The ’90s Strike Back With a Vengeance

HIGH Strong writing and nostalgic vibes.

LOW Repetitive puzzles and a janky overall look.

WTF Why do I feel like I wouldn’t mind living in Union City?

Trying to make a sequel to a game originally released 28 years ago is no easy task. I can only imagine that when UK studio Revolution Software, of Broken Sword fame, decided to pitch a follow-up to their 1993 dystopian cult classic Beneath a Steel Sky, they did so well aware of what they were getting into.

Honestly, Beyond doesn’t go out of its way to brush newcomers up on the story so far — instead, after a rather strange comic book-style intro, we are merely dropped into a desert and left to discover old plot points as we move through the narrative. We play as Robert Foster and our main objective is rescuing a child who has been kidnapped and brought to Union City, a mega utopia built in the middle of the desert. Naturally, players can expect many classic sci-fi tropes about a ‘perfect’ society that is not as perfect as it seems.

Beyond a Steel Sky is still very much a point-and-click adventure game like its predecessor, with the exception that it’s more controller-friendly. We directly control Robert’s movements, trying to focus the screen on items or people. Then, we can interact with them by examining, talking (or more rarely) using inventory items on them. Interactivity is mostly limited to what’s required for the character progress, which is a bit of a shame.

While the initial sequence does hint at classic graphical adventure mechanics — find items, talk to characters, solve puzzles — the rest of the experience follows a new blueprint. At the end of the first scene, a character gives Robert a hacking tool, and most of the puzzles that follow will involve interacting with that tool in order to modify the behavior of various systems we find. For example, making a robot act erratically to distract a guard, or swapping the ‘close’ and ‘open’ functions of a door.

While some of the solutions are inventive and others lead to funny situations, overall this new philosophy on solving most puzzles gets old pretty fast because of its repetitive nature. As a side note, there is an in-game hint system available for players who get stuck, with a 30 second pause between each hint if one requires one more than one push in the right direction.

Gameplay mechanics aside, another change is the new 3D approach to graphics and a sort of ‘open world’ design. In a time when many developers are sticking to the classic 2D formula of old, these are bold choices for sure. However, I’m afraid to say they didn’t really pay off. The world of Beyond feels empty for the most part, with only a few characters ever walking around. There’s no environmental sense of ‘perfect city gone wrong’, which is instead conveyed via the writing. Ironically, this dystopia doesn’t look like a bad place to live!

Speaking of the graphics, Beyond seems like it’s from ten years ago, rather than two. I’m not faulting it for not looking entirely up to date, but the results here are janky and weird. For example, many times Robert will be awkwardly placed directly in front of the character he’s talking to, obstructing the view. 3D models clip through each other regularly, and animations need to be fully played out for our character to successfully interact — if he’s standing just slightly off the proper position, he’ll get stuck mid-animation!

Despite this rough transition in production and mechanics, Revolution Software does show strength in the writing and quirky characters which populate the world of Beyond a Steel Sky. Veteran adventure writer Charles Cecil was at the helm here, and his expertise makes for a fascinating series of encounters. The spirit of the original Steel Sky is at least partially intact, and the story will alternate between serious bits of world lore and humorous situations to great effect.

For example, in the museum of of Union City we encounter a religious fanatic. We’ll have to think of inventive methods to get rid of him, since we need the help of his daughter who’s stuck with him. Despite the puzzle still using the same hacking mechanics, it does so in amusing ways — in the end, the guy will have to lose faith before the path ahead is clear.

In the end, recommending Beyond a Steel Sky is a a sticky thing — if one is content with a strongly-written sci-fi adventure and doesn’t mind repetitive puzzles, there is good content to be found here. On the other hand, I suspect the huge gap between installments runs a very real risk of leaving both new and returning fans unsatisfied.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Revolution Software. It is currently available on PC, XBX/S, PS4/5 and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on Switch. Approximately 7 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: The game is rated T by the ESRB, it contains Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Use of Alcohol and Violence. Personally, in my hours with the game I haven’t seen much for concern except for a couple of people fighting, but still, considering the overall dystopian themes it’s to be recommended to a teen-and-up audience.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue in the game is subtitled (see examples above) however, be aware that there are conversations which take place far away from the character that are subtitled when he gets closer. Still, they are not essential or necessary for successful play. Text cannot be altered or resized. In my view, the game is not fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: The game is controlled by moving Robert around with the left analog stick and rotating the camera with the right stick. A is used for interacting with most other items. The touchscreen is not used and it is not possible to remap the controls. There is no control diagram.

Damiano Gerli
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1 year ago

Thank you for your review, Damiano. I know the old one from Amiga (and a bit later the better CD version with voices) and because of that I have Beyond A Steel Sky on my wishlist since it appeared in the Xbox store. Even though I didn’t really know what to expect today from this franchise, except a weird colorful world (imho nearly the opposite from Beneath back in the days) that’s so far away from the dirty, industrial city back then and I just wasn’t sure if it will be worth 40 bucks. But uh, your review makes me… Read more »