Aviary Attorney is a game in which you guide some French lawyers, who happen to be birds, through evidence collection and trial scenes in which they pick holes in the opposing testimony. It owes a great deal to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, emulating its gameplay and in-court responses. People also compare with Hatoful Boyfriend, because both are visual novels with birds who act like humans, but Aviary Attorney owes less of a debt there: the gameplay and style are really rather different.
The art, meanwhile, is lifted from the public domain work of French caricaturist J.J. Grandville, and the game’s narrative takes place against the rising action of the revolutionary year 1848. There are also many current jokes and references: the evidence binder where you store pictures of people you’ve met is your “Face Book,” for instance.
The joke could have been too weak to sustain play through the whole game. But I wound up liking it a lot, and not just because the game only needed a few hours to play through. Sketchy Logic do a good job with the light animation, the soundtrack, the dialogue writing: moment to moment, production values are consistently solid.
More to the point, though, this is not just a grab-bag of goofy cases. The whole piece is addressing themes of justice, rationality, the use of force, and the relationship between the poor and the wealthy. 1848 Paris, as portrayed here, is a place with huge disparities in wealth and class; a place where judges preferentially protect the well-to-do, and where police may arbitrarily shoot the poor. In one of the endings, you are literally assembling evidence to work out whether the victim of a (supposed) police shooting was hit in the front or the back, and under what circumstances.
There’s a substantial amount of branching and consequence in this story. Things you do as early as the first act can have moderate effect elsewhere; later, your decisions become more and more consequential, determining the fates of characters and of the city itself. The final case you confront depends on what you’ve done in acts 1-3, which means that you have the option of encountering any of three different climactic sequences: in Ashwellian CYOA structure vocabulary, take a branch-and-bottleneck structure and glue a sorting hat on the end of it. (A few other games do this as well, including a number of Choice of Games pieces. Choice of Robots does it especially strongly.)
But you’re never completely in control of the situation, either. There are lots of things that the player doesn’t know or that the player character can’t avoid: this is not a power fantasy, but a story of moral responsibility. I found myself getting a bit anxious about the fact that I might be making errors that would cause genuine and upsetting problems for the characters in the long run.
There is a Cult of Rationality in the game, and at one point dialogue questions whether this is significantly different from a religion; on the other hand, none of the major character decisions in the story seem to be driven by religious faith.
So the key opposition there is not between faith and reason. Faith really has no defenders. Instead, it’s between a naive trust in what reason can do and a more sophisticated understanding of its misapplications and defects. While much of the gameplay is about trying to gather evidence and make rational arguments (at least, rational within the game’s logic), the outcomes repeatedly remind us that both our knowledge and the persuasive power of reason are limited. And the final outcome of the Fraternité ending turns on a character’s fear overriding their other inclinations, and choosing a course accordingly.
The moral choices we make in the game project backward as well as forward. Aviary Attorney is an inconsistent-reality game. Jayjay Falcon’s background is a mystery in every playthrough, but the truth ultimately revealed changes depending on what you decide to have him do. I know some players find that kind of thing extremely irritating, wanting all branches of a game to work together to reveal the same backstory from different angles. I did not find it bothersome myself, especially because Jayjay’s projected backstory is dependent on a choice he makes at a critical moment: essentially the player is deciding what kind of person he is, and thus perhaps what kind of person he used to be.
I have a few gameplay niggles. I couldn’t find any way to skip through dialogue I’d already seen once, the way one typically can in Ren’Py visual novels, and I missed that affordance.
Steam has a walkthrough for the game; I looked at it for information about a few paths I didn’t experience in my own playing. (Despite what the walkthrough says, though, ending 4C is available to play, and indeed is the ending I first received.)
[Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money. I have no commercial relationship with the creators as of the time of writing.]