Still not running with the herd, in reviewing the same sorts of new releases. That sort of style works for some people, but it ain't the sort of way I do this thing. I challenge myself to review the games that other people have mostly not touched, but which they really should. And this time, it's another classic which most of you won't have heard of!
Happily, I've managed to keep this review short once again, making it four reviews in a row which I've kept under 2,000 words. Please tell me how my shorter review style is doing - I seriously don't know whether I'm being comprehensive enough, or whether the addition of pictures has helped.
"What happened here?"
"Sabotaged chopper crashed... Destroyed the hospital!"
"A hospital? That's tragic!
"Could've been worse... It almost hit the factory!" - Robert Foster and an agent of the Union City Security Services, Beneath a Steel Sky
Beneath a Steel Sky - A Retrospective Review
Beneath a Steel Sky is a 1994 PC/Commodore Amiga-format point-and-click adventure game, developed by Revolution Software and released by Virgin Interactive. Later supported on the ScummVM project, Beneath a Steel Sky was released as freeware by Revolution Software, and is available on their website to this day.
The game takes place in a dystopian future in Australia, where the states and territories have been taken over and consumed by their respective capital cities. These cities are highly stratified, with the poor living in the polluted upper reaches of the cities, surrounded by factories, and the rich living in the unpolluted bottom. Two of the huge entities that rule this dystopian land, Union City and Hobart Corporation, are engaged in an economic war over "market" dominance through the use of sabotage.
The main character, Robert, was the sole survivor of a helicopter crash in "the Gap", the name for the Australian Outback in the game. The helicopter crash killed his mother, who was born in Hobart, and who was attempting to escape Union City. Being too young to look after himself, the young Robert was taken in and adopted by a group of indigenous Australians. Giving him the surname Foster, from a can of Foster's Lager, the native Australians teach him all of the skills that he would need to survive in the Gap. Robert even learns engineering and technology, and manages to build a talking, sentient robot named Joey.
However, Foster's life in the Gap cannot last forever. There remains the suspicious circumstances that his mother died by, and the mysterious issue of his father, whose status is unknown. One day, agents of the Union City Security Services go on the search for Robert Foster, finding his tribe, annihilating them and abducting Foster. With only the rescued circuit board retrieved from the destroyed body of his robot, Joey, Foster is brought to Union City.
But then, just over the skies of Union City, the helicopter which is bringing in Foster starts to malfunction, crashing into the tower blocks at the top of the city. With the Security Services agents on the chase, Foster runs into a factory, managing to escape his captors, in particular, Officer Stephen Reich, who managed to survive the helicopter crash. Reassembling Joey in a discarded robot shell, Foster looks for a way out of the factory, but runs once again into Reich.
However, when Reich attempts to capture Foster, he is held back and killed by a mysterious benefactor. With everybody he knows dead and nobody to assist him through Union City, Foster must rely on the few clues he possesses. Who is Overmann? What is LINC, and what are its intentions? Why exactly has Foster been brought to Union City in the first place? With Joey at his side, Foster must make his escape from Union City, but there are people who have plans for Foster.
The plot, while not the strongest ever, is competent and strong enough to keep the player interested at all times. Full of whimsy, even in the dystopian world of the city-states, the plot never takes itself too seriously, a point which is hammered home in the narrative.
Happily, this isn't the best the dialogue gets.
The relationship between Foster and Joey is a great example. As Joey is activated, he becomes embarrassed at the robotic shell that Foster has implanted his "personality" board into, insulting Foster, making sly sexual innuendoes when Foster wants him to restart a robot by probing it and generally being a sarcastic and snarky character. It's a great case of humour in the game, and certainly not the last, as you meet a shiftless factory manager who is more interested in his comfortable position and his cat than his job or his employees; Billy Anchor, the insurance salesman ready to sell a policy for anything and the Security Services officers, who seem overly happy about the state of the city.
At the same time, Beneath a Steel Sky is perfectly capable of being serious when it needs to be. The creepy Gallagher is a good example of this, showing up throughout the game, his unnerving calm creating a counter-point to the whimsy throughout the game.
