From a collaboration between Charles Cecil (the man behind the Broken Sword series), the writer Dave Cummins and the comic-book artist Dave Gibbons, we got the cult classic Beneath a Steel Sky. While their first game got positive receptions, this title was the one that made Revolution skyrocket both commercially, while also being praised among critiques. Similar to Lure of the Temptress, the team wanted to create a story-driven game with a serious tone, but also include humorous dialogues to provide a balanced experience. While this was done so that they could take the tone of Sierra and LucasArt-titles and make one full package, Cecil and Cummins had different styles for storytelling as well. Because of this, they decided to try to find a good middle-ground and support each other’s strengths. This sounds like an interesting goal to achieve and while they did similar to the previous title in a sense, Beneath a Steel Sky was their big project, using two years on the visuals alone. I have positive memories of the game, but now that I can actually speak English, I thought it was about time to get through this adventure.
Entertaining B-action sci-fi
Our story starts in the Gap, a landscape filled with nothing but sand and trash disposed from the city of steel nearby. The protagonist and your playable character, Robin, was originally from this urban town, but tried to escape from it alongside with his mother on a flying vehicle. Sadly, it crashed and only Robin survived. Though not all was lost as a tribe took the abandoned child in as their own and gave him the full name; Robin Foster. Both because they fostered him, and due to a beer-can they found on the day he crashed. As he grew up, Robin excelled in hunting and as a technician, going so far to even create his own robot-friend, Joey, out of the waste thrown from the city.
However, when Robin became an adult, the tribe’s elder foretold a vision of dangers coming to their home and soon enough: trouble was at hand. Men in black suits from the town came and looked for Robin specifically, and to let no harm happen to the people of the tribe, he went with them. The men in black suits exterminated the town despite Robin coming along peacefully, but when it seemed like it could not get any worse, the helicopter Robin was taken away in, malfunctioned and crashlanded on one of the tall buildings in the steel-town. Now it is up to you to get out and find out what is actually going on.
It might be already clear by the beer-setup that David Cummins and Charles Cecil was working passionately to mix their respective themes. Sadly, this is the biggest problem of the story as the tone is all over the place with dark moments followed up by humour that is too lighthearted to complement each other. For example, a gruesome and unexpected murder was followed up by a quite shocking pun from our protagonist, which more confused me than anything else. Trying to have humorous characters in a story that can be quite dark, is hard to balance and it shows here. It is really this that makes it hard to tell if this is a parody or something serious, especially when parts feel cliche to the point of parodying action-movies or taking inspirations from social commentaries about the danger the future might hold.
Though this is the only big problem I have with the game’s story, as the plot is developed quite well. Each progression you make, spoon-feeds you more and more what is actually going on, and I love how thought-through it all is. There will be twists and turns that you might think is coming, but it is still shocking when it happens because you only got minor hints and nothing solid to hang onto. I also love the setting itself. A huge steel-town where there is a hierarchy where the lower you can go, the higher class you have, which makes sense when you think of the sky being filled with pollution. The characters you meet, while simple and not fitting the setting, are memorable for their small personality traits and are fun to chat with thanks to the humorous dialogue. There are some parts that make me question this setup, as while I do love the post-apocalyptic world made out of tubes, it is odd to see someone play on a Game Boy or still use helicopters. It is not bad, just questionable due to uneven technological upgrades.
Our main character is not the strongest protagonist in terms of personality, but has a good heart and a light humour that complements our robot’s more sarcastic, yet charming tone. While the tone of the game can be uneven as stated earlier, the dialogues are actually funny with puns and cute observations, and the comical events are hilarious and memorable, just as much as the shocking events will be disturbing and at times unpleasant. I just wish these two different styles were better matched, but with a solid plot that has great progression and characters that are entertaining, you are provided with a good journey.
Story Score: 7/10
Rusty, but solid
Revolution sticks to their first game’s genre, and present us with a point-and-click game yet again. Improvements have been made, with left-click being used for looking at an item and right-click for interacting, while items you can find and pick up are being displayed above. It is all a simpler interface, which is a great change to not use every possible action a character can have. This is further helped by what item-combinations you might need and the hints on how to progress being solid. Sadly, one problem this game offers, is pixel-hunting. Some things can be incredibly hard to find due to items being so small, or intractable objects blending in with the backgrounds, causing confusion. It would have been nice to highlight some of these elements by making them bigger as they can seem like a spot on my screen or a graphical glitch. I do not mind looking for items to explore, but seeing an item blend in with the wall and confuse it for a crack, is just mean. Also, you will have to regularly check key-slots or key-holes instead of the door itself to open them, which is admittedly tedious, if minor.
