the spirit of justice, if not the system claiming to be built on it.
As I hinted at in the intro for this review, while Aviary Attorney does pay homage to the Ace Attorney series, it’s not connected at its hip. In fact, the first act of the game plays directly into the expectation that it is and rips that expectation apart in brilliant fashion. From there, Aviary Attorney becomes a fictionalized account of the 1848 Revolution that led to the Second French Republic. I can see confusion beginning to spread amongst the populace whose knowledge of French history stops at the guillotine, so TIME FOR BACKSTORY~!
After the second abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, the House of Bourbon was reestablished under Louis XVIII, who reigned until his death in 1824. Charles X succeeded Louis XVII and reigned for about six years until the Second French Revolution (the July Revolution). The King abdicated, but instead of a new republic being formed the provisional government decided to elect a new king. By doing this, the provisional government hoped to marry the history of the Old Regime (the first French Monarchy), the ideals of the First French Republic and the stability of Napoleon’s reign. To accomplish this, they elected Louis Philippe d’Orleans: the so-called ‘Citizen King’. While this did stabilize the government, Louis Philippe’s favoritism to the merchant class, the lack of effort to expand voting rights, the restriction on freedom of speech and press, and his support of ministers like François Guizot began to fray the people’s trust. The tension continued to boil during Louis Philippe’s near twenty-year reign with revolts and assassination attempts sparking and quickly being put down. The turbulence continued until 1848: exactly where we start our story.
Some will brush this off, I’m sure. But just keeping that little bit of French history in mind as you play will greatly enrich the overall experience. There are a few historical figures I wish they would’ve found a way to include (Engels, Marx, de Tocqueville and Talleyrand were all active during this period), but their exclusion doesn’t take anything away from the game. So then what is the point of all this careful research? Well, that has more to do with the overall theme of Aviary Attorney and its divergent path from its inspiration.
As I said before, only the first case sticks close to the tried and true Ace Attorney formula. After that, Aviary Attorney begins to meditate on the rule of law, the concept of justice and the ideology behind revolutions. The easiest on this totem pole to hit is the rule of law; seeing as how our main character is a lawyer. And while the first case begins to lay the groundwork the second trial, dealing with an assassination attempt on Louis Philippe, is where the story really begins to make its mark. The trial itself is interesting but familiar courtroom drama that serves to emphasize the rule of law theme. Both Jayjay and the prosecutor Severin Cocorico are repeatedly pressed as the case moves forward to stick exactly to their job descriptions and little else. Depending on your choices, they can certainly do that. However, the canon options have both pushing beyond what is required of them to ensure proper justice is served.
While it is portrayed as noble, the pressure on both of them to act a certain way comes from a stereotype of the judicial system manifest in the trial: that prosecutors just want to stack up wins, defense attorneys just want to get paid and the system, as a whole, doesn’t give a damn about the life or lives hanging in the balance.
I cannot go too deep into it because it would spoil a fantastic moment in the trial. But it serves as both a critical point and a defense of the system. Anyone keeping track of public events in the United States knows that the judicial system has been heavily scrutinized over the last ten years especially. There is a lot of room to critique our system and the stereotype I mentioned earlier isn’t far from the mark some days. It would have been very easy to leave it there are move on, but the creative team here manages to rebuke both sides and reach a consensus. Yes, the system can be corrupt. But through Jayjay and Severin’s actions during the trial, the creative team muses that the only plausible solution to corruption in the system has to come from someone within the system.
Admittedly, that conclusion is just my own hypothesis and not outright stated by the developers or the game itself. But, said hypothesis feeds into the larger narrative and launches the rest of the game into rarefied air. After the second trial, we dive headfirst into investigating the coming revolution led by Madame Beaumort and a pair of brothers who might as well be Engels and Marx. Beaumort is a figure in conflict as she desperately wants to change the system and sees revolution as the only option, but due to the specter of the Reign of Terror is concerned about the potential violence that can come from it. It is a very complex portrayal that isn’t often seen in American media, mostly because we have a very romantic view of revolution. To be fair, we had one that went pretty well. So it only makes sense that revolutions and revolutionaries are usually seen as a positive force. However, France in particular and Europe as a whole have a much more grounded view of the concept.
As I mentioned in the brief history of France earlier, this game takes place within fifty years of the Reign of Terror. That is enough time for children who came of age in that era to remember the horror of it. The blood running like rainwater through the cobblestone streets, the damp thud of the guillotine as it cycled through one victim after another and the wailing from the seemingly endless lines of victims. No matter what their parents felt about the House of Bourbon or the Old Regime, no one from that generation would want to go back to that period. This allows the game to question the ideal of revolution throughout. The ideology behind the third revolution is constantly challenged and brought into question and as you delve deeper. Whether or not it becomes fully violent or finds some way to bring about much needed change from within the system depends on the player’s choices.
‘JP, isn’t that a little too deep for an Ace Attorney fangame?’