The setting is a great strength of the game as well. From the grungy factories of the upper levels, with breathtaking, but hardly pretty vistas from the tower blocks, to the middle-class domiciles with their relatively small, but comfortable living spaces and businesses nearby, to the upper-class lower floors, with the exclusive (but seedy) St. James club and the remnants of underground railway systems, the entire game drips with charm and personality, and it's a pleasure to navigate through it.
The tower levels of Union City, pumping out enough pollution to make the United States look clean.
The game is exceptionally well-written and extremely well-set, as befits an adventure game, typically a genre which relies on its plot and narrative to keep the game interesting. Perfectly counter-balancing wit and charm with the seriousness of the later plot, it kept me enthralled all of the way until the end.
Pity the end came so soon, then. Adventure games have never typically been known for their length, but Beneath a Steel Sky felt disappointingly short, especially as the plot was so good, and the setting could have inspired so many more things. Beneath a Steel Sky was so full of professionalism and humour, and it ended so quickly.
The gameplay is an offender in this regard. The gameplay is strong, but it's also very simple. There are only two ways in which you can interface with an item - look at it, or use it. For those for which this is the first adventure game they try, it's welcome, for there will never be anything too obscure, but those who have played some of the SCUMM-engine LucasArts games, such as the Monkey Island series, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle or even the more simple Full Throttle will be disappointed, as figuring out the way that items interact is a large part of the gameplay of adventure games, and unintentional or deliberate mistakes can lead to some of the greatest dialogue in the SCUMM games.
While Beneath a Steel Sky doesn't lack the humour that the SCUMM games displayed, it does lack that complexity, which means that even though the gameplay is strong, it doesn't last very long, leading directly to the shortness of the game.
The game is lacking in a few other aspects, and the one that stands out strongest is the voice acting. The voice acting isn't bad by any means; in fact, it's very well-done. However, it's not really appropriate for a game set in Australia; most of the characters speak in various British accents, with Foster done in an American accent, and only one character speaking an Australian accent. Perhaps this was a result of a low budget, or the consequence of being developed in Britain, where the audience would sympathise more with the characters if they could use their accents as a tool to figure out their social status. Whatever the reason, it's a logical error, and while it doesn't exactly ruin the game, it does affect that polished atmosphere that they've created throughout.
Another aspect of the game that tends to grate after a short time is the collection of music present in the game. Apart from the excellent opening track, the rest of the soundtrack is a bit of a miss, not fitting in properly with the game at all. The jingly track experienced on the floor housing the middle classes is extremely irritating and overly cheerful, and represents the definite low-point in terms of the sonic experience. Many of the other tracks suffer from being overly cheerful also, especially dissonant considering the darker tone that the game takes nearer the end.
The graphics aren't exactly technically advanced, either, but then again, you don't expect a game from 1994 to look like Crysis. What's important is the style, and the style is good. It's colourful where it needs to be, and dull where that's a necessity. It's also very vibrant throughout, and is in fact one of the most superior aspects of the game.
A perfect display of the mixture between colour and drabness that defines this game.
Despite being a rather short experience, Beneath a Steel Sky is one of the best adventure games that I've ever played. Full of wit, charm, vibrancy and humour, the narrative and style of the game are triumphs. Turn off the music, and this is a brilliant adventure game, one I recommend to any fan of adventure games, and a great introduction to the genre for any person interested in getting into the genre.
[The section that follows is overly technical. You're not really missing anything if you stop reading at this point. Just be fortunate that I avoided this sort of pedantry when it came to the cars in Gran Turismo.]
While the graphics might not be particularly technically advanced, it is this very lack of technical advance that allows the ScummVM engine which this game now runs on to run on so many formats. From Windows and Linux, Unix and BSD, to even more obscure operating systems and platforms as FreeMiNT, Palm OS, Symbian OS, OS/2 and RISC OS, ScummVM will work on a large number of the computer systems made since the late 1980s, and has the potential of being ported to others due to its open-source nature. The Palm OS is the most relevant to my own experience, as this allows me to play the SCUMM games on my Palm PDA, and with a lot of the main handheld platforms covered, there's no real reason that you shouldn't be able to use ScummVM, even if you are using some highly obscure computer, like a Risc PC, or if you're still using an Amiga or something, not keeping with the times.