With the movie adaptation of Ghost in the Shell currently at the cinemas, I’ve decided to take a look at the cyberpunk genre and there’s quite a number of games belonging to that genre. But perhaps my favourite one is Beneath a Steel Sky.
Beneath a Steel Sky is a graphic adventure developed by British company Revolution Software and published by Virgin Interactive. It was originally released in 1994 for Amiga, Amiga CD32 and DOS. It was re-released for modern Windows in 2008 and for the Macintosh in 2012. A remastered version was released for iOS in 2009.
After the success of their first game, Lure of the Temptress, Revolution’s co-founder, Charles Cecil, decided to revive an old project he had with famed comic book artist Dave Gibbons (Watchmen, DC Comics, etc.) while still in Activision. Gibbons provided the comic that serves as the intro to the game and all the visual ambiance and backgrounds within it, while the rest of team worked using the game engine they made themselves: the Virtual Theatre engine.
But let’s look at the covers first, shall we?
The first cover is the most well known and iconic one, with a simple white outline of Union City’s towers over a black background. Simple and effective at invoking the urban atmosphere of the game.
Then we have this cover:
The logo etching in a rusty iron surface isn’t that bad, but I hate all the empty gray space. Either use all gray or all rusty, but not both! You know, like this:
Also, take a look at the CD case cover:
An image of Union City taken from the comic book with a miniature of the original cover on the side. Also good at invoking the urban oppression in the game.
But let’s boot this sucker, shall we?
This is the intro to the CD-ROM version. The floppy disk version came with a comic book by Dave Gibbons detailing the events that led up to the beginning of game: you play as Robert Foster (named after a brand of Australian “beer”), a man who has grown in a post-apocalyptic Australian Outback region called the Gap and one day, he’s kidnapped by Security forces from a dystopian city called Union City and brought back to said city, but on the way back, the copter he was travelling in, crashes and he escapes. Now, Foster not only has to avoid the Security forces but he also has to find the reason behind his kidnapping and his link to the city.
Like I’ve mentioned before, the game uses the Virtual Theatre engine, which gave more independence to NPCs by programming specific routines and tasks independent of the players’ input. This creates a more realistic game world in terms of characters’ relations, portrayals and overall atmosphere. And yet, it isn’t hard to find specific NPCs when needed, mainly because the game world isn’t very big, despite being inside a city.
You see, the copter crash at the beginning not only serves as a story element, but also as means to isolate the characters from the rest of the city. In fact, the playable areas are limited to just three levels of a single city tower (besides a fourth and final area), so it won’t be possible to explore the rest of the city and to interact with a lot of characters.
And talking about the NPCs, they’re all well written and fleshed out enough to help create a proper atmosphere. I find it funny that the protagonist and his companion, Joey, speak with an American accent and the rest of the characters have British accents, despite the fact that the game’s story occurs in Australia. Still the voice-over is not bad, despite some bad voice acting here and there.
The humour is quite sarcastic, especially at the beginning. But as the story progresses, the tone gets more and more serious, but at least it doesn’t get as depressing as in The Dig.
And about our protagonist Foster: despite speaking with an American accent, he doesn’t look like an outsider. In fact, with his long coat and slicked hairstyle, he blends perfectly with the rest of the NPCs. In fact in the intro, he immediately stands out compared with his tribesmen at the Gap.
The point-and-click scheme is simple and intuitive, with the left mouse button for examining objects and the right mouse button to pick and/or use them. Usually the mouse buttons are mapped the other way around in most graphic adventures, but you won’t have any problems adapting to this particular control scheme.
The soundtrack is quite good and is usually well tied to the game’s atmosphere, although I found the LINC Space theme a bit too upbeat for the sections it’s used. But the rest of the themes all fit in well with the game.
The game graphics are also quite good, with most of the backgrounds drawn by Dave Gibbons and featuring good animation throughout. It really conveys the urban oppression and decadence commonly found in the cyberpunk genre.
And talking about the cyberpunk elements, this game explores most of them, if not all (virtual reality, trans-humanism, human nature vs. technology, etc.) The story is heavily inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 and it shows.
The puzzles aren’t too hard, albeit with a bit of backtracking and pixel hunting, but any gamer experienced with graphic adventures shouldn’t have any problems with it. Also despite the playable areas not being too big, the game still has a proper length to it. Apart from all of these nitpicks, I highly recommend it, even if you’re not a cyberpunk fan. At the end, you can see why it became a cult classic.
In 2003, Revolution released the game as freeware, which made it possible for ScummVM to support it. You can easily find it almost everywhere in the Internet, but I recommend downloading it from the ScummVM homepage here or from GOG.com here. You can also get the remastered version for iOS here.
And you can also get an enhanced soundtrack by James Woodcock to use with ScummVM here.
Very recently, there have been news about a 3D sequel called Beyond a Steel Sky, but unfortunately we still have to wait for more news about it.
So, what do you think about Beneath a Steel Sky or cyberpunk games in general? Leave your comments below. Next time, it’s Easter! And you know what that means. Until then, keep on playing and surfing the cyberspace.