Sometimes it can be tricky to say just who a game might appeal to, especially when it comes to comedy. Just whose funny bones will the jokes tickle, and who will be left stone-faced? Lord Winklebottom Investigates is not one of those games. I mean, there’s a crime-solving giraffe with a monocle (whose impeccable manners belie an unfortunate taste for illicit foliage), murder at a remote manor house, and more equally eccentric suspects and red herrings than you can brandish a cane at. Either you’re already grinning and hoping it can live up to its premise, or you’re not. If you are, though, the good news is that – a few minor hiccups aside – the experience is pretty much exactly as endearingly surreal as it sounds. For their debut outing, Cave Monsters have mined a seam of quirky Englishness to produce a gloriously bonkers murder mystery, packed with well-bred animal ladies and gents with upper lips so stiff you could iron your shirt cuffs on them, all served up with lashings of dry humour. Yet don’t be fooled: beneath that bright and breezy surface lie some surprisingly logical and satisfying puzzles and even a thought-provoking moment or two.
Lord Winklebottom and his gloomy hippopotamus associate, Dr Frumple, are gentlemen detectives, famous for unravelling cases that have stumped the pigeons of Special Branch. A giraffe he may be, but dapper dresser Winklebottom would never be seen without his grey suit, crimson cravat, and top hat. Frumple, who favours a bowler over a simple burgundy suit, would really appreciate a well-made cup of tea and just a trifle of the respect that floods Winklebottom’s way. (Sadly, he is eternally disappointed on both counts.) In a world of actual salty sea dogs and grumpy old goats, they don’t stand out as much as you might expect, even if Winklebottom is required to buck the fashion for two-legged perambulation to keep his noggin from becoming too well-acquainted with the ceiling.
Mysteriously summoned by noted amateur explorer (and professional axolotl) Admiral Gilfrey to his island estate, our dashing protagonists arrive to find housekeeper Beryl bleating hysterically and poor Gilfrey floating dead in the drawing room. (Being an inventive freshwater creature, he had built a network of water pipes throughout the house to get about in comfort.) With a full house of similarly invited (and confused) guests hiding dark secrets to interrogate and a storm brewing outside, for Winklebottom and Frumple the game is very definitely ahoof.
The world of Winklebottom is decidedly … unique. Imagine, for a moment, that Agatha Christie decided to plot out a Sherlock Holmes story while on an acid trip, only to hand the actual writing duties off to a particularly whimsical P.G. Wodehouse. You’ve got the usual 1920s country house clientele, featuring everyone from Dame Celia Wellington-Boot, a retired pelican of the stage; to suave black cat baronet Sir Winston and llama medium Madame Lavinia; not to mention a sea lion vicar and a toad lawyer who’s not all he seems. Naturally, they all have secrets, ranging from dark to shameful and even (in Dame Celia’s case) quite shiny. Everyone is incredibly polite and well-spoken, and (of course) propriety and standards are paramount. For example, one just doesn’t duck under the velvet rope leading to the hidden submarine’s engine room, even to solve a murder, and nor does one (by which I mean Frumple) relinquish one’s cup of tea, even during a storm-tossed sea crossing in a small boat. The investigation itself is more Jeeves and Wooster than Holmes, with an emphasis on hare-brained schemes rather than incredible deductions, but fortunately our heroes manage to muddle through somehow.
The hand-drawn 2D graphics are detailed, charming and colourful, their straightforward realism only serving to accent the absurdity of the scenes they present. Aside from brief spells in Winklebottom’s rooms and then a dockside tavern, the action focuses on Gilfrey’s island hideaway, mainly his house and a few nearby landmarks. It’s a grand old place, with dark wood panelling, suits of armour, and a hearty fire in the grate, contrasting nicely with a gloomy mausoleum and a hidden pirate cave down by the docks. There’s an unexpected attention to detail on display, too, from Gilfrey’s tube network to his diving suit (for touring the grounds) and even the stack of differently sized toilet seats in the bathroom (for the guests’ varied posteriors). By taking an absurd premise and running with it, the result is a world that’s somehow nonsensically sensible, even if I still haven’t quite fathomed how Frumple manages to grip his teacup without the benefit of opposable thumbs.
Where the soundtrack’s orchestral melodies are content to form a pleasing and refined aural backdrop, only occasionally taking centre stage at dramatic moments, the voice acting stands out as uniformly excellent. The abundance of dry, mannered humour could easily come over as flat and wordy without good comic timing, but fortunately the oh-so-British voice cast have that covered, and clearly the actors had a great time delivering a variety of accents, ranging from Dame Celia’s ringing cut-glass tones to Pumphrey the slug gardener’s rich Welsh lilt. They play it mostly straight, too, which just makes it funnier to hear, for example, Frumple’s academic discussions of how to give a reflex test to an octopus without getting covered in ink, or how to wallow without getting your suit muddy.
