It is hard to know what to say to someone you have not seen in years, just for them to pop up out of nowhere. Do you greet them with open arms, take time to reminisce, ask what the future holds for them, or just acknowledge their presence politely and go on with your own daily life? This is my feelings toward Beyond a Steel Sky, as I did not see any real reason for the original to get a sequel. After how Broken Sword 5 was very focused on feeding nostalgia and trying to use that to get a story across, I was honestly afraid Beyond a Steel Sky would go the same route. However, we all learn from our past in order to progress, so is this at least a better experience than Beneath a Steel Sky?
Familiar, but fresh
We are set ten years after the events of the first game. Robert Foster, the protagonist from the first game, is spending his days in a village set in the gap, which is a desert wasteland where technology is limited and recycling is their way of living. Tech is not uncommon, however, to the point where the younger ones are learning how to utilise trash thrown by the big cities for their own benefits. One day when Foster goes fishing with his friend Max and his son Milo, a four legged mechanical creature jumps out of the water. Milo is kidnapped by men in black attires, and Max is knocked unconscious. While the villagers are attending to Max’s injuries, Foster tracks the footprints of the creature, leading him to a familiar city of tall metal constructions.
This metal city that is far beyond even our technological possibilities in 2020, is where you will spend most of your time in and it is a civilisation brimming with interesting cultures, politics and philosophies. It is a strange world where peace and harmony is forced upon the people, creating clear results, but also diminishes freedom. This is clearly not the right method in order to achieve a positive society necessarily, but it adds many other benefits that could be argued as positive. These philosophical subtleties are strong in this title and the same could be said for the game’s environmental message. Nothing is preachy and acknowledges our need for elements like technology and peace, yet makes it clear that we should not take anything for granted and look at the details in the bigger picture. Charles Cecil really created a setting that is never upfront with what is truly right, but presents the fault of believing that anything is so.
This strength in the subtle philosophies on how to create a society, comes also from great world-building. This is surely the same city as in the original, but everything is upgraded. There is a new political setup reminiscing of a senate, the new supercomputer MINOS controlling everything to the point of replacing LINC, and new technology in general. There is even a dedicated museum to this world, providing both Foster’s take on their “facts” and the museum’s own interpretation of the past, both being interesting and amusing to witness. It all makes this civilisation fascinating to discover, and the game fully encourages you into explore this city. You can listen to citizens’ conversations, talk to NPCs to gain more info, or look at the minor details like posters or the menu in a cafe. I still want to know what truly is in a Sparkle, as it is not soda!
I basically spend an hour just walking around and getting engrossed with the world around me. While this can easily take the focus away from the plot, it still stands strong in its own right. You have a clear main goal to achieve, but the restrictions within this world’s technology and the fear of disturbing their comfortable lives, hinders you from actually achieving it. You will have to put together the pieces for what is going on and while it can be easy to see midway through what the overall picture will be like, it is still entertaining to see the events unfold. There are some flashbacks early on that were unnecessary due to the amount of them, but the rest of the game is light on using nostalgia to sell itself. Whenever something familiar occurs, it either adds to the plot or is a nice nod. None of them come off as poor excuses for fanservice. The plot also comes together with the game’s overall theme, which is lovely to see these aspects intertwine so strongly.
That being said, the characters are what hurts the overall story in this iteration. None are bad, but only fills a role for moving the story forward or for a puzzle. Because of this and that they get barely any screen time, they can be easily forgettable. This is a shame as the dialogues they convey, range from clever to hilarious. Some are references to misconceptions about the actual developers, how diagnostics of comfort is a job that only analyses a problem and never fixes them or how one person collects thumbs because of how he enjoys the approval. There are plenty more similar humour in this game, and it never fails to provide at the very least a chuckle. There are even some dark comedy thrown in, like how ignorance is a bliss or that we have one occurring Graham rising from the dead. Yeah, King’s Quest could be mean.
Despite the lack of memorable characters, one that stands out is Foster due to his constant presence. This is a good thing as he is amusing with his straightforward description of items, areas and people, with a companion further on functioning as a nice contrast to him with some snarky comments. The journey ends on a brilliant final that perfectly represents the first title, and while it crams in a lot the last hour, it is still a nice end to a fascinating journey. It might mean even more so if you have played the original title, but anyone can be intrigued by this world and the plot. Even if the solid characters just come and go.
Story Score: 7/10
Some patches and interesting updates
While Beyond a Steel Sky is still a point-and-click, it has a strange reference to some of the studio’s older titles in terms of controls. It is played in third person with an over the shoulder view and tank controls. You use the mouse to look around and click on objects or people to get a list of commands on how to interact with them, with a run button available for convenience. The game does a good job at introducing you to the areas you can explore or are restricted to, and a helpful hint system is always present in case you ever get truly lost.
