Beyond a Steel Sky Review
It’s not very often that game gets its first sequel made twenty-six years later, but that happens to be the case with 1994’s Beneath a Steel Sky. The original point-and-click game — which is still worth playing — was beloved for its memorable artwork and style, mature story, quippy one-liners, and logical puzzles. While LucasArts and Sierra Games were releasing adventure games that forced the player on tedious item-hunts and forced you to combine every single thing in your inventory with every single pixel on screen, Revolution Software’s Steel Sky offered a simpler experience that wasn’t nearly as enraging. Even more impressive is that the sequel was able to bring back industry icon Charles Cecil and illustrator Dave Gibbons — of Watchmen fame — to work on the new entry. While I was overjoyed to pick up where the original game had left off, and found myself feeling quite nostalgic while playing the game, I found it was disappointing in its ambition and scope, and that it failed to innovate in its genre.
You play as the protagonist of the first game: Robert Foster, a denizen of the Mad Max-like wasteland, The Gap. At the end of the first game, you installed your AI-controlled droid buddy Joey as ruler over the dystopian Union City in an effort to make the city less brutal and dehumanizing. Robert witnesses a kid get kidnapped and taken to Union City, so he has to infiltrate the supposed utopia and discover exactly what kind of society he was responsible for building. Along the way, you need to solve logic puzzles and do tasks for citizens of Union City to further investigate what happened to the missing child. Fans of the first game will find references, callbacks, and returning characters. Adventure games are by their very nature slow and methodical affairs, and Beyond a Steel Sky is no different.
The genre also lives or dies on the quality of its storytelling, and the story in BASS is middling. It starts off with a bang and I was really excited to see where it took the premise, and how it connected to the story of the prequel, but I found that many of the characters I met in Union City felt shallow and uninspired. The game wants the player to emotionally invest in many characters that it doesn’t really bother to flesh out that much. We’re supposed to believe that we’re playing in a flawed futuristic utopia, but the characters of the world just struck me as stock characters plucked out of action and sci-fi films, not people who are uniquely affected by this particular environment. The dialogue can be very pointed and funny, and I especially liked some of the droll quips from many of the robots. BASS is also paced very oddly, where the middle section slows to an absolute crawl and then the conclusion of the game is a massive exposition dump. The story doesn’t flow very naturally. It feels like a collection of scenes, rather than a cohesive tale. This feels especially true if you decide to wander around and talk to NPCs or try to learn more about the world. There simply isn’t much to see or interact with. There are also no diversions in the story that you can choose. Having said that, the game does have a lot on its mind about the current political climate and the function of an ethical society. But when compared to the advancements in the adventure game genre, there are just more ambitious and emotionally driven games available.
The graphics are hit-or-miss. The characters look distinctive and stylized, and the city is bright and alluring on its surface, but the environments lack detail and many of the places you visit feel quite similar to one another. Frankly, I expected more from this aspect of the game, given how fantastic the original looked. I don’t mind the switch from 2D to 3D, but I just wish they had done more with it. Some of the effects and animations, in particular, look quite dated. There is a sequence during the end of the game — which is supposed to be dramatic — where the hero needs to sprint to a doorway, and it just looks awkward and comical. There is another section where you play as a character who floats off the ground. It feels unpolished and odd, and the screen shakes when you go up and down stairs, as though the character still has legs. One of my biggest gripes with the game is that there just aren’t that many locations. I didn’t really feel that I’d explored a big city by the end of my journey. Many of the locations are revisited again and again. This may have been the norm in the 1990s, but the world of Union City feels cramped and limited, when it is supposed to feel expansive and awesome. Character faces can often look expressionless. The game ran inconsistently on the iPhone XR Max, and there were a few scenes that the game skipped and dropped bits of dialogue. If you talk to an NPC while playing, and then a cutscene begins, both the dialogue from the previous conversation and the cutscene will play over each other. The lack of polish does break immersion in such a heavily story-focused game.
BASS has some very fun and clever puzzles, and it introduces a hacking mechanic where you mix and match the functions of different bits of tech in Union City to create the desired solution to a puzzle. Often, this requires you to cause havoc or make a distraction, and the schadenfreude of watching characters get tricked by technology can be very entertaining and cathartic. The first half of the game is quite easy, but there are some brain-teasers later on. The hacking system can sometimes be a chore to use. You have to be a certain distance from hackable technology to use your tool, and many puzzle solutions require you to either wait for moving objects to come near each other or to keep nudging your character to the perfect spot in between two — or sometimes three — usable items. This can be very irritating. On a touchscreen, you have to tap twice to bring out your hacking tool or put it away, and you’ll often find yourself tapping to walk or click on an item and it just doesn’t register or it puts the tool away when you don’t want it to. In the game’s opening scene, you’re allowed multiple solutions to a puzzle and I expected to be able to solve puzzles in multiple ways through the game. From what I could tell, however, was that solutions to puzzles throughout the rest of the game were rigidly predetermined and didn’t allow for experimentation. BASS also has a hint system to ensure that it is impossible to get stuck. It doles out the solution to a puzzle in small bits so you can decide how much of the game’s puzzles you even want to deal with. This works and creates a variable difficulty level, but the hint system forces the player to wait 30 seconds between each hint tidbit.
I wanted to really love Beyond a Steel Sky, given my affinity for its prequel and because of its pedigree, but there just wasn’t enough in it to keep me invested in its world. While the game is very funny and captivating in parts, it often feels like a retread of other sci-fi tales and its world feels banal and thinly drawn. The story and gameplay never feel like they come together, and what could have been a return to form for a storied creative team feels like a forgettable slog.
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