The Russians had Sputnik and Mir, the Americans Apollo and the Space Shuttle; what would a British space programme have been like? Financed by the Crown, staffed by gruff military men with stiff upper lips, and built from spare parts, string and unquenchable resolve, possibly. But thanks to Her Majesty's SPIFFING, we no longer have to imagine. A sci-fi adventure written with a seeming affection for PG Wodehouse and one-liners, this is a short but sweet experience. Pottering along with quirky puzzles that won’t strain the old noggin, it tries to make up in gags what it's lacking in plot, leaving Anglophiles and fans of dry humour at least smiling for as long as it lasts.
The story is nothing if not topical. Dismayed by her nation's post-Brexit fall from grace and fed up with Parliament's bumbling, the Queen decides it's time to take matters back into her own hands. Enough of this democracy nonsense; what Britain needs is a strong monarch to lead her back to greatness. Of course, sallying forth and setting about turning a quarter of the globe pink again is going to be a long hard slog, not to mention a lot tougher than it was last time. Much easier, then, to head out into space, with its promise of strange new worlds, new civilisations and more opportunities to boldly go than any blooming empire could wish for.
To the stirring strains of “Land of Hope and Glory”, the Queen (with her ever-present Corgis in tow) strides purposefully into Hounslow Mission Control, staffed exclusively by her guardsmen in their bright red jackets and bearskin hats. Big Ben has been converted from mere clock tower into the most British of rocket boosters, and one press of the inevitable big red button is all it takes to launch the first of her loyal subjects into space on a mission to explore the universe and plant the flag on every barren rock they come across.
As you might have gathered by now, the main objective of Her Majesty's SPIFFING (that's the Special Planetary Investigative Force for Inhabiting New Galaxies to you) is to affectionately send up both Britain and sci-fi in general, and it comes packed to the gunwales with puns, pop culture gags, stereotypes and tropes. Some will be instantly recognisable, such as our obsession with tea and good manners, while others might be a little confusing to those who haven't grown up with the BBC in the background. If an exasperated shout of "I don't believe it!" or the vacuum of space turning out to be a hoover makes you giggle, though, you're good to go. That said, there are references in here to everything from Star Trek to 2001: A Space Odyssey, not to mention jibes at point-and-click conventions, so there's probably something for everyone.
You play Captain Frank Lee English, a quintessential military man with a bristling moustache, booming voice, impeccable manners and bone-deep belief in his own superiority. The modern world may have left him behind, but that doesn't stop his embarrassing attempts to get down with his homies, brah. Meanwhile, his long-suffering sidekick, Sub-lieutenant Aled Jones, puts up with his blustering but amiable incompetence with weary resignation and wry humour. Together, they form the crew of the HMSS Imperialise, bluntly spearheading the colonisation effort. Just keeping the old clunker running is a challenge in itself, but it's hopefully not too much of a spoiler to say that, yes, they do eventually find somewhere to set down and no, it doesn't exactly go smoothly.
The Imperialise really does look lovely. Presented in full 3D, it anchors its cartoonish look in an essentially realistic design. Realistic, in this case, meaning a mix of metal-plated corridors, austere military switchgear and framed portraits of nineteenth-century royalty on the walls. Not to mention a floral sofa in the sitting room, a kitchen reminiscent of a student flat, and a science lab that would have been right at home on Darwin's Beagle research ship. Everything's nicely drawn and smoothly animated, and good use is made of lighting effects, smoke and shadows. The various ship robots also deserve an honourable mention, even though they only get cameo roles. There's GERTEA, dedicated to the fine art of teamaking and fitted with an arm that's apparently for holding a teaspoon, stirring the tea and scratching itself. Then there's a toaster that sprouts legs and starts jabbering in angry Japanese when you try to use it, and a vacuum cleaner – sorry, hoover – like a hungry snake. It's all very Wallace and Gromit.
All this makes for a suitably quirky and interesting environment; the only pity is that it's so small: a total of seven rooms, plus corridors. Likewise, when you escape planetside you're presented with a dramatic and very Martian-looking vista dotted with rocks, an immaculate shrubbery and the bits that fell off your rover. After you've taken in the view, though, there's only a small area of rocky red desert to explore. This is a bit of a recurring theme: everything's small but perfectly formed, and leaves you wanting more.
The music is a bit of a non-event. What’s present is fine, mixing military marches and ambient sci-fi chords, but there isn't a lot of variety and it only ever provides a gentle background to the action. Most of the time, the ship's bleeps and hums or the planet's howling wind are more prominent. The sound effects, thankfully, pick up the slack and provide an effective atmosphere. You do run across a playable record at one point and an iPod later on, but aside from the intro these were pretty much the only times I was actively aware of the soundtrack.Continued on the next page...