"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.Continued on the next page...