Beyond a Steel Sky review: I am in my happy place

Twenty-six years is a long time to wait for a sequel to one of your favourite games. It’s also a weirdly significant metric in this bizarre year of 2020. April brought with it the release of the excellent Streets of Rage 4, some 26 years after the previous entry in the formally mothballed series. Last month saw the release of Ultracore on PS4 and Switch, 26 years after the game was due to debut on the Megadrive. And now Revolution has brought out Beyond a Steel Sky, a sequel to the much-loved Beneath a Steel Sky from 26 years earlier. It’s like the years 1994 and 2020 have some special resonance in history, some arcane connection. I’m already looking through the games released in 1994 to see what surprise sequels and re-releases we can expect in the latter half of 2020. A Rise of the Robots reboot, perhaps?

Whatever the mystical reason for these ancient games suddenly rising from the grave 26 years on, I’m supremely pleased that we’ve finally got a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky. It was one of my favourite games on the Amiga, and number 11 on my list of 101 Video Games That Made My Life Slightly Better. Many people cite Broken Sword as Revolution’s magnum opus, but I’d argue that Beneath a Steel Sky is far better, thanks in part to the beautiful cyberpunk landscapes drawn by 2000AD‘s Dave Gibbons and the enduring, heartwarming bromance between the protagonist Foster and his sarcastic robot Joey.

It’s good to be back.

Revolution head Charles Cecil has been teasing a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky for ages – as far back as 2004 in fact – but it’s taken years for the stars to align in its favour. Naturally, Revolution has been focusing on updates to its most popular series, Broken Sword, but clearly they think there’s now enough pent-up demand for a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky to make it worthwhile. I spoke to Charles the other week for a forthcoming feature, and he said that the release of BASS as freeware back in 2003 did a lot to raise awareness of the game, along with the iOS release a few years later. And then there are the throngs of ancient Amiga owners like me, who are goggle-eyed at the chance to finally revisit Union City after a lifetime of waiting.

Of course, this heaps a ridiculous amount of expectation onto Beyond a Steel Sky. How can it ever measure up to my rosy childhood memories, memories that have only become more blurred and more rosy over time? I’m playing this game through the eyes of a cynical 40-year-old, whereas I viewed the original through the wide-eyed gaze of an excited teenager playing what was then the pinnacle of the point-and-click genre, a sumptuous game that arrived on an astonishing 15 floppy disks. There is no way on earth that Revolution could recapture those circumstances – so wisely, they haven’t tried.

Fans might recognise this particular bit of art.

There have been a few sour grapes on t’interweb about Revolution’s decision to ditch the traditional point-and-click format and instead go with a 3D WASD control scheme for Beyond a Steel Sky, but I think it’s a good choice. It would be a fool’s errand to slavishly adhere to the format of the decades’ old original – best to try something new rather than retread the same old ground. And besides, what we have here is essentially point and click from a 3D viewpoint, with objects you can interact with handily highlighted as you sweep your gaze around. It’s a welcome change from the tiresome pixel-hunting of the original, which was by far the game’s worst aspect.

And the switch to a 3D world gave me a giddy thrill, to be honest. Entering the gates of Union City after all this time sent a tingle down my spine, and it was truly wonderful to see it recreated in three dimensions. Back in the Amiga days I had to fill in the blanks in my head, imagining what it would be like to wander through this world, but now I can actually do it, gazing up at the smoke-spewing chimneys and peering down at the luxury dwellings far below. My 14-year-old self would have been gobsmacked.

Greta the AI has some great lines. This isn’t one, but there’s a good one coming up in a bit.

The start of Beyond a Steel Sky sees Robert Foster living in The Gap, the game’s cyberpunk parlance for the Australian Outback. Blank-faced androids then attack Foster’s village, kidnapping a child called Milo, and Foster vows to get him back. The trail leads him to Union City, which Foster hasn’t visited since the end of Beneath a Steel Sky, when he installed his robot Joey as the guardian of the city with instructions to create a utopia. And on the surface, everything seems well in the metropolis – but naturally, appearances can be deceptive.

I won’t delve into the specifics of the plot, suffice to say you end up meeting a colourful cast of characters, including a few familiar faces from the previous game. And in general the conversations you have are a delight, with some memorable people, excellent voice acting and wonderfully witty dialogue. Leet the Welsh hacker – who I’ve no doubt was at least partly inspired by Howard Marks – is particularly great. Then again, the dialogue trees seem a little bit off, mechanically. As you pick subjects to talk about, sometimes further topics are added as a result of the answers you receive, while exhausted subjects are rendered in italics. But occasionally you’ll click a topic only to hear an answer you’ve been given before, or a slightly reworded version of the same answer, even though the text isn’t italicised. Sadly this is just one example of the many slightly broken things in Beyond a Steel Sky – but more on that in a moment.

