A few hours in
Well. That was definitely some sort of ride. I laughed, I cried, I shed a tear, and two-thirds of the preceding statements are probably false.
As I expected, Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet never really deviates from the point-and-click adventure format. A small handful of minigames notwithstanding. This is not criticism: it knows what kind of game it wants to be, and I have nothing but respect for games that are unashamedly themselves. It’s not an overlong game, clocking in at about four hours in as many play sessions, and it kept a decent pace of new puzzles and ideas that only near the end felt like it started running out of steam. So I’m willing to ascribe to developer cleverness that this game doesn’t run overlong.
So Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is a point-and-click adventure game pur sang. If you’re into that genre, fine, your choice: you probably won’t like this entry either, then. But if you are interested, we move onto the follow-up question: is Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet a good game?
Is Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet a good game? I think I want to say, yes, asterisk. I definitely had a fun enough time with it to see it through to the end, and that’s always a positive indicator. And Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet has a few fairly impressive parts: the art style is great, the writing is often sharp, the voice acting is very much on point, and the point-and-click gameplay is fairly straightforward and intuitive. That said, there are flaws as well. Persistent minor control issues detract from the gameplay, a great deal of particularly the second area focuses on backtracking, the same puzzle structure is used and re-used once or twice too many, and while the writing is pretty good, the storytelling is far from amazing.
I don’t really have to praise the art style again, do I? I’m kind of hoping this review’s screenshots speak for themselves. It’s good, the art is. It’s a good’un. Full marks, Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet. And not only does the game look pretty sharp, it also knows how to use its assets and its limited screen space to good effect. Interesting things are done with relative character size and camera arcs: in one screen, a small Nelly might be seen from up high, while in the next, the camera heralds your approach from the tail end of a small street.
The character writing in this game is pretty good too. It’s not great by any stretch, but it’s hit more often than miss. Characters have their own ‘voice’ and internal logic, letting you size them up pretty quickly: the absent-minded professor Rackham, the morally repugnant harbor master Van Zandt, Baron Widebeard and his nameless wife… and Nelly Cootalot herself, of course. And most dialogue tries to go for some form of witty observation or punchline, with varying degrees of success.
What really sells the character writing is the outstanding voice acting. Nelly herself has range enough to carry the whole adventure, even if that range does mostly go from ‘being amused at a funny thing’ to ‘being amused at a terrible thing’. And most, if not all, of the supporting characters put in a good effort, helping to bring the world alive. I hold a special place in my heart for the character Van Zandt, whose quiet sneering sells him as the Obvious Villain even better than his Obvious Villain Looks do. And the singer, the pirate captain Rehab, the aristocrat stereotypes…
Oh! And that soothing older British narrator voice, that happens to belong to Nelly’s talking bird friend Sebastian? The one where I joked that it sounded David Attenborough-esque, but that I didn’t think this small outfit would be able to land him for any role? I was right about that! So they decided to one-up me by getting Tom Baker instead.
“Wait,” I hear you think, “Nelly’s talking bird friend, Sebastian?” Readers: I was as surprised as you are.
While Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet‘s character writing is pretty on-point, its narrative writing consistently falls halfway between ‘eh’ and ‘what?’. At its best, the larger story is just sort of there: an easily-forgotten MacGuffin-esque plot driver, off in the distance: a vaguely-plausibly reason for you to solve the puzzles you’re busy solving. On the first island, you need to find where Baron Widebeard is going, and then find a ship in pursuit. On the second island, you need to hustle up an airship of your own, to stop the Baron’s evil plan. On the third island, you need to activate a geyser to find a treasure. And so on, and so forth.
And when the plot does kick itself into gear, things tend to only get more confusing. Whenever you put all your current designated puzzle pieces into position, the story tends to lurch forward, sickeningly and abruptly. And always in confusing cutscenes. So, for example…
After winning the trial on Groat Island, you’re finally in a position to chase down Baron Widebeard with your new airship. It’s the conclusion of everything you’ve spent the past two hours building towards!… Then you’re there. Just, like that. You rappel down on-board the Baron’s ship, and find him sleeping… and then his magic monkey henchman captures you.
You fight through a twisted mindscape to free yourself from the monkey’s magic influence. And then, when you finally manage to restore his memories and drive away his terrible evil…
…the game shifts again. After a short cutscene involving cuddling birds, suddenly you’re on a beach. The monkey has released you! And brought you to the right island. And stopped his magical bird attack. And he’s good now. Oh, and the Baron and his wife? They’re totally in ‘the brig’. You captured them while they were still sleeping, I guess.
None of this is ever shown.