Mayhaps, but I do have some evidence to corroborate my theory. There are three endings to Aviary Attorney. Of the three, only one of them is framed as the proper canon ending. That ending, the only good ending, sees change come from within the system and a violent revolution averted. The other two see violent revolutions happening and both are framed as negative. If the goal or the outlook was that revolution, regardless of ensuing bloodshed, was fine as long as it toppled a corrupt government then the three endings would be morally grey at best. Since they are not, the creative team sees something different about their non-violent canon ending than the violent non-canon ones.
So, what do these themes and research mean for the actual characters and narrative? It works out for the most part. There’s a heavy focus on comedy and even after the second trial, only two of the three story lines actually take a dark and serious turn. The narrative maintains its weight when it matters but doesn’t take itself so seriously that it gets lost in its own head. The only real downside is that there are some revelations at the end that would have delivered a much stronger punch to the reader with better foreshadowing. This is especially true for Jayjay whose full backstory gave me chills when I put two-and-two together, but only because I know my history. It is brought up from time to time, but what is something of a shock should knock people on their ass and I don’t know if that was accomplished.
The same goes for the brothers who don’t see much developmental outside of using chaos as a ladder a la Littlefinger. As I said, Marx and Engels were active during this period and the Communist Manifesto was originally published, ironically enough, at the exact same time of the Third French Revolution. The story does give both brothers socialist leanings, but it feels secondary to ultimately ‘winning’ in the end. Just a little more of a push here would really cement the complexity of Europe’s overall situation at the time thanks to the early years of socialist theory, but for what we got it wasn’t too bad.
Overall, the story works very well and each ending is incredibly satisfying with the canon ending actually putting a smile on my face. Marrying this much history to a courtroom drama is a tricky task, but Sketchy Logic manages to pull it off with only a few stumbling blocks here and there. Well done.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
Here’s where things get tricky. The presentation here uses the art of J. J. Grandville and matches it with backgrounds of 18th Century France that are currently available for public domain. While work was done to animate the different characters, the simple truth is that a very small percentage of the artwork is actually original. On top of that the music is a mixture of different classical composer led by Camille Saint-Saens, so most of the game is blended together with public licenses.
Does that make it bad? No. In fact, the presentation works very well in my humble opinion. The music swells at key moments and every leitmotif is perfectly fitted to their characters. The artwork itself is eccentric, but very fitting and as the first case begins to reach its climax, it’s hard to see the game any differently than in this style. But while the team mixes the assets well, I have to unfortunately treat it like I would any other game that used open-sourced assets: no matter how well they used them. It only really affects the score at the end though and, hopefully, the future will see Sketchy Logic try their hand at original assets.
On the technical side, this is where the game hits a serious weak spot. The engine that was used for Aviary Attorney is wonky, to say the least. There is no option to manually save your game so if you don’t finish a day in game, you’ll have to pick up from the start if you quit. And while being able to pick up on a previous day is a nice idea, it comes with the caveat that you have to remember everything that happened prior to that day so that you don’t get confused. If you decide you want to start over fresh you have to delete the entire save file to do so. The in-game UI itself is clunky and doesn’t have much function outside of when you’re prompted to use it during a trial. Even then, not enough was done with any of the game’s function to warrant everything it included (looking at you Face Book).
The animations used in the game, however, worked very well. This is especially noticed in the courtroom scenes where several things have to work at the same time and it does so fluidly. So, if that was the reason why it went with this engine, I cannot fully knock it. And to be fair for all of my issues with its functionality, I never ran into a bug or experience a crash. So it definitely works, but it also could have used much more polish before release to ensure a smoother overall experience.
A single route of Aviary Attorney takes roughly three hours. So when you consider all three routes, you’re looking at anywhere between nine to ten hours of gameplay. Because the path to the separate endings actually branches in the third chapter, and you can rewind specifically to the point where the choices branch off, shortening play time. However, there are some variance in choices in the earlier chapters that are interesting enough to warrant multiple playthroughs.
The game itself is currently selling for $14.99 on Steam. I’d understand if anyone was on the fence because of the price and f you are waiting for a sale is fine as long as you get the game.
Using an established franchise to do your own thing is a dangerous proposition. Aviary Attorney is definitely a courtroom drama and it is inspired by the humor of the original series. However, the series does not want to just be an Ace Attorney fangame. It has a story it wants to tell and that story is steeped in a lot of blood. Its meditations on revolution and justice are surprisingly thorough. Maybe not very deep, but thorough enough to give the game a weight it wouldn’t have had otherwise. The only real weakness is that the game could have afforded to go much deeper. The history of that time period is rich enough that they could have included much more in the game and made it a much more rewarding experience for those of us who know our history. What we get, however, uses the real events to craft a solid drama with plenty of comedic moments to keep the general audience entertained.
Hopefully other developers will be encouraged by Aviary Attorney to experiment with an established formula. With care and knowledge it can work out to your benefit. At worst, you’ll have plenty of puns to drive your readers crazy with.