By Marty Mulrooney
Her Majesty’s SPIFFING: The Empire Staggers Back is a British comedy graphic adventure created by BillyGoat Entertainment Ltd, a video game developer based in Northern Ireland. The game puts players in control of Captain Frank Lee English, joined by his South Walean colleague Aled Jones, as they travel through the cosmos trying to find a new planet to claim for the British Empire.
Her Majesty’s Spiffing wears its heart on its sleeve from the outset, tongue firmly in cheek. A chuckle-inducing opening cutscene informs players that it’s the near future and Britain is broken, the United Kingdom in ruin. Facing growing international isolation (a clear dig at Brexit), Her Majesty the Queen has decided enough is enough.
She puts together SPIFFING – ‘Her Majesty’s Special Planetary Investigative Force For Inhabiting New Galaxies’ – and presses a big red button that launches Big Ben into space. A lone spaceship detaches, the near futuristic space ship HMSS Imperialise, with two braves souls on board. But Britain isn’t the only nation looking for a new planet to call home…
It’s a ridiculous premise that the game revels in with delight. Yes the characters are stereotypes but like the very best jokes, they’re based on small, undeniable grains of truth. They’re also extremely likeable, with the voice acting just the right side of hammy. The first puzzle challenges Captain English with making a nice cup of tea. From there, things quickly spiral out of control and more challenges are born in the process. In many ways it calls to mind another British adventure game, the tough-as-nails (and arguably underrated) 1997 Adventure Soft title The Feeble Files.
The graphics are wonderfully chucky and tangible and there are some highly impressive graphical flourishes and lighting effects. Even though this is obviously a small indie project, it feels on a par with something Telltale Games would make. Even the sound design is accomplished, despite the music often serving as little more than background bedding. The clunk of Captain English’s boots throughout the metal corridors of the ship may get a little bit annoying after a while, but it tethers him in a world that always feels real despite being outlandish.
The interface on PC works really well whether you’re using a keyboard and mouse, or a wired/wireless controller. Clicking on a hotspot brings up a context-sensitive menu with four options: INTERACT/GRAB, EXAMINE OBJECT, TALK TO or USE INVENTORY ITEM. The rest is pretty self explanatory for fans of the genre, but there are some nice twists. Examining inventory items often brings up a closer view which can then be rotated, examined and interacted with. This is used to great effect when Captain English is struggling to save data to a floppy disc!
The puzzles are well designed without ever becoming too taxing, apart from one puzzle near the end that requires failure before success can be achieved. Thankfully, they’re all fairly logical and satisfying to solve. The HMSS Imperialise isn’t massive, but the rooms it does contain are crammed full of details and things to look at. There is plenty of humour and fourth wall breaking to be found when exploring too, along with lots of delightfully subtle and not-so-subtle pop culture references to other games (Metal Gear Solid, Monkey Island, Sam & Max) and films (The Planet of The Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Sadly, Her Majesty’s SPIFFING: The Empire Staggers Back is only a few hours long at most. The plot is finally starting to heat up, new (French!) characters are introduced and the confines of the ship are left behind. Then… the credits roll. It’s a cliffhanger that ends with the message: Captain English will return… Maybe… Depends on sales. Which is fair enough really, as it’s so easy to forget when playing that this is a small indie endeavour. Her Majesty’s SPIFFING is very British, very funny and very much worth your time if you love adventure games. Let’s just hope enough people buy a copy to keep Captain English afloat in space. After all, we can’t let the French win!
8 OUT OF 10