I grew up playing point and click adventure games. I’m reasonably certain my first experience of playing one was LucasArts’ Day of the Tentacle in 1993 and I remember being absolutely enthralled. One of my all-time favourite games is Full Throttle (I’m actually playing through it for the ahem..mumble..ieth time) and it still holds up to this day. My brother and I still do George Stobbart impressions – if you don’t know who that is, get an education – and games like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series all make regular appearances in “all-time best videogame” lists. Point and click adventure games were just that; an adventure – the best of which often (but not always*) combined two great ingredients, great puzzles and great humour. It’s worth keeping those things in mind as we look at any fresh entry into this particular gaming milieu. *I say not always because The Dig, whilst a great game, wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs…
As hard as it is for a point and click adventure enthusiast to accept, the games really were at the height of their popularity between the late 80’s and the end of the 90’s. This roughly (or perhaps explicitly) coincided with the regular releasing of LucasArts highly acclaimed library of adventure games running on their Scumm Engine. The engine, created for their first full graphic adventure game Maniac Mansion (indeed SCUMM stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion,) was used for 12 of LucasArts most iconic adventure games and that aesthetic and functionality has come to epitomise the point and click genre. For the 1998 title Grim Fandango, LucasArts retired the SCUMM engine in favour of new 3D engine GrimE. Although Grim Fandango was very well received this really did mark the end of point and click’s glorious heyday.
During the following 10 odd years there were some successful adventure games that followed a relatively traditional formula, mostly from indie developers and small studios (yay) trying to keep the genre alive but also from some bigger studios and we have Hamburg based Daedalic Entertainment to thank for publishing some true gems like Whispering World and Deponia. It wasn’t until a team of ex LucasArts devs (who else!) obtained the rights to make a 3D episodic point and click adventure game based on Back to the Future movies in 2010, that things started to look up for the genre. Now to clarify, this was neither the team’s first foray into point and click adventure nor the one that really put them on the map but it definitely opened the door to a welcome renewal in popularity for this game type. The following years saw the team – Telltale Games – releasing a raft of licenced, episodic, point and click adventures and mostly to critical acclaim and commercial success.
If all of the above seems like a rather longwinded (and overly detailed) introduction to the review of a new game perhaps it is; but I do believe it’s important to take a moment to understand where this genre has been, where it is now and the gaming cauldron into which a small team might drop a new entry.
Her Majesty’s SPIFFING is just such a new point and click adventure game. The game follows the exploits of Captain Frank Lee English and his trusted regional accented colleague, Alad, as they travel through the cosmos in search of new planets to claim for the British Empire. The Queen (BSc, MEng, Defender of the Faith) has decided that she wants to expand the British Empire once again. However (given that this is the near future) the conventional methods of going about such a task (sailing up the Mediterranean, blowing up a few boats and subduing the indigenous population that survive, for example) are now somewhat frowned upon. Thus, Her Majesty has instead… turned to the stars!
Having personally overseen the creation of the acronym championing Special Planetary Investigative Force For Inhabiting New Galaxies, an aromatic blend between the British Space Agency and Royal Air Force, Her Majesty has commissioned Britain’s first manned expedition to space. Assuming command of the near futuristic space ship HMSS Imperialise and her crew (distinguished veteran and gentleman Captain Frank Lee English and Alad, his mild mannered South Walean colleague) the game sees the player venturing into the cosmos, solving puzzles, engaging in witty banter, dealing with crippling claustrophobia, gradually succumb to the sustained exposure of cosmic radiation and so on, all for Queen and Country.
If that all sounds pretty great that because…well…it is! The team behind HM Spiffing, BillyGoat Entertainment, is a 5 man indie game studio based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Over the last several years they’ve predominantly been providing game development services for other companies but have managed to develop a few of their own games, mainly for smart phones and tablets. HM Spiffing is their most ambitious title yet but they have done a remarkable job as I’ll hopefully explain.
Firstly the team is formerly an animation studio and, therefore, it seems appropriate to start with aesthetics. It’s obvious the studio has a background in animation as the fluidity of motion, attention to detail in regards to small things like facial animation and rich, colourful, cartoonesque yet logical graphical style are at a level usually reserved for bigger, more well-resourced studios. The skills of the team in this area totally belies its size. Good visuals do not necessarily mean a good game, indeed some games are style over substance but very often in the indie world we see the opposite side of this coin. Not so much that games don’t look good, but that developers want to make a good game, with a strong narrative or solid mechanics first – a laudable endeavour – but sometimes, inevitably with resources and time being what they are, graphical style can be basic. Not all the time; but often. So it’s always nice when an indie game can achieve all of the former whilst putting so much time and effort into the latter. And believe me; BillyGoat have achieved the former.
