Even a small-scale, no*-talent hack writer like myself can get lucky and strike valuable connections in the cut-throat world of indie game reviewing. For instance, have you heard of German production and development house Application Systems Heidelberg? You might, if you play German games yourself; I think they do a lot of AAA German distribution and localization. But they’re also into game development proper: if you’ve heard of them from me, it’s probably on account of one of their previous big titles, the XCOM-style Ghostbusters simulator Ghostcontrol Inc. Application Systems Heidelberg certainly appreciated me writing about their game at the time — and it wasn’t even a very positive review, fancy that — and so they’ve kept me up-to-date on some of their later work through the medium of Occasional Email.
Case in point: Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet, a point-and-click adventure game recently developed by ASH and by one ‘award-winning British comedian and filmmaker Alasdair Beckett-King‘. Email hype started back in the summer of 2014, and after only a slightly-longer-than-expected development path, I received a review key not two weeks ago. One with a gentle request that I keep to a short embargo, and I was sort of going mad with anime farming at the time. But all the same, here we eventually are! And let’s be honest: only one week after official launch is a really on-time review, for my standards.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium-high-ish. Mechanical, high, but that probably doesn’t matter as much.)
(Game source: Developer review key.)
Hey, look at this title screen! It’s very purple, and a simple xylophone ditty plays over the static background. There’s… not a whole lot else I can say about it!
I already sort of know that Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is a point-and-click adventure game. Consequently, I’m not surprised to find that the settings menu is as sparse as it is fittingly purple. Five language settings, which is nice, three levels of general display power, and volume numbers-I’d-rather-have-had-as-sliders for music and sound. And then there’s the four ancillary options: ‘slower text’, which I understand but will never ever click, ‘only one button’, which in the context of a puzzle adventure game sounds like a very easy difficulty mode, ‘anti-seasickness’, which… er, yes please? I’ll take a double helping of no seasickness. And finally there’s a special ‘dyslexic font’, which is just nice.
And, er… that’s kind of it? The Extras menu just hides the credits, a few logos, and a ‘Rogue’s Gallery’, which I think is a list of Kickstarter backer names and fancy hand-drawn portraits. Really fancy portraits, mind; I’m kind of regretting not backing the game at that level, now.
But with nothing else to do in this menu, every second I’m not hitting the New Game button is a second I’m wasting all of you readers’ time.
After clicking the button, the menu text disappears. But the wooden sign and the purple colours stay in place. Then, the camera pans rightward, and settles on a picture of a skinny red-haired pirate lady with a rather large head. How can I tell she’s a pirate?
A older-sounding British male voice starts narrating. I want to call it ‘David Attenborough-esque’, but I’d be very surprised if this silly off-the-radar pirate game actually got Sir David Attenborough to do its narration. But this particular voice has that same soothing quality, that makes me want to sit in place and listen to it forever. And that’s exactly what I do.
“Once in a distant time and place, a great pirate sailed the oceans.” The camera pans to a picture of… some birds? “Against the waves of villainy she alone defended all creatures tiny and adorable. Led by her spiritual mentor, William Bloodbeard…”
“…she fought the malevolent machinations of Baron Widebeard… who was a wrong’un by all accounts.”
Am I supposed to… know all this?
“And now, we join the fearsome Nelly Cootalot in the midst of a turbulent sea battle.” The camera actually fades out this time, from the broken frame of Baron Widebeard’s face to a ship very much at sea. The ship’s name is briefly shown: ‘M.S. Undeliverable’. What the hell does M.S. mean? Murder ship?
The camera fades out once more, to black this time. A woman’s voice cuts through the darkness.
And then the camera fades back in, and I find myself…
…on some sort of… post-delivering boat.
The first interesting thing I notice is the art style. It’s… I’ve overused this word in the introduction already, but it’s really very fancy. I don’t know if it’s necessarily hand-drawn, but it definitely exudes being hand-drawn. The scribbly lines, the colours that go just that little bit outside of the defining frames. The only thing on this screen that looks ‘cleanly’ drawn is our main character, Nelly. She pops out immediately as a result.
The second interesting thing I notice, or ‘notice’, is that we’re on a mail ship right now. And I guess that Nelly Cootalot, Fearsome Pirate Captain, is working here as a cleaner and stamp-licker? Not entirely sure how confident this makes me about her abilities as a pirate.
“Better start cleaning,” Nelly sighs. She walks over to the right side of the screen. Then she stops in front of a mop, and it’s up to me to actually do the cleaning honours.
