Beneath a Steel Sky was the first game I had ever played on a PC ages ago, and it was a game I immensely fell in love with. I decided to try it on a whim as I loved the developer Revolution’s other game, Broken Sword on the PS1. I remember being mesmerized by the excellent artwork and how deep the storyline was, a game about a broken Utopia which is something that wasn’t common back then as we hadn’t gotten Juggernauts such as Bioshock.
Due to this, it has been cemented as one of my top 5 games of all time, and, if you have a PC at all, as long as you can run Microsoft word, you should definitely check out the original game since it is now freeware on the PC, and even GOG has done a tremendous job making it playable for modern systems. To be fair, if you are planning on playing Beyond a Steel Sky, which you definitely should as I will explain in a moment, it would be best to get caught up on the first game, since this is a direct sequel.
For anyone that wants a little refresher and aren’t keen on playing a decades-old game, the first game was set in a dystopian future, with a divide between those who lived in a Utopian City called Union City, and those that lived outside its perimeter called The Gap, dubbed by those living in the city as Gaplanders.
The original follows a young man named Robert Foster who is originally from the city but grows up in The Gap after a helicopter he is travelling on as a kid crashes there. He is adopted by savvy survivors of the Gap and is quickly conditioned into a smart and capable young man who grows very fond of the community he lives in, eventually developing a technical mindset with engineering savviness. This strength allows him to create a small AI called Joey that he places on a chip. Foster’s happy lifestyle doesn’t last very long however, as soldiers from Union City massacre his Tribe and kidnap Foster into coming with them.
By this point, you might know that the helicopters are not a huge fan of Foster, so during transport, it crashes yet again (which Foster points out in the sequel) and decides to find his way through the City in order to get some answers on why he was kidnapped, putting Joey in a small vacuum robot along the way.
Through his journey, he goes through obstacles to learn of LINC, basically the central processor running the city. LINC is not only Sentient, but it turns out that it requires a biological host to function, which is revealed to be no other than Foster’s biological father. Robert’s father is dying due to old age, so LINC requires a similar new host thus getting Foster kidnapped. Foster is ultimately able to defeat LINC by uploading Joey onto the mainframe, giving Joey control over the city and LINC. Joey then plans to turn the city into an actual Utopia and Foster leaves knowing that the city is now in good hands.
So fast forward a while later, and now Joey is living with a Gaplander tribe, one that loves him dearly and vice versa. The good times don’t last too long and he is once again sprung into action when a mysterious 4 legged robot emerges to kidnap a young child, Milo who is basically like a nephew to Foster. This once again sets him on the path to Union City, to see what is going on and to find out what has happened to Joey who he had left in charge.
Hopefully, as you can imagine from that lengthy little introduction, Beneath a Steel Sky’s story was excellent, and easily something that inspired a lot of the iconic sci-fi media we see today. It was a pioneer in that regard, and thankfully the story in the sequel is just as brilliant.
Whilst coated with new paint, at its core, Beyond a Steel Sky is a point and click adventure game through and through, where you are met with obstacles and unique characters both new and returning that require a bit of ingenuity and object searching to help you progress the game. All of that is still here, but with one added twist, and a very interesting one at that. However, as this is an adventure game, rest assured I will be talking mostly about the actual story of the game which as most adventure fans know, can make or break an adventure game.
I think it’s a misconception these days that some people seem to think we have too many games dealing with Utopian settings and all their tropes. However, if we objectively think about it, I am quite certain that you will struggle to think of anything other than Bioshock, or even Prey to an extent. Sure there are some indie games and a few films with the same Broken Utopia premise, but none of them in my opinion have stood out as much as Beneath a Steel Sky or Bioshock, and recently Beyond a Steel Sky.
The broken Utopia seen here is quite different and a tad less grim than something like Bioshock however, and even asks some really important questions about what we perceive to be a perfect world and what its cost would be for humanity, as well as how it reflects on our current consumerism led lifestyle.
Most other Utopian settings usually have nefarious masterminds behind them, who wanted to create something for their own gain, but here it is different. Here you can see that the intention is actually to benefit humans, with a misplaced view of ends justifying the means which can do more harm than good.
I am going to try my best to keep this review spoiler-free and will discuss this topic in length in another article perhaps, but one thing I will definitely say is that the ending of the game was really well crafted, highlighting some really good points regarding the downsides of only ever being content in life.
Now at this point, if you haven’t played Beneath a Steel Sky, you might be wondering if the game is really grim for tackling these topics, but thankfully that’s not the case at all. Just like the original game, the mood for Beyond The Steel Sky is very well balanced, with some really funny and witty dialogue taking center stage, especially with how observant and charming Foster is. In fact, I would say that Foster remains one of the strongest, and most likable protagonist in videogames, not only because he wants to do good, but because he wants to do it in a way that would not harm innocents, even if it means putting himself in dangerous situations to do so. Aspects like that make a lasting impression because the game knows when to be funny, and when to be serious without being overly bleak.
In my opinion, some of the game’s best moments come after you find Joey, and once again as a running joke from the last one, swap him between different bodies based on the situation and setting, much to Joey’s chagrin. It is a relief to see these throwbacks, as Joey and Foster’s relationship is the backbone of the series.
Gameplay-wise, it would be easiest to compare it to a telltale game with some much-needed accessibility improvements, where you move a character with directional buttons and get near certain points and objects to interact/examine/use them. It is a formula that definitely works here and gives the user freedom to look around the environment and soak it in at their own pace, which is especially welcome as the game looks mesmerising due to the stellar art direction for this game, notably as it has got the likes of Dave Gibbons returning behind the art.
