Hands On: Nelly Cootalot - The Fowl Fleet
RPS had barely gotten started when free point-and-click adventure Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy appeared in 2007. I adored it, and it appeared in our first ever advent calendar. So in 2013, when a Kickstarter was announced to fund a full-length sequel, Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet [official site], we demanded you fund it. You did, and with additional funding from snazzily named publishers Application Systems, the game is coming out on the 22nd. Yesterday I sat down in a Starbucks with creator Alasdair Beckett-King and had a play.
Padded envelopes, notes wannabe pirate Nelly in the opening moments of the game, are for the insane letters. A joke that made me laugh out loud (as someone with a long-term mental illness, so there), completely thrown away on looking at an object in a scene that you don't need to use. If that's to be the standard throughout this nautical 2D point-and-click adventure, then we could be in for a treat. It certainly looked that way in the first few scenes that I played.
The original Nelly Cootalot was a love letter from Beckett-King to his girlfriend, on whom Nelly is based. A short, but completely adorable and very funny AGS freebie, it was begging to be something bigger. With the help of £20,000 from Kickstarter backers, and then the involvement of a German publisher, that's now happened, and Nelly is realised in a gorgeous high-res world, with professional voice actors, and some really fantastic animation. Oh, and one of those voice actors is Tom Baker. Yup, the Tom Baker.
Nelly begins the adventure bored, stuck working in the post room for a ship, when the ghost of William Bloodbeard demands she stop the evil Baron Widebeard, who is also now somehow his brother. Baron Widebeard, boo hiss, kidnaps innocent birds, and there's nothing that gets in Nelly's craw more than that. So in the most traditional adventury ways imaginable, Nelly re-labels a shipping crate and has herself sent off to a distant island to begin her pursuit.
Very quickly it becomes apparent that the tone of this silly, lovely-seeming game is remarkably calm. Voice acting is close to naturalistic, with even Tom Baker managing not to shout. ("He is getting on," notes Beckett-King, before regaling me with tales of how completely splendid he was to work with.) The dialogue is distinctly British, Nelly is defiantly Northern, and the result is something that bursts with charm. I think "charm" is going to be the most frequently used word to describe The Fowl Fleet, suggesting the homely, gentle and grin-inducingly silly tone of what I've seen so far.
Beckett-King spends his evenings as a stand-up comic, his resplendent neon-ginger lengthy hair and beard offering him a instantly recognisable figure (and easy opening gag), and his comedy chops are apparent in everything we've seen of Cootalot so far. From the Kickstarter video, to a launch trailer that's yet to be finished (that rather wonderfully features an argument between him and Nelly about whether people should pirate the game), his raised eyebrows and timing have added a lot to the project. In fact, here he is reading out the press release (along with a bunch of in-game footage):
And that way with gags is immediately apparent in the game, with Nelly's wry, genial delivery underplaying sweet-tempered observations and agonising puns. Oh, and Tom Baker's in it, did I mention that? He's a bird. Tom Baker is a bird.
Obviously the game owes a wealth of debt to Monkey Island just in its basic premise of a wannabe pirate, but fortunately Beckett-King assures that the game won't be incessantly referencing this. I'm pretty sure Threepwood was never too worried about the welfare of local birdlife, anyway. But where it does strongly remind me of the classic 90s adventures is in the effort that's gone in to ensure puzzles (both inventory and more involved logical challenges) are fair, and make sense in the context of the story.
An early challenge has you trying to work out the destination of a ship, which is done by carefully reading a three-page logbook, and applying the information given to assemble a wall chart of boats and destinations. And to be honest, I almost couldn't solve it simply because it wasn't abundantly obvious. So unused am I to such puzzles not being agonisingly easy or nagging at me to tell me how to solve themselves, that I clean forgot I could just use my brain. Beckett-King reminded me about brains, and then suddenly it all fell into place.
It's worth noting that I only played a brief section, so I can't extrapolate this, but early in things are looking rather good. And they're looking rather good, too. One of the loveliest features of the original AGS game was the appearance that backgrounds had been crudely cut out of craft paper, and delightfully, that appears here too. It's a superb style, over which really meticulously animated characters appear, and the early overly-cel-shaded style we saw a couple of years back has been toned down to look much more natural. And blessedly, while it may not offer the complexity of the era it evokes, there is at least a "look at" option on the right click, offering plenty more gags.
The game is out on the 22nd of this month, and we'll have a full review of it for you then. And with Day Of The Tentacle out the same day, Samorost 3 out two days later, and Wadjet Eye having just released the excellent Shardlight, what a time we're in for adventure games. It's terrific that The Fowl Fleet looks as though it could be a highlight amongst them. Oh, and Tom Baker's in it!