This is actually a pretty important observation: the mop is an object I can interact with. But somewhat in defiance of genre conventions, it doesn’t actually stand out from the background in any way. It doesn’t share Nelly’s more immediately visible art style, and its colours fit right in with the rest of the scheme as well. It in no way affords more interactivity than any of the other objects around. It just… is. Which means I might be in for a few fun hours of clicking on everything that looks like it might ever be important.
The third interesting thing I notice is the ghost.
“Captain Bloodbeard?” Nelly utters in disbelief. I don’t know why, because this clearly is Captain Bloodbeard. We saw his picture not two minutes ago! He looked a little bit more alive in that, but eh. The pirate life and all that.
I left-click on the ghost to talk to him, and it makes him all sassy. “NELLY COOTALOT! You have FAILED me.”
Long story short: Nelly apparently messed up during her ‘last quest’. Which quest? I don’t know which quest! I’m more and more starting to think that I’ve missed, like, a sequel, or some background information somewhere. Luckily, since Nelly herself forgot the quest too, Captain Ghostbeard summarizes the issue for me: Nelly once rescued a flock of ‘spoonbeaks’ from the clutches of Baron Widebeard. But she missed, somewhere, a ‘secret message’ written in ‘Pirate Code’! Which was supposed to lead her the ‘Treasure of the Seventh Sea’. Except now Baron Widebeard knows of that secret!
I have so many questions about this.
Good news: the Baron was recently spotted in Port Rubicund. Better news: Port Rubicund is the island visible right from the little ship window. I might be able to find some information on where he is now and what he’s planning there! But bad news: I’m currently stuck on a mail-ship. How am I going to get to Port Rubicund? No lifeboats nearby, and it’s too far to swim…
As it happens, the Real Dark Souls begins after the ghost of Captain Bloodbeard leaves. I’m no longer limited to clicking on pre-determined objects now! I can actually walk around the ship, point-and-click style. And I can do more than just left-click on objects and people to interact with them! I can also right-click on objects and people, to observe them!
So am I in for a frustrating point-and-click fest? Luckily, no. Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet has anticipated this problem, and built in a clever option: by pressing Spacebar, I can temporarily see which objects and areas of the screen are open for interaction.
Still, I’m not entirely sure about this. Better manually save my game!
My fate secured, I click around the map a little bit. Whenever I right-click in a marked area, Nelly offers some pithy quote or comedy. “Ugh, so many letters.” “The mop head looks like a dried-out squid.” “The ancient mariner’s fate is why I lead an albatross-friendly lifestyle.” In contrast, left-clicking doesn’t seem to do much of anything: I either get a detailed explanation of why Nelly couldn’t possibly interact with or pick up the thing I’m pointing at, or a more concise ‘I cannat do that’.
Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I can pick up some things! Like the label attached to a large box, marking it as going to the Dullwich Box Museum. And another label, addressed to Port Rubicund. And some parcel tape. And a knife!
By mousing over the bottom side of the screen, Nelly’s inventory pops up. Here, I can look at items, rub them against each other in adventure game fashion, and also grab a hold of them to use them in the larger world. The system is a little fiddly: more than once, Nelly refuses to let go of an object after I grab hold of the wrong one, and I have to resort to a few seconds of left- and right-clicking everywhere and hitting escape over and over. But eventually, I learn that the trick is that the inventory is a little particular: it likes it most of all if you open it by mousing over the open-close tab on the its left side.
Eventually, after plundering all non-bolted objects in the room, a plan begins to form. The giant crate was tag-addressed to Dullwich Museum… so if I take the tag for Port Rubicund, and use some tape to stick that on there… and then use the letter opener to open the crate, and seal myself inside…
After successfully sealing herself in, Nelly resolves to wait for the crate’s transit in a state of constant readiness. Which means that, yes, she falls asleep almost immediately. It serves as a neat excuse for the camera to cut to black, and…
Suddenly I’m looking in on the ship of Baron Widebeard, Nemesis Extraordinaire. And his wife. And his… voodoo stuffed monkey?
It’s only a short cutscene: Baron Widebeard daydreams about treasure, talks down to his wife, and then tells his voodoo monkey to ‘begin the incantation’.
And then we’re right back to Nelly!
Alright, this looks like a good place to take a break. Nelly is currently hanging out on Port Rubicund, getting chewed out by the port’s commodore for misplacing her shipment of pen nibs. I have no idea where this story is intending to go from here, but I’m pretty sure I can tell there’s no real benefit to staying in the in-depth phase of this review for much longer. All I’m doing right now is giving you a spoiler-tastic puzzle blow-by-blow. Why don’t you join me on the next page, instead? I’ll hopefully have made some meaningful progress in Nelly Cootalot’s Baron-chasing adventures. Who knows, I might even have… completed them in full?