A common pearl of wisdom in creative circles is to never go back to an old creation. Whether it’s a remake or a sequel coming years later, it’s a huge task to live up to the expectations and the rose-tinted memories of those who love the original work. For Beyond A Steel Sky, a sequel to the 1994 point & click classic Beneath a Steel Sky, that’s made all the more challenging when the medium has moved on so far.
Having left Union City behind him at the end of Beneath a Steel Sky, Beyond A Steel Sky opens with Robert Foster’s happy communal life torn apart by the kidnap of a child by a giant dog-like vehicle and its android pilots. It’s a dramatic opening to the game told through comic book panels drawn by legendary artist Dave Gibbons, and sets Foster on the trail back to a Union City utterly transformed from the one he once knew.
Have already explored one form of dystopian future in the original, Beyond A Steel Sky plays on a somewhat different vision of our future. Sure, it’s a utopia on the surface, everyone looks happy and wants for nothing, but dig a little deeper and you see that it’s a paper thin mask. Every citizen is tracked and monitored through embedded U-Chips, their social standing determined by Qdos painstakingly collected and hoarded to move to the more affluent lower levels of the city, always wary that Mentors from the Ministry of Wellbeing can wipe away your Qdos, restrict your travel and privileges if you don’t keep up appearances well enough. It echoes the social credit system used in China in particular, as well as just the increasing surveillance and monitoring of people’s social media presence we see in other parts of the world. That’s before we get to the whole child kidnapping stuff!
Exploring this world as Foster – albeit under an assumed identity – there’s a pleasing depth to the characters you meet. They’re brought to life by a set of great performances through deep conversation trees, and Foster in particular feels like an amiable character who simply sees the world for what it is. He almost feels like he drifts his way through the adventure.
While there’s still some familiar-feeling point & click puzzling, many of the puzzles feature a new hacking tool, adding a second layer to investigate through every scene. Pulling out the scanner, you can wander around and find various smart devices to interact with – everything’s a smart device these days – whether it’s a sensor panel attached to a conveyor belt, advertising boards, or some of the more simplistic d-RYD robots that meander around Union City performing their singular purpose.
When one or more devices are in range, you can enter a simple block-based interface with some UI elements that you’ll be able to move around. Simplistically, you could reverse a hand panel to open for unauthorised personnel, or switch the flavour of Spankles drinks that vending machines will hand you, but the puzzles can be more complex, asking you to try and shift a particular module between devices and across an area that you are in.
It works well, but it can also feel rather fiddly at times as you try to find where the overlap point is to interact with two devices at once. Combine that with the need to wait for characters or d-RYD’s to go through their patrol route, and it’s one of the reasons why some of the puzzles can feel just a shade too obtuse when viewed alongside the rest of the story and puzzles in the game.
I was left scratching my head on a few occasions, knowing in general what I needed to do, but not quite how I needed to do it, or feeling like I had my next objective but the game thinking otherwise. There was just a slight disconnect between me and the game. A hints system is there to help give you a gentle nudge and eventually outright direction on how to progress, though it feels particularly unhelpful if you turn to it mid-puzzle, thanks to having a 30 second time out before offering you the next hint.
Unfortunately, the ambitions of the design and the story go beyond what the game’s production can keep up with. The game looks good, thanks to the art style that comes close to the comic book artwork of Dave Gibbons, but there’s just far too many rough edges. While it’s to be expected from this size of production, animation is quite a way behind the curve, the way that scenes unfold within the game lacking the flow and pacing of how they will have been imagined while writing the script itself.
And then there’s the fundamental lack of polish through the game. I had several conversations with the backs of people’s heads, the dynamic camera that frames conversations can be easily obscured by walls depending on where you engage in conversation, the camera judders whenever you run up or down stairs, and trying to examine some items from a distance would have you walk slowly across an area with no way to break out of the action. Revolution are working to patch these issues, and some major issues were alleviated between playing the review build and yesterday’s release, but there’s lots of minor glitches that were not.
There’s persistent blemishes that certainly get in the way of the game, but personally didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story that it’s telling. Still, I hope that Revolution can quickly buff away some of the rougher edges around the PC release.