Beyond A Steel Sky Review – Foster The Future
In the 26 years since Revolution Software released Beneath A Steel Sky, the adventure game has come full circle. After the genre struggled to adapt into 3D and was briefly declared dead by pundits, the genre’s resurgence occurred on two main fronts–the simplified, story-driven 3D games of Telltale, which focused on choice and consequence over puzzles, and retro-styled 2D games released like Unavowed, Kathy Rain, and Broken Age, which included a lot of the esoteric puzzle-solving the genre used to be known for. Beyond A Steel Sky, the long-awaited sequel to the 1994 original, is an attempt to bridge the gap between those two styles–but unfortunately, it ends up feeling like some of the messier 3D adventure games from 20 years ago rather than another classic like its predecessor.
Beyond A Steel Sky brings back Robert Foster, the protagonist of the first game, and picks up 10 years after his escape from Union City and LINC, the half-mechanical, half-organic being that runs it. Robert has returned to the “gaplands” surrounding the city, where he lives a happy, earnest life within a small society. However, he’s soon forced to return to Union City after a young friend, Milo, is kidnapped by a huge robot and taken somewhere in the sprawling metropolis. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, but references to the country are unfortunately fleeting, despite the game’s aesthetic invocation of the British colonization of the country–the gaplanders are largely people of colour, and Union City is predominantly white.
At first, it’s great to be back in the world of Steel Sky. The nods to the first game start flowing in from the first moments–like the original game, the opening is made up of comic panels drawn by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, whose most famous work receives a few fun nods and Easter eggs throughout the game. Joey, Robert’s robotic sidekick, also returns, and seeing these two characters reunited is one of the game’s highlights. The city, which is rendered in glorious 3D is lovely, too–the skyline stretches far into the background, and the cel-shaded aesthetic suits it.
You get a good visual sense of the sort of place Union City is–one with the outward veneer of a glowing metropolis, but with a dark side of corporate maleficence beneath it. The city is run by the Council, a mysterious body that dictates what people drink, how they act, and which areas they’re allowed to travel between, and it becomes clear as you play how much control they’re exerting over the population.
Unfortunately, many of the game’s ideas and themes aren’t examined in much depth. The QDOS system (pronounced like kudos with a Q), which dictates a citizen’s worth, seems like the basis for a clever mechanic of social climbing when it’s first introduced. But rather than requiring you to integrate yourself within the rules of society, you can overcome any obstacle by solving traditional “use X on Y” adventure game puzzles. There’s a disconnect between the ambitions of the game’s world-building and its actual plot, which lacks urgency, and Union City ultimately feels like less of a cohesive location than it did in the first game. While the city is presented as huge, you’re only given a handful of small environments to explore, and you’re left to infer the city’s size from the skyboxes. It’s frustrating to be promised such a wide-open world and then be offered so little of it.
A working prior knowledge of Beneath A Steel Sky isn’t required to enjoy the sequel for most of its run-time, but the final hour or so makes it very clear that Revolution is aiming to tell a single story, and the game’s ending is very much a conclusion to the first game’s narrative. While it’s good to see some loose ends tied up, it means that the story started by the sequel ultimately fizzles a bit, despite some fun dialogue between the interesting cast of characters you encounter.
The puzzles, at least, offer some inventiveness. Early on, Robert gets his hands on a hacking tool, which leads to some fun situations where you can change the operating procedures of machines. You might, for instance, hack a door by going into a menu and switching whether it opens or stays closed when an unauthorized person uses its hand scanner. It gets more complicated, and enjoyable, when you’re hacking multiple items at once–you can switch programming notes between different robots to make them act differently, or access a schematic by moving it from a file server on a computer to a hologram display.
Some of the more traditional puzzles are clever, too. One highlight was a section where you have to explore a stranger’s house and learn enough about them to successfully pass off as them when interviewed. Another is the opening hour of the game, which feels like an adventure game mixed with an escape room as you move through a single, closed environment, trying to figure out how everything interacts. Other areas offer less interesting solutions, though, and there is a bit of an overreliance on your crowbar throughout the game–it gets a lot more action than anything else in your inventory, and it’s rarely used for anything more exciting than opening a door or jamming a gear.
You control Robert with full 3D movement in Beyond A Steel Sky, and as such the game is best played with a controller. But every now and then I found I’d need to swap to mouse or touch screen controls, as the controller would fail to register button presses in some menus or wouldn’t work properly when using in-game computer terminals. Movement can feel a bit stiff, and interacting with moving targets or people is frustrating–if they move away while you try to bring up the inventory object you want to use, you’ll have to run after them again.