Scanning… scanning… scanning…

In terms of puzzles, we’re on firm point-and-click ground as Foster fills up his man-bag with all manner of seemingly useless trinkets that have surprising applications later on. But this is supplemented with a new emphasis on hacking – clicking the right mouse button causes Foster to use his scanner, which can manipulate the logic routines of any computers nearby. At the very start, you can use this to distract a character by reprogramming a vending machine to sound an alarm whenever anyone orders a drink, and later on you can use it to switch programs between multiple machines in more convoluted puzzles. The hacking adds a welcome layer of complexity to the proceedings, and sometimes I’d be stumped on a room only to remember my hacking tool – a quick sweep of the walls would then reveal a handy machine I could reprogram.

Then again, the hacking seems a little hit and miss when it comes to some of the more complicated areas with multiple machines. On one particular part in a cafe, for example, I thought I’d solved a puzzle, but the expected effect didn’t happen. The solution only triggered when I redid the whole thing and put the moveable nodes in a different order, even though the order in this case shouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference. Then the game crashed.

The robot butler reminds me a little of the bartender in Starship Titanic, does anyone else get that?

And that’s the trouble, really. Beyond a Steel Sky is considerably rough around the edges, and although the game only full-on crashed on me once, it’s riddled with things that detract from the experience. The review code came with a long list of bugs that the developers are planning to fix before release, but there were plenty of other bugs beside those that I noticed on my playthrough, like the hacking tool suddenly becoming unresponsive, NPCs walking through each other, and two occasions in the atrium when examining an object prompted Foster to walk slowly all the way back to the entrance of the area to deliver his musings, with no amount of frantic button mashing able to dissuade him from his ponderous walk.

It’s a shame the game is so marred by these irritating occurrences, because I really did enjoy it. There are tons of amusing callbacks to the prequel, and it was genuinely wonderful to spend time in the company of Foster after all these years. The high point came about halfway through, when you’re given a room to explore that’s packed with references and gags, immediately before a brilliant sequence which reintroduces an old friend.

The cityscape looks bloody fantastic throughout.

Sadly, the second half of the game doesn’t quite live up to the first half. The rooms in the back end of the game feel far more sparse than in the first half, with far fewer things to interact with and fewer people to talk to. I got a strong sense that the developers were rushing to get the game finished, and didn’t have time to lavish as much care on the latter half as on the first. I mean, the starting area alone has five people to interact with and about an hour’s worth of puzzles before you even see the opening credits, yet there’s nothing anywhere near as elaborate in the final hours.

The ending, too, was a mixed bag. There’s a lovely, heartfelt conversation right at the close that’s immediately undone by the events that follow it, which seemingly contradict the message that has just been discussed at length. And considering all the dramatic events that unfold in the city during the denouement, it’s a shame the game doesn’t take time to explore the consequences of that for the people you’ve met along the way.

There are some great movie posters to find throughout the city.

I was also a bit frustrated that I didn’t get to explore more of the city. There are around nine main locations, each of which you visit multiple times, but I would have liked to see more of the workings behind the facade, along with the luxury living of the elite at the very bottom. Some of my favourite parts of the game involved learning the city’s lore and the frosty relationship it has with other megacities in this tarnished version of Earth, but there’s mostly very basic information on this kind of stuff. I got the feeling that perhaps other locations to visit were planned but then scrapped – for example, there’s a lot of references to Spankles, the fortified soft drink that Union City’s residents live on, and even an advert about meeting the mascot Mr Spankles at 3pm, but none of this really goes anywhere. I suspect that originally the developers might have planned a visit to the Spankles manufacturing plant or something along those lines, but it got dropped somewhere along the way.

Damn I love this place.

All in all, Beyond a Steel Sky took me around 13 hours to finish, and the first half was far more enjoyable than the second. If you consider the game on its own merits, there are much better point and click – or point and click-esque – games out there right now, like Unavowed, The Lair of the Clockwork God and Unforeseen Incidents. But if – like me – you played the original game and spent your whole life waiting for a sequel, then it’s nigh-on essential. Seeing Union City again prompted floods of nostalgia, and reawakened many happy childhood memories. Just leave me here, I’ll put up with the bugs. I want to spend time in my happy place.

OK, so that’s hardly the most objective way to end a review – but then again, who can be objective about nostalgia?

Beyond a Steel Sky was developed by Revolution, and is available on PC and Apple Arcade. We played the PC version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Beyond a Steel Sky was provided by Renaissance PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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