Video Game Review: Beneath a Steel Sky

Point and Click adventure games are interesting from a review standpoint. They are a lot more narrative focused than, say, shooters, because they rely so heavily on their story, and the puzzles, if executed well, feed into the narrative.

So, Beneath A Steel Sky is a point-and-click adventure game made using the SCUMM engine (at least the version that’s available on GOG), put out by Revolution Software in the UK (the same people who do the Broken Sword series). It’s a cyberpunk story that focuses on Foster, a part of a society of scavengers living in the Gap, outside of a cyberpunk dystopian city that Foster’s mother died trying to flee from with her son. Presumably this is set in Australia, as Foster is named after Foster’s Lager, but considering that brand of beer is now available all over the world (and considering a few other UK-isms in the game’s dialog), it could be in Australia or the UK.

After a bunch of fascist soldiers lead by the on-the-nose named “Reich” comes to the settlement Foster calls home, and takes him and his robot sidekick “Jack” back to the city (after nuking the settlement for good measure), Foster and Jack have to escape from the city and figure out why Reich and his men were after them.

The City in Beneath a Steel Sky is a standard bureaucratic centralized cyberpunk dystopia. By “bureaucratic centralized cyberpunk dystopia”, I mean that instead of the society having a bunch of mega corporations vying for control, you have a central bureaucratic government, normally represented by a computer, which controls every aspect (or most major aspects) of a citizen’s life, including codified social stratification (often represented literally). While on the one hand, this lets you focus on a centralized narrative thrust to your story, on the other hand, this can cost you a lot of narrative depth in the world, unless you build it into the background.

A good example of this in this game is the fact that, again, the inplaceabity of the setting. Based on the voice acting and some of the slang (like “spanners” for “wrenches”, “jumper” for “sweater”), I can assume that it’s either in the UK or Australia, but without any further stuff suggesting which (Aussie or UK specific slang or place names, certain street, location names, or location designs, or anything), it feels just a too generic.

That said, the game starts out as a fun dark comedy that feels like it moves organically into just being dark towards the end. Stuff like the main character having a badass black trench-coat — with an ugly holiday teddy-bear sweater underneath. Getting cool black mirrorshades — which are broken when you get them and get taken by someone else before you get a chance to fix them. Finding the exclusive club where the elite meet — and it’s a crappy dive where the lights are kept low so no one realizes how ugly the place is, and the booze is terrible.

However, when it gets dark, it gets dark, stepping also into some Giger-meets-Cronenberg esque body horror, alongside the horror of inhuman bureaucracies and greed, the latter of which is also part of the core of cyberpunk. We get into some weird and gross stuff with organic architecture in the depths of the city, murderous very humanoid androids, and a deranged plastic surgeon with a very chipper test patient on the one side. On the other side, we have a supporting character who, due to their social status, is forced to work in a high-radiation environment without any protective equipment because it’s determined that they don’t deserve it.

Quick aside, why did we never get a collaboration between Giger & Cronenberg when Giger was still alive? With Giger’s esthetic and Cronenberg’s penchant for body-horror, that would be a match made in the very depths of hell.

Anyway, the game isn’t without some issues. A lot of not only the game’s puzzles, but also the very navigation of the game’s world is dependant on pixel bitching – finding small parts of the games environment only a few pixels in size to interact with. This would have certainly been a problem when the game originally came out, but it’s even more of an issue considering that the default game resolution is 320×240, and you can only upscale it by 3 times. And again, this isn’t just a case where a few of the game’s puzzles are based on on pixel bitching – the key-card readers that you need to operate the elevators that you use to navigate within levels of the environment are also very small.

I also have some problems with how the female characters are used in the game. By which I mean that there is four female characters with lines. One is a receptionist who effectively exists as a puzzle. One is borderline set-dressing. The third has a significant contribution to the plot… but also is killed to motivate the character to continue further in the story. The fourth does provide some useful background that helps push the plot along, but is also something of a joke. I’d really like if character #3 had more of an active role in the game’s story, and hadn’t almost literally been fridged.

There’s also a weird issue where the voice acting and the subtitles really don’t match. The gist of the two match up, but the particulars don’t. In some cases the voice acting is a little more long-winded which, considering how SCUMM handles dialog subtitles, does explain why the subs would be a little different. In other cases though, this isn’t the case – either one of the two contains a regionalism (subs say “spanner”, voice acting says “wrench”), or there’s no clear justification.

Is the game worth playing? Well, it’s about 4-5 hours long, maybe longer if you really run into a brick wall on some of those puzzles, and at least on GOG it’s free, so your only investment is time.