Wot I Think: Nelly Cootalot - The Fowl Fleet
And not a parrot in sight
As adventure games come tumbling upon us, and for once it’s a pleasure, Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet [official site] finds itself in good company. And it’s a pleasure to report that despite its smaller budget and much smaller team, it merits that company. A sweet, silly and welcoming adventure game in which your ultimate goal is rescuing some poor wee birdies. Here's wot I think:
Nelly Cootalot first appeared in a free AGS game back in 2007, and it was really lovely. It's very much worth playing, not just because it itself is an adorable little freebie, but - well, we'll get to that. This full-length, Unity-based follow-up continues to follow pirate Nelly in a quest from her ghostly guide, William Bloodbeard, in an attempt to stop his evil brother from enslaving an army of wildfowl to steal William's treasure.
This involves a very traditional three act adventure, the middle being a hefty section of exploring a large island of locations, characters, puzzles and gags, with a surprisingly lengthy and satisfying final act. Possibly around eight hours if you take your time and make sure you find all the jokes. It's a hearty game - a lot more than perhaps you'd expect from a £20k Kickstarter (albeit with considerable extra help from publisher Application Systems). It's 2D, it's a two-click adventure with right to look, left to interact, and perhaps most significantly of all, it's not particularly tough. And there, I think, is its second best strength.
Its first best is undoubtedly the dialogue writing. Creator, animator and sole writer Alasdair Beckett-King is a witty man, and this comes across throughout in a remarkably genial and gentle way. Fowl Fleet is one of the nicest games I can remember playing in ages, and that's not damning in any sense. Nelly herself is voiced by Beckett-King's partner, the woman on whom the character is based, and the result is this naturalistic, un-showy performance of a warm, wry Northerner that feels possibly unique in all of gaming. The game's charm, and it has it in abundance, comes in a huge part from her calm, ordinary delivery. Gags aren't stressed, moments aren't ACTED, but rather it's chatty, familiar, friendly.
Which comes in fantastically stark contrast to Nelly's companion on the journey, a small bird called Sebastian, voiced by Tom Baker. Yes, the Tom Baker. He himself is a little more subdued than he's certainly capable of, but is still the goggle-eyed Doctor sounding dangerously close to barking mad. His main role, as well as opening and closing narrator, is to remind Nelly of all the various tasks she has on the go at any point. It's a superb device, making the game far more amenable to those not used to juggling five or six different chains of fetch-quests, inventory puzzles, obscure discoveries and characters that need to be interrogated. At any point Sebastian will list off open-ended goals, reminding you what's still up in the air. You can absolutely choose not to ask him, of course.
As Nelly sneaks, steals and blags her way through the game's tasks, you meet just the sort of characters you think you ought in a piratic adventure, including moustache-twirlingly evil harbourmasters, drunken toffs, and, er, a rather awkward scene of pretty dated-feeling Chinese stereotypes. Albeit with Liverpudlian accents, but still, I think we're a bit past shorty chaps with thin droopy moustaches running restaurants. At least they didn't say "Ah-so," I suppose. Anyway, that aside, the game contains a very silly and entertaining mix of broad characters.
The game is very aware of its debt to Monkey Island, and the closing credits song (which is splendid) makes some nice nods to how close it comes in places, not least with a central three part quest to prove Nell's worth as a buccaneer. But it's safe to say MI had nowhere near this many puns, and nor indeed was it quite so very British. There are American characters too, but this is a predominantly British game, with a British tone. I always find that difficult at first, I think - getting over the weird hurdle of cartoon people sounding too familiar - but it settled in quickly for me, and I've come away with fond memories of many of them.
And, as I said, it's very funny. Gently very funny. Occasionally smartly funny. Nelly's reaction on seeing a picture of a particularly handsome poet is to say, “Wow, lock up his sisters.” That is a Good Joke. I chuckled frequently, and winced even more often at the deliberately horrible puns. Good wincing. All too rare in gaming.
The difficulty is, I imagine, where some will feel less of a connection. It's a very simple game for a frequent adventurer, and there are obvious signs of puzzles being diluted. Beckett-King told me previously of an opening puzzle that had been simplified, as it was initially far too difficult coming so early in the game. That makes sense, but it's hard to shake the feeling that a much later puzzle involving re-labelling beer barrels hadn't been similarly watered down.
Beyond that, things are fairly well flagged, and there's nothing that requires ridiculous inventory combinations that you wouldn't otherwise think to try. But as I mentioned, the pitching of the difficulty is my second favourite thing about the game. (I haven't really ranked my favourite things about the game - I'm not weird.) It feels so accessible, and honestly, it's a pleasure to play through a nicely written game without spending ages getting frustrated or wanting to look at a walkthrough. It would be dreadful if all point-and-clickers were too easy, but some are allowed to be, and this is definitely one of them.
The bigger problem for me was an odd sense of the overall story not quite hanging together. Having not played the first game for years, I was acutely aware that I wasn't remembering characters with which Nelly was overly familiar, which felt oddly alienating. And the forest of the larger arc of the plot, as silly as it's meant to be, felt a bit lost amongst the trees of the individual sections and puzzles. I kept forgetting what the aim of my adventures was until the "Meanwhile" cutscenes, and then they felt incongruous to everything I was doing. The bird army you're supposed to be saving is barely mentioned to Nelly herself, rarely seems to be her motivation, and is certainly anticlimactic. It's all much too underplayed. I didn't much mind, because I was enjoying what I was actually doing plenty enough, but it's certainly the game's weakness.
The overall result is a delightful, charming, and relaxing affair. It's a Sunday afternoon television of a game, and goodness me, does that have a place. It's funny, daft, and the look is incessantly fantastic. Backgrounds are beautifully drawn, characters are well animated, and the voice cast are all modestly strong. And it's got Tom Baker in it. I had a thoroughly lovely time.
Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is out on Steam now.