I’ve had the great fortune to spend the past handful of weeks playing a review copy of Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet, because the publishers with the auspicious name Application Systems thought I had journalistic integrity (joke’s on them), so I could tell you — on this, the day of her public unveiling (that’s a creepy sentence) — if it’s any good or not.
Can I go home now?
Oh, all right. I’ll try to be a little more constructive.
Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is a sequel to a freeware AGS game called Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy which I ran across in my younger days looking for free adventure games to play. I liked the style and humor quite a bit but never bothered to finish it. I think I got stuck or something. That was back in 2007 when I was still at university.
Now, nine years and a successful Kickstarter later, Nelly is back. She’s still obsessed about the welfare of birds and quite a bit less interested in the concept of personal property. The 2016 Nelly is hi-res, fully voiced, and made in Unity, as opposed to the freeware first installment which was slightly less hi-res (640×480), unvoiced, and made in AGS.
Nelly is a pirate — the swashbuckling kind — modelled after Alasdair Beckett-King’s girlfriend (and, as far as I can tell, voiced by her as well). She’s a sharp-tongued red-headed smartass who somehow manages to be endearing as well. Sounds familiar?
Right, I think that’s the inevitable Monkey Island comparison out of the way. I guarantee you, every single other review of this game is going to mention the Monkey Island similarities — hell, even the folk song playing over the end credits in the game does! — so now I have, and now we don’t have to mention it again.
Really, a more pressing question would be: Why do a big-budget sequel to a freeware game released nine years ago? Doesn’t this leave people in the dust when the game starts reintroducing characters Nelly has already met in the first game?
And, yes, this does happen. Nelly will walk up to some characters and enthusiastically go, “Oh, my dearest friend! Good to see you again!” while you, the university kid who gave up way too early on the first Nelly game, is sitting there going, “Who in the flying fuck is this guy?” Luckily, the game doesn’t require you to have knowledge of characters or settings from the previous game. Nelly is quick to give a recap (“I haven’t seen you since […]”) if it’s necessary for the story, which more than often it isn’t.
One thing you’ll notice quickly about The Fowl Fleet is that there are a lot of supporting characters. Nearly every screen is crawling with NPC’s for you to talk to. And they all have very quirky and funny, if somewhat one-dimensional, dialogue. Intricate character study is not what Nelly Cootalot is about. It’s about setting up an immediately recognizable caricature — the drunken pirate, the pious priest, the other drunken pirate, the little boy who’s got too big a responsibility for him to bear, the antagonist who couldn’t be more telegraphed if he wore a sign around his neck that says “I kill kittens”, and some more drunk pirates — and letting the humor flow from the few traits these characters are given.
More often than not, characters barely have any traits at all and serve merely as simple mechanics to solve puzzles. You need to convince the port authority that you’re a bonafide buccaneer by having yourself immortalized in song? Well, lucky you, there’s a folk singer standing around on the wharf! Need a brass gong to build a bird detector? Again, how lucky that there’s a Chinese restaurant with an easily malleable chef running things. And so on.
Puzzles in Nelly Cootalot are almost exclusively of the fetch quest variety. So-and-so wants this-and-that — and they’re often quite explicit in this; some even provide laundry lists of what they want from you — and they’re quite content to sit around until you either go get it for them or until the world ends. This is par-for-the-course adventure gaming of the old-school sort. Get object [x] for character [y] so they’ll give you object [z] for character [wtf], rinse, repeat.
Your inventory will fill up quickly, but the game is quite good at not letting it get too overwhelming. On two occasions, though, you can walk up to a character and “order everything on the menu,” suddenly bloating your inventory to double its size, and only one of those objects you’ve just accumulated is actually useful. Thankfully, Nelly throws the useless objects away when you move onto the next “part” of the game.
