Played on Xbox Series X
Obviously, it could never happen in reality but due to environmental disasters and human conflict, the residents of future earth live either in giant cities or the ravaged wastelands known as the Gap. Set ten years after the events of ‘Beneath a Steel Sky’, Robert Foster is finally returning to the Union City that he left in the hands of his sentient robot best friend Joey. I did not play the original game but I am sure everything is just fine…. Let’s grab a fresh can of Spankles and explore a megacity in the XboxEra review of Beyond a Steel Sky.
Developed by Revolution Software the game is described as a Cyberpunk science fiction adventure from legendary comic book artist Dave Gibbons and creator of the ‘Broken Sword’ series Charles Cecil.
Like the original game, the back story is told via the medium of a graphic novel. Robert is fishing with a friend and his son Milo when a giant mechanical creature rears up out of the sea. Faceless cyborgs emerge to grab the child and the machine heads off into the wastelands. Robert has a very strong yet unexplained connection to the child so he sets off to rescue him.
Welcome to the future
The art style then changes to a 3D cell-shaded art style reminiscent of ‘Borderlands’. Having followed the tracks to the outskirts of ‘Union City’ Robert comes across the dead body of a sanitation worker called Graham Grundy and soon realises that the only way to get into the heavily defended city is to assume his identity.
When he eventually does get inside the city (which is so long-winded I would have given up on the child and gone home) things turn out to be not quite as they appear. Joey is missing and no one knows where he has gone, while the control has been handed to a bunch of powerful councillors. The population is supposedly happy and content but where are Milo and the other missing children that have been transported through the city gates? Robert sets out to investigate, as will those who choose to play the game.
After playing a lengthy section before the opening titles I was treated to an introductory tour of the city via a Monopod while they played out. Union City is sold to the player as a vast megacity so it is a shame that most of the action takes place in a relatively small number of locations that are only accessible via the monopod system. No free exploration is offered and generally, you can be restricted to your current location until you have completed certain objectives.
Being a point and click adventure it is a matter of examining everything around you that you are allowed to interact with and working out how to use items to your advantage. Talking to people is the main task for the majority of the game and can become pretty tiresome due to the sheer amount of questions that you have to do. Although topics grey out when conversations have run their course it is still possible to accidentally ask the same thing over and over again.
Are you lost?
I got stuck for quite a while as I could not work out how to get to a certain location as the monopod system gave me the option to go there but refused to take me. After a frustrating amount of toing and froing, this turned out to be because I had not asked the city holographic guide how to get there. Not exactly obvious I am sure you will agree. Luckily the game does have a Hint section that starts with a vague hint and works its way up to spelling out what to do next. There is an achievement available for completing the game without using any hints but some of the puzzles are so brain-frying (and I play a lot of puzzle games) that I cannot see anyone getting it.
A tool that you acquire early on introduces a hacking mechanic that can be used to change the function of various pieces of technology around you. This makes a welcome change to the gameplay but is also the source of a lot of puzzle-solving angst. Basically, you have to get one or more different pieces of technology near enough to each other to swap commands from one to the other. Although this sounds fairly simple, I can assure you it is not. Using a kitchen appliance to interact with a train system is not something that a logical person could ever be expected to come up with.
Once an older version of Joey has been located in the city museum you can insert his circuit board into multiple other robots. This gives you the option to talk to yet another character to gather information but you can also get him to carry out menial tasks and plug into other items of tech to take advantage of what they can offer you. In one section I got to play as flying droid Joey to rescue Robert from captivity which made for a refreshing change of pace.
There is no combat as such and in the rare sections where you can die the game just replays that bit over and over until you make the right decision. I tend to pick up all items that I come across and ended up carrying about eleven items on me but some of them were never actually needed. The crowbar is the one item in my inventory that was the most useful while countless cans of the ubiquitous Spankles soft drink could not even be consumed and ended up being pretty pointless although I love the branding.
The storytelling is good but the pacing lets it down. After a slow start trying to get into Union city, there is eventually a dragged-out ending trying to escape from the same place. My favorite parts of gameplay were actually within the system that controlled everything within the city. LINC (Tagline: The height of intrusive tech) has been replaced by a new technology called MINOS developed by Joey. Entering the system reminded me of EXO ONE and clearing up a virus, defeating firewalls, and correcting logic errors while in the guise of Dr. Manhattan from Watchman (a Dave Gibbons in-joke I presume) was strangely satisfying. Only being given the chance to enter the system three times during the game seems a bit of a waste of a good idea.
Is this a joke?
The game was developed by a studio from the UK. Apart from the Australian accents of the Gap I was able to pick out Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, Yorkshire, and upper-class English accents among the population of the city. A very British sense of humour is also on display at all times. Conspiracy theories in the email system of Graham Grundy are stated as being from someone called David Ickle and I think we all know which tin foil hat attired individual is being referenced there. Also, a security robot looking like a cross between a Cylon and a droid from Disney clanger ‘The Black Hole’ has the personality of the ‘Black Knight’ from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
It was nice to see references to many other sci-fi films littered around the city. Blade Runner is referred to by the existence of a plastic explosive Unicorn model in the recycling center and there is an achievement to find five Spoof film posters such as Miffed Mike (a nod to Mad Max) and Aye Human (I Robot, obviously).
There are no extra accessibility options to shout about but there are some technical issues. During one conversation with a Mentor, his volume dipped so low that I could hardly hear him although my dialogue was unaffected. NPCs have a nasty habit of ‘wall walking’ against you while you are using machines and consoles. Most annoyingly they can walk between you and whoever you are speaking to and become stuck blocking your view for large parts of conversations.
In conclusion, Beyond a Steel Sky will hold great appeal for fans of the original game. The artwork is impressive and the story is interesting but there are many drawn-out sections that can affect the pace of the game. There is a lot of questioning required that can become tiresome but the sections within the LINC/MINOS system are very enjoyable. Puzzle-solving can be rather challenging at times but the developer has added a hint system to prevent players from rage quitting. No knowledge of the original game is required but for me personally, this feels like a slightly missed opportunity.