Developer & Publisher: Revolution Software, Ltd.
Released: July 16, 2020
Requirements: 64-bit Windows 10
Processor, Minimum: Intel Core-i32100 (3.1 Ghz) or AMD Phenom X94 (3.0 Ghz)
Recommended: Intel Core i5 3470 (3.2 Ghtz) or AMD FX-8350 (4.0 Ghtz)
Memory, Minimum: 4 GB Recommended: 6 GB
Graphics, Minimum: Nvidia GeForce GTX 2GB or AMD Raedeon HE 7770 2 GB
Recommended: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 4 GB or AMD Radeon R9 280X 3 GB
DirectX: Version 11
Storage: 20 GB available space
Beyond A Steel Sky
Its been more than 25 years since Beneath A Steel Sky was released, and nearly 20 since I played and reviewed it. Now here we are with a sequel, set a comparatively mere 10 years after the events of the original, and despite the passage of time not only are the main characters still with us, so is the creator, the artist and the developer. With all that “history” going on, indulge me a bit more. Or just skip the next paragraph.
I had never heard of Artic Software until I started collecting games, and didn’t own any of the systems you needed to play their games, but I now have a number of their games on tapes for both the ZX Spectrum and the C64, several of which were written by Charles Cecil. Who then founded Revolution, via a stint with Activision, for which Beneath a Steel Sky was their second game, conceived by Cecil and drawn by Dave Gibbons (of Watchmen renown). They have both achieved much in their fields since then.
The game casts you as Robert Foster, returning to Union City in search of a kidnapped child. A resident of The Gap - the vast spaces in between cities - when we left Foster he had “liberated” the city, and left his AI companion Joey in charge of establishing a “happy” future.
That much of the backstory is covered in a comic book style introduction, and you might also pick up that the setting is Australia (Gang-Gangs, the windmills and the dodgy accents). There are other clues throughout (a reference to Asio) but other elements, including how Robert got his second name, will elude you. In that regard it is probably worth watching the opening part of the earlier game online.
Having said that, there is much of the old game that resonates here, and while you don’t need to have played it to play this, at the time of writing the earlier one was free on both Steam and GOG. Its worth a play in any event, and you will also appreciate some of the (dare I say) LINC-ages.
While events begin in the desert, the game takes place in Union City, once you work out a way to get inside. We have all experienced a utopia run by AI, so it should come as no surprise that most everything is monitored and managed, meaning a Gaplander like Foster can’t just walk in. A U-chip, a hacked identity and a few other things will be required. He can worry about his Qdos score – which indicates his social standing and as a result determines all manner of things – at a later point.
What starts as a mission to find the child becomes a quest to uncover and deal with something far more sinister. What that is largely comes towards the end, but there are inklings as you go, and some important reveals along the way.
It plays in the third person, utilising the WASD keys to get around and the mouse to “look”, an arrangement well suited to “realistic” exploration of an elaborate 3D world. There are plenty of places and locations to explore, some more dingy and run down than others, but it’s a visually exciting place to run around in. It has a very definite comic book aesthetic, accentuated by the opening cutscene and the introspective “panels” in a number of the others. There is so much going on that even when its just you alone with the detailed imagery, it never gets dull.
The 46 piece orchestrated soundtrack is a big plus, not just in its composition but in how its used. It sits underneath things, never overwhelming, and only occasionally asserts itself into proceedings, with resultant great effect. Too often the music is overdone, be it games, tv or movies, and while my preference is always for less, when used like this it is very effective.
Voice acting is also polished, especially for Foster, and while some are a tad overdone, on the whole these seem deliberately so, a product of the type of character being portrayed. d-RYDs are everywhere, not just for colour and movement, and human characters abound as well. Dialogue is sharp, frequently witty, often sarcastic, especially when Joey is about.
Not the god-like Joey, but the Foster sidekick that ends up inhabiting whatever spare machine happens to be about. How all that comes to pass you can discover for yourself, but Joey is as much fun as ever.
As you explore, the outline of little opaque discs will appear on things, and as Foster notices them, the outline will become solid, and an identifying label will pop-up. Get close enough and the disc will fill and spin, indicating you can now interact with it. Click to generate one or more action tags (mainly examine or use) and select the one you want. If the inventory tag is present, selecting that will enable you to cycle through your items, having the option (possibly) to use them on that particular item. The same dynamic occurs for characters, and choosing the talk tag will generate various conversation topics, which in turn might generate additional topics. Just pick and choose until you have had enough (exhausted topics will be opaque), then click “bye” and the conversation will end. It can be a bit busy at times but it works rather well.
Foster also obtains a hacking tool early on, and right clicking will bring up the tool. Like the little discs, opaque squares will appear on items that can be hacked, again filling and spinning when in range. The tool can also indicate that such an item is eg 6m away in a particular direction. Clicking a spinning square will give you the capacity to use your tool on the item or items involved.
I say items because the more complicated hacks require you to have more than one item within range, in order to swap LOGIC and/or TASK and/or DATA blocks amongst them (fiddle with the code if you will). The help function within the tool explains in more detail (and is a handy reference for what you are doing), but essentially you are using the programming information in one item to make another item behave the way you want it to.
I quite liked these puzzles, which was just as well as there are quite a few of them, and the latter half relies on them to a great degree (almost ignoring the inventory style of puzzle completely). They get more involved as you go, sometimes requiring that you move blocks between multiple items or having you work out how to hack items that are too far apart to be within range of the tool at the same time. They can be a bit cantankerous, most notably when you are trying to find the place to stand that brings the relevant items within range, and especially when one of those things is moving about. The directional information can help here.
Its worth mentioning that while hacking is essential for solving puzzles, it can also be quite amusing. Some of that might be the result of a hacking mistake, but once you get the hang of what you are doing, make sure you quite deliberately hack some things “wrong” just to see what might happen.
Apart from the hacks, the conundrums are by and large inventory based. Some are multi-part and on a few occasions you have to do things in a certain time (eg distract someone and then complete the action/s before their attention returns). Some actions can also kill you; not many I think (I blew myself up only once) and the game lets you try again.
You will always know your current objective, and a hint system is available which will nudge you in the right direction, maybe two or three times (you have to wait 30 seconds before a subsequent hint becomes available), and it will ultimately tell you exactly what to do next. Combined with the way the inventory works, it means you shouldn’t be stuck for too long, unless that’s what you want. I certainly dipped in and out of the hints in order to overcome more than one bewilderment.
The game saves automatically, but you can also save whenever you like. When coming back to the game, choose continue to pick up where you left off, or load any earlier saved game. It took me a little over 14 hours to complete.
I had a good time stepping out with Foster and Joey again, and all up, Beyond a Steel Sky is a worthy successor indeed.
I played on:
OS: Windows 10, 64 Bit
Processor: Intel i7-9700K 3.7GHz
RAM: Corsair Dominator Platinum RGB DDR4 32GB
Video card: AMD Radeon RX 580 8192MB