"I challenge anyone to play this without cracking a grin."
Pirates aren't strangers to the point-and-click genre. Guybrush Threepwood of The Secret of Monkey Island fame might be the ruler of these seas, but British comedian Alasdair Beckett-King has introduced a challenger to face off against this swashbuckler: Nelly Cootalot. A sequel to his successful free game, Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy!, The Fowl Fleet intends to prove that Nelly is the next big name in seafaring point-and-clicks. If this game is anything to go by, Nelly may well be on course for this.
Following on from her last adventure saving birds, The Fowl Fleet follows our titular heroine in search of the Treasure of Seventh Sea. During her journey, she discovers Baron Widebeard is up to his old tricks again, stealing another flock of birds to uncover the treasure for himself, and it's up to Nelly to thwart his plans. The narrative is very short — less than 5 hours — simplistic, and isn't very fleshed out along the way. You're fed dribs and drabs of backstory on some of the characters, but it's largely just a treasure hunt.
Fortunately, Nelly bumps into a whole host of colourful characters who make up the heart and soul of the game. She's joined by her feathered friend Sebastian and meets some new friends and foes along the way, such as the evil harbour master Van Zandt and the hilarious, crazy bird keeper Rackham. Each character is fantastic and each has their own unique quirks which are brought to life by the excellent voice acting on hand. Doctor Who's Tom Baker voices a bird, for goodness sake! These voices draw out the charm in each character and create a unique feel to the game, which skyrockets the experience beyond its predictable plot.
The world you're sailing around in is a pleasant one: Every area is sketched in a way that resembles children's picture books, which adds to the game's charm and cutesy feel. The presentation suits the style of the game down to a tee and, along with the swashbuckling music, helps bring Beckett-King's vision to life. You'll want to spend lots of time looking around the islands Nelly travels to just to absorb the atmosphere they present. Even the 3D character models look right at home, each one vibrant and suited to their environment. You can't help but smile at El Mono, the Mexican stuffed monkey shaman. The designs appear a little safe, but each one is a perfect reflection of that character's role and their traits, and capture the mood of the game perfectly.
The game's best asset is its comedy. The Fowl Fleet's distinctive humour revels in daft goings-on and puns and you'll be in fits of laughter. This is sewn into every fibre of the adventure, from the puzzles to the character names and locations. One of the first early giggles comes in the form of a quest where you have to help get a man some chest hair for a modelling shoot — the method required leads to a hilarious result. Nelly herself is a hoot, with her nature leading her to take most statements at face value. She'll often pull out gags in awkward situations but every time you'll laugh out loud. The game's wit is universal — I challenge anyone to play this without cracking a grin. It basks in its quirky humour, and it does so deservedly.
The gameplay is what you would expect of the genre. You click to direct Nelly where to go or to indicate what she should interact with or who to talk to. There's a nifty trick whereby clicking on the entrance to the next area, it skips to the next screen rather than waiting for Nelly to walk over. You can also see what you can interact with by hitting the spacebar, which is great to find your next potential item; both nifty little additions that help out with the slower parts of The Fowl Fleet. My only gripe regards the position of the items menu; I often needed to click in the bottom right corner to get to the next area, but the pull-out menu was situated there and more often than not I would select it by accident. The tab was slightly too big and made getting around a little fiddly, but only caused a few problems in an otherwise seamless sail.
There's a wide variety of puzzles on the course of your adventure which will have you scratching your head. Many of these are perfectly doable, especially if you enjoy paying attention to the game's language and its fondness for wordplay. However, a few puzzles were extremely vague and I found myself clutching at a walkthrough during the middle section of the game. They're not ridiculously hard, they just require you to be very inventive in some cases. Fortunately, the former is more prevalent, and nearly every time you're rewarded with a funny and satisfying solution which soothed any difficulties I had with the puzzles.
Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet has many of the makings of a successful series — quirky characters, excellent humour, solid gameplay and a good art style — but it's not quite buried treasure yet. With a wider story scope and a bit more polish in terms of puzzles and layout, we could be seeing the next the next best point-and-click series. It bleeds charm and character, something which many games are sorely lacking in nowadays, and The Fowl Fleet deserves recognition for that alone. I hope Nelly Cootalot dons her pirate hat again and returns to the seas soon.