Adventure Gamers Awards
"Now the greatest pirate to ride the waves
Nelly Cootalot, plucky heroine of the popular freeware adventure Spoonbeaks Ahoy! and quite possibly the first northern pirate lass to rate her own folk song, has reached port for the long-awaited commercial follow up, Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet. While her worldwide fame may be mainly in the dreams of her creator, comedian Alasdair Beckett-King, the original game was very well-received back in 2007. The sequel it teased may have taken a while to reach our shores, but I'm glad to say that Nelly has returned with all her charm and witty repartee intact, in an adventure full of engaging characters, beautiful scenery and varied puzzles. Even if the last act is perhaps over too soon and the challenge may leave some wanting more to chew on, its warm heart, deluge of jokes and sheer moxie is bound to put a smile on your face.
At its core, Nelly Cootalot's tale is one of birds and brothers. The protagonist – self-confessed adventurer, bird detective and carrier of many objects – is possibly the world's worst pirate but a staunch supporter of our feathered friends. Last time around, when the ghost of the similarly ornithologically-obsessed Captain Bloodbeard called upon her to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the spoonbeaks at the hands of his dastardly brother Baron Widebeard, she couldn't help but answer his call. It's probably safe to reveal that with much buckling of swashes and some help from the local Leprechauns, Nelly was able to rescue them from their fowl fate. All's well that ends well, you might think, but there was a catch. (There's always a catch, isn't there?) Some graffiti she stumbled upon turned out to be pirate code for the location of Bloodbeard's most prized possession, the Treasure of the Seventh Sea. Instead of being defeated as Nelly thought, the sly seadog Widebeard had actually sneaked off on a treasure hunt.
That brings us to the present, where Nelly's greatest sea battles are with unruly envelopes in her new job on the mail ship HMS Undeliverable. Sneaking out from his own job haunting a house in New England, Bloodbeard appears to her again, entreating her to track down Widebeard and his battle-axe of a wife and get to the treasure first. There'll be adventure, derring-do and birds to save, and in any case it's better than a life of stamp-licker's tongue and paper cuts, so it's time for Nelly to mail herself to the nearby Port Rubicund and set off on their trail. Her mission only gets more vital when Widebeard unveils his secret weapon, the titular fowl fleet: an enormous flock of birds hypnotised by his tame monkey Juju master, El Mono, is just what he needs to defeat the elite Ptarmigan guard on Gloomholm, the treasure's final resting place. Divided into three acts, you’ll travel from the peaceful Port Rubicund to the rather more ominous-sounding Guttering Howls (which actually turns out to be a quaint seaside town, albeit with deadly rocks around it) before a final showdown on Gloomholm. Which also isn't as gloomy as you might think, despite being full of Vikings, but it does have an ice volcano.
The world of Nelly Cootalot is full of sunshine, good humour and bad puns. While rarely laugh-out-loud funny, the constant stream of light-hearted banter, endearingly offbeat characters and wacky situations kept me entertained throughout the six or so hours I spent in her company. In her eyes, padded envelopes are for criminally insane letters, parcel tape is tape that can speak to snakes, and hot tips need treating with ointment. Puns aside, Nelly just seems to enjoy language, telling us that “burlap” is a funny word and taking a moment to just repeat the word “adze” over and over when she finds one. (Though when she runs across two Chinese junks – one a junk shop, the other a purveyor of junk food – she can't help but break the fourth wall to berate the lazy writing involved.) Add in her northern English accent and sprinkling of local slang, and she's one of the most distinctive heroines I've ever come across.
Overall, I can't remember having this much fun with a game's writing since Discworld II. It has that same Britishness, affectionate amusement at the world, and ability to elicit the feeling that you're being beaten into grinning submission by the barrage of jokes. It's also worth saying that while it's not necessary to have played the first game (Bloodbeard's ghost will give you a quick refresher, if you ask), it is definitely recommended. Quite a few of the characters return, and the sequel is sprinkled with references to what happened that you'll otherwise miss. Especially since it's free, it would be bird-brained not to, really!
At every turn are extra little touches to raise a smile. From the endless aliases Nelly offers for herself (my favourite being Adelweiss Fume, giraffe repairwoman, there to dispel the kind of complacent attitudes that lead to giraffe failure) to the exotic coffees on offer at the café (minty double Italiano sea-salt frappé, anyone?) or the range of songs from the folk-singing busker, this is a game that constantly feels like it's going the extra mile. Even Widebeard gets in on the act, with pet names for his wife that range from "my little trebuchet" to "iron maiden" and "arquebus". There are a number of dialogue-related puzzles to solve, but the options presented are often so gloriously wrong I couldn't help but take a few detours along the way. Why help someone win a race with classic adventure-style cheating and sneakiness when you can offer to keep kicking one of the runners until they win or write them a rap song instead?
The cast of characters includes everyone from a down-on-his luck Laird to a scheming harbour master, Viking salesmen, a foppish dictionary compiler and a cat burglar who really lives up to his name. They've all got plenty to say, and like to mix up amiable banter with a smattering of backstory, making them more rounded and memorable than your typical puzzle-game cyphers. We learn about a chef's anger management issues, why it's never a good idea to beat a lexicographer at Scrabble and (an important safety tip, this one) never to sit on a barrel of gunpowder wearing flint underpants. They may not be as self-consciously wacky as some other comedy characters, but in return I came to feel for them and their troubles. By the time I left the Guttering Howls, I felt a distinct tinge of happiness at putting an end to the harbour master's evil reign and helping a poor captain recover his sanity.