A couple of puzzles also do not make sense, or they are annoying. One puzzle will require you to give an item to a person despite no-one telling you or hinting that he needed it, and two puzzles are timed. The timed would not have been so bad if the Virtual Theatre engine was not used, which makes characters go on with their daily lives. It is immersive yes, but makes the AI confused on where to go, which can ruin a good flow. You can alter the speed thankfully, but this is still an inconvenience that will join you throughout the game. Lastly, some puzzles cannot be done unless you physically examined or got hinted that you need to do them, and some will have multiple unneeded stages, like asking a character to push a button while you push the other, which are poor ways of padding out the game.
That being said, while there are a lot of problems, the puzzles themselves are fun to figure out. You will have to do some bizarre tasks, but always in a small area with few things to interact with, so you will find surreal but possible solutions, which is serviceable. Most you can figure out after some trial and error and despite some irritations, about 60% becomes logical and satisfying. My favourite part involves your companion and the cards you get. Your companion, the robot Joey, will take on new shells, each providing new abilities that can be used for progression, which is fun to experiment with. Similarly entertaining, the cards used for getting access to new levels or to decipher, always came with some nice puzzles, like finding the correct password by exploration. The issues mentioned will be constant pace-breakers, but the five hours to get through this game were worth it.
Gameplay Score: 5/10
Art over Audio
Gibbons drew all the backgrounds which was later converted to the virtual format and it is understandable why this took as long as two years to finish. The world is brimming with metallic and creative constructions, such as the high tops of the city being in rusty colours, and as you decent, more and more colours come forth, showcasing the wealth of each area, but eventually also parts of a civilisation that once was. This is a fantastic way of showcasing how far in the game you are visually and I love how everything is recycled from used materials, creating a believable world.
Steve Ince animated the characters and they have impressive and smooth motions, and despite their models being so small that their mouth-animations are humorously lacking, they still provide clear personalities and traits by their attires and design alone. Robin is the mysterious hero in coat, Lamb is a rich bastard wearing fabric of extinct creatures, and so on. It creates a world with clear rules and characters. Using the Virtual Theatre, the characters walk around and go on with their daily lives, which is a nice way to create some atmosphere. The intro features some still comic-panels with some of them containing minor animations. They are nice-looking, but more could have been done to not make them look as static as the urban city.
Before the launch of Beneath a Steel Sky, the game had its lengthy dialogues re-recorded as their first take with the Royal Shakespeare Company did not please the team. However, I do wonder how bad they must have been as the direction and quality is all over the place here. Most characters are over the top with a silly tone to them, while your main character sounds incredibly bored. It creates an unclear and poor tone that does not match the quality of the visuals.
The worst, however, is the soundtrack by Cummins. It is not necessarily bad and each area has its own music-piece, but they are repetitive with little variation in the tracks. They try to provide an atmosphere, but they are rather whimsical and uplifting, which do not match with the overall setting at all with the rusty and metallic landscape. In the last parts of the game, the soundtrack does prone to some darker tones, but even here it is more bizarre with high and low notes, which makes it something more surreal than uncomfortable. Just like the story, the presentation suffers because of a lack of clear tone, and even more so here due to the lack of quality. Sound-effects also disappear or are not apparent in scenes where I would at least expect them to be, such as huge explosions. It says something when the brutal visuals of crashes or murders, are lessened due to lack of fitting audio.
Presentation Score: 6/10
Beneath a Steel Sky provides a good time thanks to its engaging plot and setting. It has flaws with an unclear tone, puzzles that are hit and miss due to problems of padding, and the audio is subpar on all levels. However, if you are an enthusiast of the genre and value a good sci-fi story with intriguing twists and humour, Beneath a Steel Sky is definitely worth a look. There is a remastered version released for the IOS and it comes with a much better intro-scene and an improved soundtrack that alters slightly the presentation for a more fitting experience. The interface also makes pixel-hunting easier, and it has a help-function, so if you have that device, this is definitely the way to go. I do not, which is why I reviewed the free-version available on GoG.com, while waiting for the sequel.