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.
Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is available at: