A struggle to go beyond the original
The point-and-click adventure genre is one I have acquainted myself well with over the last twelve months through exploration of titles such as the classic Grim Fandango, the unusual The Procession to Calvary and the dark Twelve Minutes. So, when given the chance to have a look at the console release of Beyond a Steel Sky from Revolution Software, the long-awaited follow-up to the 1994 point-click-adventure Beneath a Steel Sky it seemed rude not to.
Beyond a Steel Sky moves away from its point-and-click roots evolving into a 3D narrative focused adventure. You take on the role of returning protagonist Robert Foster, amidst a situation where one of the children from his village has been kidnapped by a huge, android driven robot called a STALKER. Foster assumes the identity of a late resident of Union City, the same city that he had left in the hands of his AI creation Joey 10 years prior following the events of the first game. Foster appears surprised at the utopian state of the city, but it is clear from the outset that there are darker forces at work here and of course it is your job to find the underlying cause and become society’s saviour.
Foster sets voyage for Union City where he firstly must find a way to breach its huge walls and gain access to the bustling metropolis where he hopes he will be able to unravel the secrets of the city (and hopefully find the kidnapped child) by solving a wide variety of puzzles. The puzzles themselves never feel overly challenging with the majority involving the use of a handheld scanner to hack items in Foster’s vicinity and are varied enough that they don’t get old. There is also an excellent hint system in place to help if you are more focussed on experiencing the story, and when I say hint, they will effectively point blank tell you the answer.
Union City feels like an interesting place, with your social ranking based on the “QDOS” system which gives each citizen a happiness score built up from mundane tasks such as daily polls and time spent at work (none of which you do in the game). The Council is in place to oversee the population, providing guidance and services to ensure that citizens can be as happy as possible. The higher a citizen’s score, the lower their place in society – with high-rollers roaming the glorious playgrounds at the bottom and the more odd and interesting characters, such as a murderer with an obsession of collecting his victim’s thumbs, found at the peak of these towering skyscrapers.
Although you are presented with this full, vibrant city with interesting social constructs and systems the game does absolutely nothing with it. For a mega-city, you only explore a handful of small hub-locations (repeatedly), and these hub locations are gated appearing far larger than they feel. It is the same with the societal systems that – there is no impact on the player at all, although they have a QDOS score it never changes and none of your actions affect it – a real missed opportunity.
It is clear to see the developers have been influenced by the excellent TellTale games of recent years. This aesthetically feels very Tales of the Borderlands, the hint system is almost a ‘lift and shift’ from Back to the Future, and the adventure itself gave me The Wolf Among Us vibes. None of this is a bad thing at all.
“It has all the elements thatwould allow it to stand up against the best games in the genre…”
The art style is highlight of this game. The cel shaded comic book presentation really shines, as you hope it would coming from the mind of Dave Gibbons best known for the Watchmen series of graphic novels. Aside from the art-style, the graphics themselves are nothing to write home about – played on Xbox Series X they are not setting the world alight as we enter the second year of this generation, but they don’t really need to. The rest of the performance was good, the biggest issue I faced was NPC placement. During cut scenes the NPCs would simply walk through you, or you would find yourself stuck between them and the environment forcing me to load an earlier save point.
What is clear is how much of a sixty frames-per-second snob I have become over the last year or so. Although the frame rate was a solid thirty frames-per-second, it felt incredibly stilted and was magnified by how slow the overall gameplay is. That slowness is a bit of a drag throughout – there never appears to be any sense of urgency, even using the run button you are still moving at a snail’s pace which detracts from the severity of the situation making certain sections of the game a real slog.
The voice acting is, let’s say, interesting (as a Scotsman I have some bias here). The game is set initially in the Australian outback, and you are at once exposed to the most stereotypical Australian accents (think old-school Australian lager adverts). It worsens though when you are presented with an array of awful British accents including Scottish, Welsh, Irish, West Country and Cockney – obviously trying to ensure nobody feels left out. It was off-putting to say the least and prevented any real sense of feeling towards the cast of characters.
Given this is the first outing of the series on consoles, the controls were simple and effective yet frustrating at the same time – it was the amount of precision needed to interact with items that proved the issue. You had to get the item in the centre of the screen to be able to interact, and this resulted in a few situations where I had to repeat parts of the game because I didn’t manage to complete the actions in time.
Following on from the much beloved Beneath a Steel Sky, this game just doesn’t hit the same heights. Whether you have played the original or not – don’t worry, there are interactive museums in the game providing an excellent overview of the events of the first game and the world as a whole.
For me, Beyond a Steel Sky just lacks a bit of depth. It has all the elements that would allow it to stand up against the best games in the genre, it just did not make the most of them. I was left with a distinct feeling of “this could have been so much better” which is a shame, but there is plenty here for fans of the original. It feels like the culmination of an overarching story rather than a game that stands on its own two feet.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X, available December 7 on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS5 and PS4. Available digitally on Nintendo Switch November 30.