Beneath a Steel Sky review

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 the Amiga, Amiga CD32 and DOS. It was re-released for modern Windows in 2008 and for 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 environment and backgrounds within it, while the rest of team worked using the game engine they made themselves called Virtual Theatre.

But let’s look at the covers first, shall we?

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Inspired by Metallica’s black album?

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 and oppressive atmosphere of the game.

Then we have this cover:

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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:

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Now we’re talking!

Although not an evocative as the original cover, it still is a somewhat decent one, with all the rust as visual metaphor for the corruption of Union City.

Also, take a look at the CD case cover:

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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 of Union City.

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 grew in a post-apocalyptic Australian Outback region called the Gap and one day, he’s kidnapped by the Security forces of a dystopian city called Union City and brought back to said city. But on the way, the helicopter 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 that big, despite being inside a city.

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“I’m no Macgyver, but I probably can do something with this”

You see, the helicopter crash at the beginning of the game not only serves as a story element, but also as means to isolate all the characters from the rest of the city. In fact, the playable areas are limited to just 3 floors of a single city tower (besides a fourth and final area), so it won’t be possible to explore the rest of the city or 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 and story. I find it funny that Foster 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.

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“Next to a mountain of scrap, that’s where we are, Rob”

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 as opposed in the intro, where 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 up 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 mouse scheme.

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“Game over, man. Game over!”

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 is used. But the rest of the themes all fit well with the game.

The game graphics are also quite good, specially with most of the backgrounds drawn by Dave Gibbons and featuring good animation throughout the game. It really conveys the urban oppression and decadence commonly found in the cyberpunk genre.

And talking about the cyberpunk elements and themes, 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.

379439-beneath-a-steel-sky-dos-screenshot-cyberspace

Welcome to the Matrix, Neo.

The puzzles aren’t too hard, albeit with a bit of backtracking and pixel hunting, but any player experienced with graphic adventures shouldn’t have much problems with it. Also, despite the playable areas not being too large, the game still has a proper length to it. And apart from all of these nitpicks, I still 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, from GOG.com here or from Steam here. You can also get the remastered version for iOS here.

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“So Babs, do you come here often?”

And you can also get an enhanced soundtrack by James Woodcock to use with ScummVM here.

Recently, a 3D sequel called Beyond a Steel Sky has been released for PC, Linux and iOS.

So, what do you think of Beneath a Steel Sky or any cyberpunk game 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.

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