For those who are unaware, Dave Gibbons is a very popular and iconic artist/writer who has worked on most big comic properties you can think of, whether it be Marvel or DC, Batman or Spiderman, and even Alan Moore’s Watchmen he has worked on them all! On top of that, when it comes to videogames, he was the one responsible for making games like Steel Sky and Broken Sword look and read as if you were playing a motion comic book. Charles Cecil, the head of Revolution and co-creator of Steel Sky of course helms the writing with Gibbons yet again. Having the original creators back doing this, is perhaps one of the reasons why the sequel feels so faithful.
Coming back to gameplay, in my opinion, its main draw here isn’t the telltale like movement or even the classic puzzle-solving elements but is instead something not seen in adventure games before, the game’s scanner device. Early on in the game, Foster gets his hands on a scanner device that allows maintenance workers to scan and fix faults within machines. With a little bit of tweaking and hacking into it, Foster is able to manipulate devices with it.
If you have ever used any sort of visual programming languages like scratch or even something like Blueprint in Unreal, you will be familiar with how it works. Basically, each machine has a small instruction, one that details what it should do in certain situations with different results based on swappable nodes. Now, in-game it is limited in terms of the nodes you can move, but even then, the Scanner mechanic has a very sandbox approach to puzzle solving, something that (pardon the pun) feels revolutionary.
Maybe there is a robot going around repeating an audio file unexcitedly, and another that’s greeting everyone cheerfully, if you use the scanner with them both in view, you can move the cheerful/monotonous delivery around for some hilarious results. Maybe set up a vending machine so that if a user is eligible for a drink, you play the alarm instead. The alarm was easily my favourite thing to do as it brings about a really interesting robot character, one that I would implore everyone to meet. As you can imagine, there are certain scenarios that you have to solve with this mechanic for machines or items to progress at certain points.
Honestly, this is such an interesting and strong mechanic, that I can easily see a full game based around just this mechanic alone, and it’s something I hope to see more of if we ever get more Steel Sky games or spin-offs. It is beyond impressive that one of the most innovative mechanics of this generation is hiding in a story-driven double-A adventure game rather than something that is triple A. I can only hope that Revolution sees value in this for further titles.
You still have your classic object finding, dialogue, and combining mechanic as well, where certain objects will help you progress past different obstacles like in classic adventure games. Whilst with these there is always a danger of having moon-logic puzzles, where a puzzle makes no sense, or at the very least only makes sense to the person that coded the puzzle, I did not run into anything like that with this game, and everything felt conveyed to me when and if I needed it. The hint system really helps achieve that.
With the combination of the scanner device and some really interesting puzzles and twists that you won’t see coming, the gameplay stays fresh throughout and so does the story, bringing you through some really interesting places and objectives, one of them being LINC itself. It captivated me from beginning to end. In fact, so much so that when I was playing this game, I was constantly picking to spend more time with Beyond a Steel Sky than something blockbuster like Days Gone or even Dark Souls III, games that I have been actively hooked on for a while now. It speaks volumes of how entertaining Beyond is, but I would argue that Steel Sky series has full right to be called a goliath on its own.
One thing I have to absolutely mention separately is how brilliant the music by Alistair Kerley and John Sanderson (of Pitstop Productions) for the game is. In fact, if you were to tell me that someone like John Williams had composed the music, I would buy it without a second look at you, that’s how great it is! It is filled with heartfelt, soaring orchestrated themes. Overall, the music, writing, and the pacing of the game really comes together to deliver a really charming, and enjoyable experience, even with some serious themes.
Another thing worth mentioning is, that when I was originally playing this game, and this was a few weeks ago, there were quite a lot of game-breaking bugs. People clipping into each other due to bad Unreal nav mesh, NPCs not correctly triggering the right dialogue and other critical bugs were rampant. However, after some updates that the developers just put out, these major issues are now gone. There are some minor ones still littered here and there, but I bet most people won’t even notice them.
Now the reason I mention these ex-issues is that I have noticed that a lot of the reviews are still mentioning these even though they are not present anymore, probably because they played the game a while back and didn’t check in again on what the fixes were. So, I would be wary of the above issues being wrongfully mentioned by some publications still. I had saved the game at certain problematic points, just so I could come back a day or so before I publish this review and see if the issues were still present. Thankfully all the big ones are gone, and it makes me so happy that they are because now I can safely give this game a high score that it deserves.
Still, I think it speaks highly of the game that even back then, despite some serious bugs, I absolutely adored the game, and was really upset once it was over after 15 whole hours. It was so entertaining that I did a double-take at how long it took me to actually complete the game, time really does fly when you have fun. It helps that the game is super simple to control without any difficult game-ending sections, so it’s very approachable to a wide range of audiences who can take the game at their own pace.
Honestly, Beyond a Steel Sky is a true return to form for the series, something that a lot of other franchises can take note of on how to ask lasting questions about Utopian themes, as well as resurrect a decade-old franchise for a worthy sequel. I think this sort of futuristic setting lends itself well to sequels anyways, as was evident with the amazing film Blade Runner 2049, but even then it requires a level of craft to present well, just as Revolution has done here.
The journey of the stoic but witty protagonist with the help of his humorous sidekick and an eccentric supporting cast will keep you entertained till a twist-filled climax that asks all the right questions about its utopian themes, oftentimes serving as a reflection of our consumerism-led lifestyle. Not to mention, even with this being a near 3000+ word review, I feel like I still haven’t shared everything I enjoyed about this game, so I shall leave it up to you to discover all the best parts as the game is beyond must play!