Sound design is another area in which the game excels. The voice acting in particular was a welcome treat. Again, as with the visuals, indie developers are often stymied in this facet of game making by budgetary and time constraints and it is understandable – particularly in cases in which the developer has a day job and is a one man show or development is a side project. But again it’s great when this part of the game is so fully formed. Our protagonist “English” has just the right stiff upperlip English accent and delivery to give credible life to his unflappable yet bumbling tone and demeanour and the lilting but acerbic Welsh characterisation for his sidekick is similarly well chosen and delivered. All of which is served well by (whilst simultaneously serving well) the excellent writing – more on that later. The sound effects are also top notch – all appropriately over the top and cartoony – and music plays a big role in the game – indeed 2 mini games/puzzles are music based – with the whole game set to an appropriately patriotic soundtrack.
So. Now on to the crucial part of the review. The ways in which this game pays homage to (and in some ways modernises) the classic adventure games of yesteryear; gameplay (specifically puzzles) and humour! I played the Xbox One version for the purposes of this review but I do know that the PC controls are much as you’d expect from a point and click – hover your mouse over areas you want to move to, over interactive objects an action wheel pops up, dialogue options are selected with the mouse…most of you (presumably) know the drill. The console joypad controls are equally as intuitive and in many ways seem to be more in keeping with how…well…modern games are played! I don’t doubt that a lot of younger gamers will appreciate the mildly platform-y, third person-y control system with a welcome addition to the genre being the ability to run (an oft lamented omission from classic adventure games) which helps portions of the game that feature inevitable backtracking to skip along at a merrier pace. All that said, even on console, the navigation does still seem familiar enough to satisfy point and click purists.
The game begins with a quick familiarise-yourself-with-the-controls/menu system task, followed by a funny (and un-failable) minigame that sets events of this first episode in motion. The games tone is quickly obvious and its tongue is firmly in its cheek when it comes to dialogue (if that wasn’t already obvious from the opening video, marketing, name etc etc!) The quality of the writing is excellent and I found myself laughing out loud a number of times – helped by the aforementioned quality voice acting. It really does pay to explore both in terms of conversation options and in object/environment terms as there are a number of great lines, visual gags, knowing nods to sci fi tropes, pop culture references, plot red herrings and fourth wall breaking scenes (indeed there is a great visual gag about the fourth wall itself,) all of which hark back to adventure classics of the 90’s.
Puzzles are a nice variety of difficulty levels. I’m embarrassed to say I got stuck on one early on for much too long but my relentless searching, collecting etc at that point made some later puzzles quite straightforward. It is this respect that the games genetics are most explicit. Solve a problem by searching for an item, combine items in your inventory to create new solutions to problems, examine items in your inventory for new clues (learnt that the hard way..ahem) even timing as to when you pick up items can be a factor – all things that put me in mind of playing Full Throttle, Broken Sword etc.
If I do have one criticism it is the length of the game. I completed the game in around 3 hours. Not a lot of gaming by any standard. But it is worth pointing out that BillyGoat have stated that this is a game of 3 halves (lol.) Backers at certain tier levels in their kickstarter campaign have already been given season passes allowing them to download episodes 2 and 3 at no additional cost once they are complete. Even if you haven’t backed the game and will have to pay for all 3 parts separately this is still not an expensive game – assuming the other parts of the game are the same price and length that will mean around 10-12 hours gameplay for the price of a standard, full price, big budget game. Hardly unheard of. And given that this is being made by such a small team on a (nowadays) modest budget, I think we have to give them some latitude in this regard.
In summary you’d honestly be forgiven for thinking that the game was another modern adventure game by Telltale Games, and I do mean that in the most positive way possible. Who better to embody the gaming values of and pay tribute to those shining examples of point and click classics than ex LucasArts developers of said games. Telltale’s own games are a product of LucasArts heredity – the charming blend of self awareness, puzzles of varying complexity, great characters, dialogue and strong narrative and the illusion that you really were finding your own way through the adventure are all hallmarks of great adventure games of yore. All present and accounted for in Telltale’s adventure games; all present and accounted for in BillyGoat’s HM Spiffing. HM Spiffing stands as a both a tribute to a, lamentably, bygone era and a modern reimagining of how its gaming forbears might look, feel and play now.
HM Spiffing launches 7 December on Xbox One, PS4 and Steam and will be £14.99. You can keep up to date with the future plans of BillyGoat including the 2nd and 3rd parts to the game on their website, twitter and Youtube and, as ever, Orange Bison.