No discussion of characters would be complete, however, without highlighting Sebastian, a coot who’s Captain Bloodbeard's erstwhile familiar. After you rescue him from an ignominious fate trapped in the plastic rings of a six-pack (which on the upside meant he was the only bird on the island not seduced by El Mono's siren call), he takes a shine to Nelly and tags along on the rest of your travels. (Yes, you can talk to birds, and as it turns out birds are very well-bred.) As well as offering titbits of information about life with Bloodbeard and sometimes snarky commentary on the people you meet, Sebastian is happy to help you out from time to time and keeps track of what you're doing. If you ask, he'll give you a run-down on how you're faring with all your current objectives and sprinkle in a hint or two for good measure. Since you're often juggling quite a few plates at once, this can be really helpful if you come back to the game after time away.
The colourful cartoon graphics and jaunty soundtrack help the cheerful atmosphere along nicely. Presented in pin-sharp HD, the backgrounds have a hand-drawn, softly-shaded, coloured-beyond-the-lines look that gives them a vintage feel, yet with a modern simplicity. The characters themselves look to be cel-shaded 3D, but in an understated way that blends well with the environments. They're caricatures, with big heads and skinny limbs, and are smoothly animated. There are also a few ambient animations, but these are mostly limited to lapping waves and ships rocking on the tide; as beautiful as they are, a lot of the screens can feel a bit static at times. Locations vary between the rocky Port Rubicund, the winding streets and stone houses of a seaside town on Groat Island in the Guttering Howls, and the grassy uplands of Gloomholm, with ship interiors, an extinct volcano and a monkey's subconscious thrown in for good measure. They all have a slightly ramshackle warmth to them, with warped timbers and wonky walls that make them feel lived-in.
Musically, we get an orchestral score heavy on vibraphone and flute that provides a whimsical, bouncy backdrop. There are (not surprisingly) nautical notes to it in some places and a more Latin feel in others, with a more expansive string-backed feel in Gloomholm. While the tone does shift a little here and there to match what's going on, it never deviates far from its mission to keep the mood upbeat and fun. The voice acting, meanwhile, is a real highlight. For a game that stands or falls by its witty banter, the performances needed to be pretty good, but what we actually get is exceptional. The cast is packed with actors well-known (at least in Britain) for their work on radio and TV, and they all sound like they're having a great time. The star of the show, without a doubt, is Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor Who) lending his fruity gravitas to Sebastian, but it's hard to find a dud in the bunch. It's occasionally possible to hear when actors have recorded sections out of context – odd lines can feel a little strained – but overall it's a delight.
The interface is your classic right-click to look and left-click to act that we're all probably familiar with, with the inventory auto-hiding at the bottom of the screen. Once you acquire a map for the Guttering Howls, there's also an icon at the top that brings up a tourist map you can use to quick travel back to anywhere you've been. This isn't available elsewhere, but the other areas are compact enough that you don't really need it. Walking speed isn't the fastest, but the impatient can double-click on an exit to leave immediately. The spacebar activates a hotspot highlighter, but there's no real pixel hunting here so I generally only used it to check for optional items I could click on for fun. Finally, those with accessibility requirements will be pleased to know there are options to slow down the text or switch to a dyslexia-friendly font, as well as an anti-seasickness setting to stop ships from rocking on the tide and a one-button mode.
At their best, the puzzles are a masterpiece of multi-layered solutions. Gathering the pieces to solve one puzzle requires you to solve others, which in turn send you chasing down still further quirky tasks until you finally hit something you can tackle head-on. Some are inventory-based, while others require you to put on your PI hat (rather than the usual tricorn pirate one) and ferret out the information you need. Throw in a couple of logic-based brainteasers and a number of minigames (such as Amputation!, a piratical take on Operation) and you have a nicely varied mix. Some of the games, such as a shooting gallery, do require some hand-eye coordination, but only a little; they shouldn't prove troublesome for most.
The middle act (on the Guttering Howls) is particularly satisfying, starting out with the simple request to find a couple of bird-detector parts and a berth on an outgoing ship before snowballing into the story of a corrupt harbour master, an insane ship's captain, the compilers of the world's first pirate dictionary and encyclopaedia, an aspiring folk singer and more. Before long you find yourself duping a lookout, introducing a hipster barista to new music and manipulating the mood of a Chinese chef, all in the name of grabbing a couple of pieces of metal and a ride out of there. None of the steps is particularly tricky, though, and I was never really stuck. That kept things moving along at a breezy pace and should make the game accessible even to newbies, but it does mean that those looking to be really challenged won’t find much difficulty here.
After that meaty second act, the finale feels a bit short and rushed by comparison. Having teased the machinations of Baron Widebeard and company up until then, the fowl fleet is dealt with at a stroke without the Baron and his cohorts even getting a word in. Making your way to the treasure across the island of Gloomholm, there are glimpses of the same intricate puzzle construction that worked so well earlier, but it's just not as fleshed out; I'd have really liked to see a few more twists and turns. The disappointment here is at least partly because I was enjoying myself so much that I didn't want it to end, but it would also have been good to offer a bit more drama in the lead-up to the final scenes. The cutscenes with the Baron sprinkled through the majority of the game feel like a promise that's never quite lived up to, even if it does all come together right at the end.
In Nelly Cootalot: the Fowl Fleet, we have a likeable and distinctive heroine, a diverse cast of endearing characters, sparkling dialogue with more puns than you can shake a stick at, and layer upon layer of quirky puzzles, all set amid beautiful, colourful locales and backed with a lively soundtrack. Sure, the last act could have done with being longer and a touch more dramatic, and the difficulty might not be tough enough for some hardened adventurers, but those are minor quibbles compared to the sunny, good-humoured joy of spending time in Nelly's company. If you're looking for a slice of jolly (and very British) escapism and have a high tolerance for puns, it’s time to splice your braces, weigh anchor and set sail.