Jolly Rover: review

You guys like Monkey Island, right? Who doesn’t love Monkey Island! It’s got pirates and jokes and insult swordfighting. It’s got lush graphics (since it was re-released), and the second one even has an irritating control scheme!

Our mutual love for Monkey Island firmly established, here’s a proposal for you: how would you feel about a game quite like Monkey Island except a bit less clever, a bit less funny, a bit more saccharine, and not featuring any of that cool insult swordfighting?

There you go, that’s your review. Job done. Jolly Rover: it’s Monkey Island, but not quite as good.

Jolly Rover parrot

Woof!

Ha, you knew I wasn’t going to leave it at that. Not a chance.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Jolly Rover as a Monkey Island wannabe, and that’s because to some degree it is. There’s no way you can make a traditional point and click adventure about pirates and make the main character a somewhat ineffectual damp squib with a sideline in mildly biting wit and not stare up at the monolith casting its shadow over you.

Jolly Rover doesn’t try to hide its influences; as is good and proper it doffs its hat and makes a few winks and nods in the direction of Ron Gilbert’s classic title. Fortunately, Jolly Rover doesn’t go too far and obnoxiously elbow you in the ribs with clanging references, desperately attempting to puff itself up with inherited nostalgia for a twenty-year old game.

And that, hopefully, is the last I will say about Monkey Island. I’m sorry, Jolly Rover. That’s seven paragraphs in which I’m talking about you in the context of another game. It’s terribly unfair, especially to an indie game produced thanks to arts funding (well done Australia, I didn’t know you had it in you). But if you didn’t see this coming, what were you thinking?

Jolly Rover - sea view

Trying to think of a way to shoehorn in a joke about sharks and Pedigree Chum. Failing.

Jolly Rover’s key aesthetic motif is that every salty sea dog is, in fact, a dog. Yep, this game is anthropomorphized up to high heaven, and to the game’s credit the characters are a fairly iconic and memorable bunch. Gaius James Rover aka. Jolly Rover, the unwilling pirate protagonist, is a dachshund dressed up in pantaloons and a stolen hat. Watching this long-bodied and short-limbed character waddle about the screen was a gift that kept on giving for the duration of his adventure. More fundamentally absurd videogame characters, please!

The supporting cast are solid as well, from thick-jowled bulldog pirate captain Howell through to the tiny pug landlord of the Groggy Island tavern and the sourfaced pitbull redcoat guard. Whilst it’s not too challenging for a competent artist to take advantage of the perceived personalities of different canine breeds, it is worthy of credit that the cast is so broadly likable and consistent.

The voice talent also represents a significant contribution towards this, and casting my mind back over a playthrough of about six or seven hours I struggle to think of a character whose lines grated or underwhelmed.

There is, however, a mild blokiness to the writing that occasionally irritates. It’s through your character’s mouth for the most part so it’s arguable that it’s just an aspect of character, but I don’t want to hear a thoroughly likable character like Gaius share his voyeuristic fantasies about watching sexy lady pirates bathe naked under a waterfall. Keep it in your pants, Baltar.

It’s no surprise but the “bitch” gag does come up. It is, however, sensitively and affectionately handled. Fancy that! Jolly Rover is not a misogynistic game by any stretch of the imagination. It is just a game where a few touches of unwanted bloke-bloke-blokiness have crept through into the writing of an otherwise charming and innocent adventure.

Jolly Rover cannibals

This isn't one of those moments. This bit is really funny.

Speaking of charm and innocence, can we have more games which are as easy and fun to play as Jolly Rover? I don’t mean “easy” as in “you’ll sleepwalk through the puzzles” – more on those in a moment. I mean in the sense that the game has a strong sense of direction and plenty of optional aids to the player. Not sure what you’re supposed to do next? Have a word with the parrot in your inventory. Not sure how to do something? Get a cryptic hint from the parrot (and these cryptic hints really are very balanced). Still stumped? Feed polly a cracker and he’ll spell it out, you thicksicle.

The game’s full of collectables like crackers; you can also find pieces of eight and fragments of pirate flag throughout the game. The pieces of eight allow you to skip a couple of puzzles if you can’t get past them. Collecting crackers, pieces and flags also unlocks extras like music tracks and concept art. Believe it or not I actually checked all of these out. I think the last time I actually did that was… hell, was it those stupid cigarette packs in Chronicles of Riddick? The batshit conspiracy nonsense of Area 51? I had more time on my hands in those halcyon days.

Forget all that: I need to say something about the puzzles, one of the key ingredients of the point ‘n click formula. Jolly Rover’s are… pretty good. Some of them are dead simple whilst others are a bit bewildering at first, but don’t worry – your parrot will set you on the right track. It’s thoroughly modern in that it presents a challenge but doesn’t hinder progression or send the impatient scurrying to GameFAQs.

Quite soon into the game you get access to voodoo powers, which basically amounts to poses and a range of vowel syllables. Different combinations have different effects; it’s a bit like Loom but not randomly determined and once you’ve nailed a spell there’s a quickkey for it. These spells are woven into various puzzles after they’re introduced and on occasion you’ll kick yourself for trying to solve a puzzle with the tried and tested “combine x with all of y” approach when all you actually needed to do was dance around a bit and look like a knob.

So there you go, that’s your review. Jolly Rover: it’s a well-made and charming adventure game that consistently delivers and is a lot of fun. It’s worth a bit of pirate booty, eh?