There are two — count ’em, two — logic puzzles in the game. One of which relies on a bit of observational logic which is well designed and gives a great sense of satisfaction when you solve it. The other I was about to solve with trial and error, and almost did, until I realized the game had actually given me an inventory object acting as a hint for it.
Only one puzzle gave me a bit of trouble, and that was due to it being a fucking pixel-hunt exercise where the hints given were a bit misleading. I won’t spoil it, but it involves a “FlickerReel” (basically a movie reel) where the only hint you’re given is that you should “go find out more about it” — except that’s not what you do; you nick something off a person’s shelf instead to proceed. Pixel-hunting normally isn’t a problem in this game, because there’s a handy “hotspot indicator” available at all times — but this particular hotspot was in a room already crowded with other hotspots and seemed part of an unimportant bit of decoration.
There’s also a section towards the end of the game where you find yourself in a mini-game amusement park. The game screeches to a halt and demands that you complete each mini game before it’ll proceed, effectively making this the “Day 5 of Tesla Effect” of The Fowl Fleet. Mercifully, the mini games aren’t hard and only took me a couple of tries. But it’s a strange choice to suddenly require the player to engage in an arcadey shoot-out when you’ve just been nicking stuff and trading insults up until this point.
These minor quibbles, however, are more than made up for by three things: First, the game’s abundance of well-written humor. I got more than a few healthy chuckles out of the game’s one-liners, which are usually innocent but some of which skirt just on the cusp of being naughty. (It takes skill to write a menstruation joke that’s both subtle and funny for all genders!)
It’s ably acted all around by a cast of good actors — one of which used to be Doctor Who. But the standout here is actually Nelly herself, whose actress has just the right amount of sass and comedic timing to make the character even more endearing than the writing itself could convey.
Secondly, the colorful cartoony graphics and animation. Granted, this is not revolutionary stuff and it’s not the same “paper cutout” style as the original AGS game, trading that for a more Broken Sword-meets-mid-90’s-LucasArts style. But it’s crisp and clear, and still has its own distinctive art style, especially in the character design department.
Thirdly, the very, very good music. Seriously. This is the sort of hum-along music adventure veterans were used to in the mid-90’s. Every tune has a good and recognizable melody that gets stuck in your head. It’s not intrusive or overpowering, and it’s not the mindless, droning orchestra bullshit you get with most AAA-games. Kudos!
And I’ll throw in a fourth one for good measure: The puzzles are fair and on the fairly easy side, making this a very chill and relaxing game rather than an agonizing headache-y game. There’s no giant leaps of logic here — and none veer off beyond earth’s atmosphere and into lunar orbit, if you know what I mean — and when some of the fetch quests get peculiar, which they sometimes do, Nelly is quick to remind the player what it is this character wants from you. And if you somehow find yourself completely stuck, Nelly’s friend Sebastian acts as a “current objectives” system (as well as a mobile inventory item for solving certain puzzles, Sam & Max-style).
I had a great time with Nelly on her journey. I gave less of a shit about the plot (something about an evil Baron hypnotizing birds to do his evil bidding and a hidden treasure — yup, don’t care), and just immersed myself in the colorful world and the delightful writing. There’s a touching reveal at the end which might wrap things up nicely for people who have been Nelly-fans since the first game, but I was entirely satisfied just with the genuine laughs I’d been given.
Some games try too hard to be funny. Nelly, on the other hand, is almost effortlessly funny, and that’s actually reason enough to play her game.
In fact, Nelly herself utterly carries the game more than any of the other characters and settings with her spicy wit and Northern English charm, much like Guybrush did– OH GOD DAMN IT, I GOT THIS FAR WITHOUT BRINGING UP MONKEY ISLAND! DAMN IT TO HELL!
Ah, screw it. Final recommendation? Go play Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet. I highly recommend it. It looks good, the puzzles are good, and the characters are great. There are no hidden truths to the meaning of existence or any deep, intricate mystery to uncover — there’s just a good time, and if that’s what you’re after, fuckin’ go have one.