Review for Her Majesty’s SPIFFING
Adventure games by Billy Goat Entertainment
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.
By contrast, the voice cast get into their roles with gusto. There may only be three real speaking parts – Frank, Aled and an antagonist they run into later – but they're all lively and memorable. Frank's an authoritative old buffer, Aled's got a gentle Welsh lilt, and their adversary chews the scenery with glee. The animations really help here, with Frank winking at the camera or taking a moment to giggle before doing something naughty.
For a game that spends so much time sending up the conventions of the adventure genre, the interface is a little odd. Right-clicking on an object gives you a fairly standard verb coin, with options to look at, interact etc., and you access your inventory via a bag icon in the bottom left corner. However, using objects or combining them isn't a simple case of click-and-drag as you might expect. Instead you need to click on something in your bag, click the "equip" option that pops up, then click on the thing you want to use it with and select the appropriate option from the verb coin. Similarly, combining objects is a case of selecting "combine" for the first and clicking on the other object you want to combine it with. It all works, but it feels clumsy and takes more clicks than it should need to. Besides "equip" and "combine", you also get the option to "examine" the objects you're carrying, which provides a close-up view that you can rotate and play around with. (This is more than just a visual flourish; it’s an important feature on a couple of occasions.)
While there's no pixel hunting per se, there are a couple of points where you'll need to pay close attention to what you're seeing and hearing to make progress. To move around, you can either point-and-click or use the WASD keys (or gamepad thumbstick) to walk yourself around directly. The camera swings round to follow, mostly keeping you in the centre of the screen but occasionally zooming in or out for dramatic effect. Handily, white dots on the sides of the screen highlight when there's more to see in a particular direction. All too often in the past, I've gotten stuck in a game due to not realising there was something more off to one side of a location, so I was glad of this touch. Mousing over the dots turns them to arrows you can click on to walk in that direction, at least in theory. In practice, the mechanics can be a bit flaky at times, with the option to walk towards the camera in particular not always triggering properly and leaving me to use the WASD keys until it sorted itself out again. (Update: according to the developer this navigation glitch was restricted to the pre-release review version, and was fixed for public launch.)
The puzzles are mostly inventory manipulation, with a few minigames thrown in to spice things up. You'll find yourself piloting the new remote rover (the Beagle Two Too), wrestling with a fairground claw game, and exercising on a stationary bike. These are easy but fun diversions, which is just as well as most of the puzzles are fairly pedestrian. Being British, the first thing you have to do is make tea, and after that you're finagling recalcitrant floppy disk drives (a task that could be tricky for the younger generation!) and turning the ship off and on again. New objectives flash up at the top of the screen, including such gems as, "Fly the ship while Sub-Lieutenant Jones takes his tea break." (Not surprisingly, that doesn't go too well.) The early stages feel like an extended tutorial, and while that does lead up to a couple of more substantial challenges, no sooner have you solved them and started to feel you're getting somewhere than the credits roll!
While it lasts, Her Majesty's SPIFFING is a jolly but sedentary ride. Despite the action-packed opener, the plot never really picks up pace and is content instead to quietly meander, leaving the characters free to squeeze in one-liners and cutting remarks aimed at everything from British life to sci-fi epics and point-and-click tropes. Where else would you find a radiowave oven (like a microwave oven, but it also picks up the cricket BBC Radio 5), Frank romancing (or, ahem, "turning on") the automatic pilot from Airplane!, and the Statue of Liberty from Planet of the Apes all in one game? There are also references to Star Wars and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to name just a couple more, as well as plenty of fourth-wall-breaking comments. In fact, at one point Frank remarks that the kitchen is "just down this corridor, beyond the fourth wall." (Just beside the kitchen door is a sign saying "Wall 4".) Naturally, bad puns abound, such as when we're told that the "computer is full of secret data. We keep the Intel Inside."
One thing you can't accuse the writers of is subtlety. For example, after landing on the new planet, English plans to "head out, walk around aimlessly [making] wry remarks, then start clicking everywhere until something happens." Meanwhile, Jones will "linger in the background and provide a series of hints if you feel things are a little too vexing." As it happens, though, if you actually do ask Jones for a hint, you get one very broad nudge and that's it. And that's this game in a nutshell: style and wit over substance. There's 2-3 hours of playtime here at most, and if I haven't said much about the plot, that's because there's so little to say. Our intrepid crew head out into space, aiming to find a planet and plant the Union Jack there. If this were merely the start of an episodic series, it would be a fine opener, setting up the world and leading you nicely into the main story arc. And perhaps in a way it is, as it ends on the set-up for a sequel and the James Bond-like words, "Captain English will return..." It remains to be seen whether that will happen, but if it does – and especially if there's the budget for more actual story and richer gameplay to go with the banter – you can sign me up.
In the end, Her Majesty's SPIFFING is like a story told over drinks at a Club: all digressions and anecdotes, rambling without any great urgency but plenty of charm. It's polished to a shine, too, with lovely graphics and voices, if rather bland music. I enjoyed my brief time with it well enough; I just wish there was more of it – more twists and turns and engaging tasks rather than feeling like a teaser for a bigger adventure to come. Nonetheless, so long as you set your expectations and tip the doorman, you won't regret settling down, sipping your tea, and joining in.