The interface is, thankfully, far more conventional than the story, with an auto-hiding inventory bar at the bottom of the screen and icons for look, use and talk appearing when you click on a hotspot. (Controllers are also supported, enabling you to drive the cursor around with the thumbstick instead.) In most scenes, Winklebottom and Frumple stay discreetly offscreen until you act, at which point the dashing duo slide in and the view zooms in a little. Some areas are also wider than the screen, scrolling as needed as the cursor approaches the edge. If this sounds like a distracting amount of motion, there’s a setting to reduce (though not eliminate) it.
Winklebottom also maintains a journal, noting down the people he meets and everything he’s found out (or deduced) about them. Given all the characters you meet and the assortment of evidence you uncover, this can be very useful, either when returning to the game after time away or just to keep track of the most likely suspects. You can also ask Frumple for hints by clicking on an icon of his teacup, but there’s only one fairly vague hint for each puzzle, enough to help you focus on what to tackle next but not always to get you unstuck.
Fortunately, although the puzzles land you in some pretty bizarre situations, you get there via usually impeccable logic, as long as you embrace the world and its rules. For example, Winklebottom is tall enough to reach high windows, but struggles with anything too near the ground, while some creatures are really averse to salt and others attracted to anything sparkly. Along the way, you’ll have to rescue a crystal ball from a kleptomaniac pelican with the help of a famous play, build a giraffe-shaped diving helmet from common household items so you can chat with a top-hatted octopus and, when all else fails, stage a seance.
The few times I got stuck, it was down to either missing an item (there being no hotspot highlighter) or something I’d previously dismissed as background clutter suddenly becoming important. That said, although I had a few lovely aha! moments as diverse puzzle pieces fitted into place, the bright and breezy pace doesn’t leave room for many long puzzle chains to chew on, and a few solutions are practically handed to you on a silver platter. It’s a pity that the experience is over so soon, after three main acts spanning 4-5 hours of gameplay. I’d have appreciated some more twists and turns, teasing out the characters’ secrets rather than having them revealed in just one or two steps. As it is, the murder mystery aspect of the plot ultimately feels a little bare-bones, simplified to make space for the comic moments.
What begins as a straightforward mystery also takes a sharp left turn towards the end, when the murderer’s true motivation is revealed. Instead of avarice, petty jealousy, or shame, the final act throws a new light on Winklebottom’s whole world, suggesting it to be more than just a quirky backdrop. Yes, it’s a B-movie twist hammed up for comic effect, but it still manages to wrap the tale up in a satisfying conclusion and even left me with a little something to think about as I was chuckling at the post-credits scenes.
Likewise, the characters could have been stock mystery tropes, but generally plead their cases with conviction. For example, take renegade baronet Sir Winston, who has been cut off from his inheritance for having the temerity to (gasp!) work for a living and recently became engaged to Gilfrey’s daughter, Constance. Not merely a cad looking to purloin her wealth, he comes across as a genuinely principled feline chap concerned for his wife-to-be. By the end, I realised I was ruling suspects in and out as much by how they came across as the actual evidence; not what I’d have expected of such a seemingly light romp!
Lord Winklebottom Investigates deftly blends dry, frightfully British humour and quirky characters with just enough brain strain to keep things interesting. While not overly long or complex, the painterly visuals, lush orchestral soundtrack and spot-on voice acting make it a thoroughly lovely experience while it lasts. It also manages to pull off a delicate balancing act, sprinkling an absurd parody of a golden age detective story with just enough heart and realism to ground what could otherwise have been a ridiculous confection and turn it into something more memorable. If you fancy some cosy crime, aristocratic high jinks, or just some virtual tea and crumpets, it’s time to don your deerstalker and head to the consulting rooms of Winklebottom and Frumple.
Lord Winklebottom Investigates is an unapologetically eccentric love letter to cosy crime, Englishness, and tea. The mystery may be more comic than complex, but its world is a delightful spot to visit for a little while.
- Varied cast of characters, well-voiced with droll humour
- Beautiful, hand-drawn world and cinematic orchestral soundtrack
- Comic but moon-logic-free puzzles
- Satisfying final twist
- Mystery and puzzles aren’t especially intricate
- Hint system could be more helpful
Peter played Lord Winklebottom Investigates on PC using a review copy provided by the game’s publisher.