The thing is that Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet‘s story isn’t necessarily a bad story. It’s a little straightforward, but all the important story beats are there. A forgotten love, a lost treasure, sibling rivalry, ancient prophecies… But it’s just told very ineptly. What this story needs is a few good hard editing passes. Someone professional needs to read this story and go ‘okay, see here, where you cut away from the main villains and assure the player they’re totally taken care of? I can see you’re doing that because you want their re-introduction later to be a surprise. But at the very least establish that this happens. Show them being thrown in the brig! And maybe foreshadow the twist, too, while you’re at it.’
Actually, a good hard editing bat whiff is one thing this story needs. The other thing this story needs is to stop assuming everyone’s familiar with the prequel. Yes, there is actually a prequel: it took a little Googling, but I found Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy hidden in the bowels of this game’s website. And listen: I understand the writer’s desire to build on your previous work. Particularly since the prequel is totally available and free, right! But you can’t actually assume everyone who comes into Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet has played Spoonbeaks Ahoy. It makes for a piecemeal, incomplete-feeling story.
I get that you can’t recap everything. That’s as frustrating for the player as it is for the creator. And I’m mostly okay with running into characters ‘Nelly already knows’, like Captain Rehab and Bjorn and Olaffsen. I don’t quite get the joke, in this case, but I can accept that I haven’t earned it. But when my main character can talk to birds, or when birds in this setting can talk, period, that’s something I’d have liked to see introduced.
Gameplay-wise, Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is a decent showing of the genre. If you’ve ever played games like this before, you know about what to expect. There’s a lot of picking up everything that isn’t nailed down — fitting, for a pirate — and a lot of rubbing objects on other objects to see what sticks. Although, I should be fair here: Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet manages to avoid a lot of the bullshit frustrations that tend to come with bad games of this kind. The fact that you can highlight all important areas with a button really cuts down on the guessing work. And the game is kind enough to cut itself into (unofficial) acts, setting your inventory to a default state after every certain checkpoint. So you don’t have to be afraid of missing the important item on screen 1 and then deadlocking yourself twenty hours in. So no guesswork, no deadlocks — and there’s relatively few moon logic, too.
Really, I don’t have a whole lot to comment on these puzzles. They’re a little too fond of a particular three-part structure, that’s my only ‘complaint’. To get off the first island, you need a shirt, a hat, and a headband. To help the Major win the race, you need to sabotage the Scotsman, the Frenchman, and the Cuban man. To get off the second island, you need a bird detector, you need a ship, and you need an exit permit. And to get that exit permit, you need a song in your honour, you need to be recorded in pirate history, and you need to beat the harbor master. And once you’re on the third island… It’s seriously almost the only structure this game seems to know. I understand it’s an intentional callback to Monkey Island‘s Pirate Trials, but there’s ‘doing cute references’, and then there’s ‘driving the reference into the goddamn ground’.
Oh, and the game overall leans a little hard on backtracking to extend play time. Particularly the second island is lousy with making you run up and down. It’s even worse when you’re genre-savvy: I can tell this particular named bottle in the gift shop is going to be meaningful, but I can’t actually get it yet until I trigger the right quest flag later down the line. I’m real glad it’s possible to skip-jump forward by double-clicking the travel icons; in the few areas where that doesn’t quite work, Nelly’s infuriatingly slow walking pace sometimes drove me into a very mellow rage.
But honestly, larger picture, I find I don’t particularly care. About the backtracking and about the derivative puzzle structure both. The actual puzzles are fine enough. Not too difficult to be frustrating, not too easy to be boring. Most of them rely on you figuring out the right object to give to the right person with only a minimum of careful nudging, so as to make you feel really good and smart. And then there’s a handful of more involved puzzles, which I just like overall.
Of course, this sort of thing is the ultimate ‘Your Mileage May Vary’ judgement. I didn’t think the puzzles were too hard, so I had a good time with it. But Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet at least understands that things might go wrong. So a third into the game, Nelly is joined by the aforementioned talking bird, Sebastian. He keeps track of your overall objectives, and can give you hints as to how to proceed. He’s even used for solving particular puzzles. I don’t know how good he is at actually helping you if you get stuck? But in the sense that he kept me largely on-track, I was glad he was around. It’s definitely better than not having a talking bird sidekick all the time.
All in all, the long and the short of it, when all’s said and done… I quite enjoyed Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet. It’s by no means a game that’ll stay with me for long, but it was good for what it was: a short, sweet, intermittently funny pirate-themed point-and-click adventure game. Its storytelling was pretty weak, and it could do with some more varied quest structure. But it made me laugh a bunch of times, and that’s sometimes all you can ask for. The song that was sang over the ending credits in particular made me break out in giggles more than once.
You can get Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet from a dozen different sources for about twenty Euro or equivalent. I’ll admit that that’s pricey for a game of this length and scope. Make the decision by looking deep in your heart of hearts: if you find there’s a pirate-shape pun hole just waiting to be filled, then maybe — just maybe — consider giving this one a try.
Jarenth knows what a pirate’s favourite letter is. Don’t tell him any more puns, for God’s sake, on Twitter or on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?