By Marty Mulrooney
Beyond a Steel Sky is the long-awaited and much-anticipated sequel to Revolution Software’s critically acclaimed 1994 science fiction adventure game Beneath a Steel Sky. Set 10 years after the events of the first game, players must once again take control of protagonist Robert Foster as he investigates a sinister plot inside the sprawling metropolis of Union City.
The original Beneath a Steel Sky has become something of a cult classic since its original release in the early ’90s. Easy (and free) to play on PC even today thanks to the tireless efforts of the ScummVM team (it has just been made available on Steam) and remastered by Revolution for iOS in 2009, its longevity has been truly impressive.
Yet it’s easy to see why it has endured; unmistakably British (even if it is supposed to be set in Australia), with a memorable cyberpunk narrative and distinctive artwork from Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame, Beneath a Steel Sky pioneered Revolution’s trademark mix of serious storytelling with humorous undertones – which came to full fruition when the first Broken Sword game was released to critical acclaim in 1996.
Beyond a Steel Sky is fully aware of this legacy and – for the most part – successfully walks the fine line between fan service and doing its own thing; something that Broken Sword 5 admittedly struggled with at times (no doubt a result of its crowdfunding origins; it still turned out great). Newcomers are made to feel more than welcome from the opening cutscene, a gorgeously animated comic book with Dave Gibbons’ fingerprints all over it that harks back to the iconic opening of Beneath a Steel Sky.
Since leaving Union City at the end of the first game, Robert Foster has fully re-embraced life in the Gap, a vast desert wasteland that serves as the Australian outback of the future. Yet the past has a terrible habit of catching up with you. Following a concise recap of Robert’s previous adventure liberating the totalitarian dystopia, disaster strikes. One day while fishing, a mysterious four-legged, dog-like vehicle emerges from the water and kidnaps a local boy. Robert eventually tracks the vehicle across the Gap to Union City, which appears to have become a utopia in the decade since he left.
However, before witnessing this futuristic paradise first-hand, Robert must find a way inside Union City’s towering exterior walls. The opening section takes place outside a vehicle-only entrance, and the only vehicle available has a drained power cell. It’s the perfect opportunity to learn the basics by chatting to a variety of quirky characters – both human and robotic – while solving the game’s introductory puzzles.
The inventory system is beautifully streamlined, with Foster only able to use certain items with certain hotspots. However, this doesn’t make the difficulty too easy; a number of incorrect inventory item interactions are allowed for each hotspot, prompting a series of humorous responses from Foster. There is a also a hacking tool introduced early on that allows Foster to manipulate robots and devices connected to the MINOS network (the successor to the first game’s LINC network), which is where the real brain power is required.
With the help of a young hacker, Foster is able to assume the identity of a dead man found on the outskirts of the city called Graham Grundy – a lengthy puzzle involving a citizen ID ‘U-Chip’ implanted in the palm of his hand. With this new identity, Foster can interact with MINOS – which is embedded in everything – and is considered a citizen of Union City. However, he still can’t enter through the vehicle-only entrance… which is where the hacker tool comes in.
The hacker tool is an inventive core gameplay mechanic that takes full advantage of the sequel’s switch to 3D. Activating it picks up any hackable device within range, and Foster will often need to stand in the right place at the right time to hack several devices at once. Doing so takes the player to a screen that allows certain functions (for example, permission to extend a bridge) to be manipulated by swapping specific command modules.
It soon proves to be an inspired addition to what is fundamentally a very old-school adventure game, managing to keep things feeling fresh while only becoming a minor frustration later on. The controls (I played using an Xbox controller) are very user friendly and exploring each environment while puzzle solving is a joy. Building on the original game’s ‘Virtual Theatre’ concept, NPCs will often walk around doing their own thing. It’s great for immersion, only becoming a problem when someone continually walks into you during a conversation.
Once inside Union City, Dave Gibbons’ art direction really beings to shine. Built using Unreal Engine 4, the toon-shaded visuals genuinely make Beyond a Steel Sky look like a comic book brought to life. It’s by no means cutting-edge in terms of graphics, but there are certain moments – such as when Foster first enters the city in a glass ‘monopod’ – that are incredibly visually striking. Later, while exploring the city’s upper levels, the towering skyline continues to impress. Everything looks shiny and new and the citizens seem happy; but beneath the façade, there’s a true darkness at the heart of Union City.
The sound design is excellent and composer Alistair Kerley’s rich soundtrack – respectfully evoking Beneath a Steel Sky‘s basic MIDI tunes before moving far beyond them – imbues the proceedings with a real sense of excitement, emotion and grandeur. The voice acting is equally impressive. Foster is a likable everyman with a subtle sense of humour; once the ‘Gap chaps’ are reunited, his conversations with Joey the robot – his sarcastic best friend – quickly become the highlight of the game. The supporting cast all sound great too and, thanks to a well-written, genuinely funny script, conversations never feel like a chore.
Sadly, there were a fair few bugs that raised their heads from time to time during my initial playthrough, breaking the sense of immersion, but I never came across anything game-breaking and Revolution has already released a major patch (with another sizable patch downloading as I type this review). Story-driven games need a strong story (of course) and thankfully, Beyond a Steel Sky tells a compelling tale that never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. An optional hint system is available for those eager to advance the plot, but for the most part the puzzles are well-designed enough to allow a relatively smooth sense of progression throughout the 12 or so hours Foster’s latest adventure will take to complete.
Running parallel with the main mystery (before converging with it), much of the game is spent uncovering the backstory of Graham Grundy, the dead man whose identity Foster has taken. As Foster is something of a blank slate – his job is to act ‘normal’ while everyone else around him appears to be a bit mad – it works well having a fresh backstory to uncover. How Mr Grundy figures into the overarching narrative is ultimately satisfying, and much of the comedy comes from Foster trying to pass himself off as a citizen to Mentor Alonso from the Ministry of Wellbeing.
Although it sags a little in the middle – perhaps relying a bit too much on the hacking tool – Beyond a Steel Sky is never anything less than pure, unadulterated fun. Returning to Union City could have proved to be a big mistake, but Revolution has been impressively confident in its execution of this ambitious follow-up. It’s also incredibly refreshing to play a game in 2020 where the protagonist isn’t wrestling with personal demons. Much like Broken Sword’s George Stobbart, Foster simply gets the job done with a gentle quip and some good old-fashioned determination, never stopping to complain or question himself.
Some technical niggles aside, Beyond a Steel Sky is a sequel worthy of its predecessor. It has clearly been made by a team with great reverence for Beneath a Steel Sky, yet it never feels like a rehash. The very best science fiction stories use their depiction of the future to provide social commentary on the present; Beyond a Steel Sky is simply happy to tell a good story, but it does raise some truly interesting questions about modern society and where we’re all headed.
Charming, funny, and evocative of a time when point-and-click adventure games dominated the charts, Beyond a Steel Sky is a refreshing throwback that feels thoroughly modern and should be experienced by any self-respecting fan of the genre. Despite the occasional misstep (and a few bugs that will no doubt be ironed out in due course), this is a journey well worth taking with Foster and Joey; in particular, the poignant, bittersweet ending is wonderful. It has its flaws, but ultimately, this belated return to Union City is a resounding success. The Gap chaps are back!
8.5 OUT OF 10
Thank you for reading Alternative Magazine Online’s review of Beyond a Steel Sky! Don’t forget to check out my recent interview with Revolution Software co-founder Charles Cecil: