Unless you know your pointing and clicking, you could be forgiven for not being aware of Beneath a Steel Sky. The 1994 adventure appeared on things like the Amiga and the deeply rubbish CD32 for one thing – as well as good old MS DOS – while its most recent remaster was an iOS exclusive over a decade ago. All you really need to know is that it’s from the same studio as the effervescent Broken Sword franchise, and that its sci-fi narrative trappings are considered a cult classic if you ask the right people.
While a sequel has been on fan’s minds for a long time – Revolution actually had it as a stretch goal for Broken Sword 5’s 2012 Kickstarter campaign – Beyond a Steel Sky was only officially revealed this year, with the game heading to both Apple Arcade and PC before 2019 is up. We were able to go hands on with an early section of the game at EGX, and came away utterly enamoured with the direction the game is taking.
Beyond a Steel Sky is a 3D narrative adventure, further chronicling the trials of the quipping engineer Robert Foster, and from the off it’s clear that the game’s visual identity has benefitted greatly from the power of modern technology. Chunky, comic book-styled visuals coming from the mind of Watchmen alumni Dave Gibbons bring to mind Telltale’s work on Tales from the Borderlands, and they look genuinely lovely.
Our demo found us stuck outside the monolithic walls of the futuristic city-state of Union City, but it’s obviously not somewhere that wants to invite us in. Thankfully Robert is given an electronic doohickey that lets you tinker with the programming of nearby tech, and it’s up to you to puzzle your way through, firstly across a security bridge and then into the city itself while talking to the locals and messing with vending machines.
Those logic puzzles take the form of hacking, with Robert able to change the coding order of technology that he comes across. Want to get across a bridge, but don’t have the required security key? Simply swap the responses around so that someone without a key card can gain entry. Given the proliferation of gun turrets in the demo, it’s best not to think about what happens to the people who use that tech legitimately after you’ve messed with it.
Telltale are a good marker for how the puzzles feel, and indeed how the game plays out in a 3D space. While the overall effect feels much more solid, consistent and expansive than Telltale’s games often did, players will appreciate the rhythm of conversation, lateral thinking, and implementation being somewhat familiar.
The writing is utterly on-point though, with humorous NPC’s providing plenty of sarcasm, wit and even a couple of genuine laughs along the way. If Revolution can keep up the pace and standard of writing we’ve seen so far, fans of narrative adventures are in for something special.
There are some real Nineteen Eighty-Four vibes coming from the Charles Cecil-penned narrative, with Union City’s AI-controlled streets liable to hide plenty of dirty and devastating secrets. With the rise of technology in our everyday lives and how it’s used to manipulate society, George Orwell’s opus has never been more relevant. By extension, the themes of observation, social control and AI should make Beyond a Steel Sky as timely as it’s possible to be.
What we haven’t yet fully experienced is the game’s “dynamic” world, which will apparently respond and change to your choices. We’ve heard many similar claims over the years – probably from Peter Molyneux at some point – but if they’re able to make those choices feel meaningful and the subsequent effects tangible they will be able to really set themselves apart from other entries in the genre.
There are probably a few of the less desirable similarities to Telltale games in our preview build. Robert isn’t the most lithe of characters, and even jogging across the opening area feels a bit sluggish. The pace is further slowed by the very specific placement it takes to engage with items and other characters out in the world, but that’s something that could easily be remedied before launch.
That said, bereft of Telltale and with Life is Strange’s second season soon to be all tied up, the world is undoubtedly ready for a new 3D narrative adventure. Lucky for us, Beyond a Steel Sky is shaping up very well indeed.