There is no item combination in this instalment. Instead, you have to figure out what purpose an item can have to the environment or characters, with multiple steps added required to make the puzzles more tricky and not just context-sensitive moments. This is a nice way to make the tasks more focused on the areas and they get gradually harder as the game goes on. What is an original idea, comes in the form of a scanner that can hack certain technological objects. It can be used to alter their behaviour when something is activated, do a sub-task differently, or even swap entire setups with other machines if they are compatible. It makes for an interesting device for puzzles or even to just mess around with.
The puzzles range in different types from logical puzzles, planning an event step by step, or just figuring out what is the right tool for the job. This variety makes the brain teasers engaging and fun, avoiding any repetition. However, the later parts of this game can sadly drag, due to how many steps a puzzle can require. Some of these are also timed, which can make it annoying if you are experimenting with a task and just as you figured out how to solve it, someone is tampering with your progress. This was only experienced in the last couple of hours of the game, but it should be noted that for a 6-7 hour game, there were times where I had to take a breather. There are also some backtracking, but areas are thankfully small and confined so you should never be on a wild-goose chase.
This is because most puzzles are constructed within a limited area and rather require you to have a keen eye and creative thinking, which is where Beyond a Steel Sky succeeds. Especially with its hacking device, as it makes for an interesting and unique way of tinkering with the environment. While there were a couple of tiresome parts, it was more due to how much planning they required and the fear of restarting the process. The option for both manual and auto-save can help in this regard, even if it just lessens the tedium. Thankfully, the actual puzzles were always clever, with the rest being solid and entertaining.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
Brown is actually an underrated colour
With the technology available these days, I was interested to see what Dave Gibbons could do with this sequel and it is an impressive feat. The idea to go with a cel-shading presentation really gets forward the man’s art style, to the point where I forgot there was only one cutscene utilising comic book style. While it was a solid introduction with subtle movements to panels and people within them, the in-game presentation brims with both colours and details that really makes this world pop up and indulges me to explore every nook and cranny.
Every area is simply interesting to venture through, be it the outside walls with a playground and a garden, the piazza with a cafe and statues, or even just admiring the subtle details in an apartment to tell you more about those who lived there. Everything is impressively rendered and brims with colours to make everything stand out. It makes it engaging to just look around and see how this world is build and presented. However, the creativity it all comes with should also be remarked. The citizens wears interesting attires, the modernised robots have a simple and calming design, all of this and more functions to make this world pleasant but simultaneously uncomfortably clean. This is really a nice and subtle way to make the visuals have clearly an effect on the player. Especially since that the contrast to this world is our protagonist and playable character; Foster. With his reused red teddy bear shirt and brown cloak, he does stick out like a sore thumb.
I am also impressed by what the developers could do on a technical level. Even the textures are impressive, which is strange when cel-shading can easily be used to mask the lack of it! It all comes together with wonderful lighting and effective shadows. I also love how the characters walk around and chat, since it does remind me of the Virtual Theatre Engine, even if this is far from an uncommon element these days. The character-models are solid with good facial expressions, even if they can be somewhat stiff in the dialogue sequences. The only negatives I really have with the visuals, are the strange blur effects when looking into mirrors and that the water could use some work. Thankfully, those are small gripes compared to the overall stellar visuals.
The voice actors, however, are a completely different story. They range between strong, adequate, and downright bad. It is a strange variety in voices that can feel off, despite their direction being solid. It is really their own tone that can be bad or feel forced for the lack of a better word, making them almost a parody of themselves. It was never enough to take me out of the experience completely, but this still provided an awkward shock every now and then. Thankfully, the actor behind Foster is solid, which is good since you will spend pretty much the entire game with him. I also had occasionally audio-glitches where the characters’ voices would get muffled because I was too close to a wall. The developers seem to be fixing a lot already, so hopefully this is will be patched out or lessened soon.
The music is magnificent though! Capturing the mysterious tone of this world through an orchestral score, is wonderfully done with subtle chimes of violin, flute and trumpets. This setup is kept when the events call for dire tracks, as they become more bombastic, but still keep them echoed enough to keep up this uncertain emotion. All the tracks contain variety and fantastic attention to flow. I could not find much about the composer, Alistair Kerley, but if this is what I can expect from the man, I am curious to see even more from him. Even some tunes from the original title appear, such as one used as elevator music, which is a lovely representation of nostalgia.
Presentation Score: 8/10
I am surprised. It is hard to determine what I expected here, but I am glad I went through with Beyond a Steel Sky. Similarly to seeing an old friend acknowledging his faults and trying to improve, this was a sweet revisit and it makes me appreciate the original title even more due to how clever of a revisit this was. It is far from perfect, but it is a title worth picking up for anyone who wants to explore an interesting sci-fi world, with some strong brain teasers added inn. For me, this was beyond the predecessor and I would not mind another sequel within the next 26 years.