Beneath a Steel Sky

Developer:  Revolution
Publisher:  Virgin (Ubisoft/Red Ant Entertainment)
Year Released:  1994

Review by Steve Ramsey (August, 2002)
I came to PC games well into the age of Windows, and so made the leap straight from Space Invaders and Donkey Kong to Twinsen's Odyssey and Myst (I must ask around to find out what I did in between). Everything DOS passed me by, including text adventures and several classics of the adventure genre. So I have always had an interest in seeing what I missed.

Out of the many old games on my shelf, Beneath a Steel Sky seemed a likely first "oldworld" encounter for a number of reasons. The company involved, Revolution, were also responsible for the Broken Sword games (a third one is in production), both of which I enjoyed. Plus it was drawn by Dave Gibbons, a comic book artist of some renown, primarily for his work on the DC series The Watchmen.

Then came the clincher. Ubi Soft and Red Ant have re-released the game in a DVD style twin pack along with Lure of the Temptress, configured to run in Windows. No fiddly DOS tweaking required.

Curiously though, it installed and set up exactly the same as the DOS version (I know this because I loaded the DOS version afterwards to see what differences might exist), even telling me that to commence play I would need to type the relevant DOS command string. I instead clicked on the only file in the Sky folder which was installed to the hard drive, and away it went, without the need to boot to DOS or open a DOS window. Very good news for DOS-challenged gamers.

I can faithfully say that the only change to the game is the Windows configuration. Everything else is the same, including a scroll glitch (which I solved through the Revolution website) and a lack of speech sound when playing on my more recent machine (a set up problem of my own and no fault of the game). On my older laptop both versions had speech sound.

I confess that I rather enjoyed Beneath a Steel Sky. The graphics were somewhat blocky, the music sounded like a series of (at times annoying) mobile phone ring tones, and some of the dialogue was rather corny, but all up I had a fair bit of fun with Robert Foster and his robot pal Joey.

Be vigilant
The opening sequence is a comic book cutscene that provides the background to the point at which the game starts. Foster finds himself stranded on a metal walkway in a soaring skyscraper, unsure of where he is and why. He is being hunted by security. He needs to escape, but has no idea how. He has a data chip on which is his robot companion, but beyond that he is on his own.

He knows he is a long way from home - at least what he calls home. He knows too that he escaped a helicopter crash, after having been forcibly taken by airborne security guards. Why he was taken is a mystery.

He/you will soon encounter those same security guards, as you begin to unravel what is going on and try to make your way to ground level and then out of the city. As LINC is fond of telling you, be vigilant.

You can find out all about LINC for yourself, as the plot, though not unique, is one of the strong points (although I thought it frayed a bit towards the end). It has some dark undertones, which become more prominent as you play, and many secrets. Bits and pieces will be revealed as you go, usually through conversations with other characters, and I was always hopeful for another piece of insightful dialogue.

The manual also provides some insights and background. This is contained on the Windows CD, so is less user friendly than a printed version, but for the cost of the re-release one can hardly complain.

Be (a bit) funny
Juxtaposed with this darker mood is Joey, who (once you figure out how) follows along behind Foster. His personality is responsible for your introduction to the wit within the game. How humorous you find him (and it) will depend on you, and I must admit to a mild loathing when it comes to humorous sidekicks. However I didn't mind Joey, nor did I find the humour in the game overdone. Foster himself is capable of a good line, as are several of the other characters you encounter. I found Dr Burke particularly amusing, and the jumper gag induced a wry smile, as did Joey's new name. The court scene however should have been deleted.

So whilst humour is definitely a matter of taste, in my opinion Foster and crew generally manage to stay on the right side of the line which divides witty from juvenile, striking a reasonable balance between light-hearted and deadly earnest.

The "musak" though could have done with some more thought, being far too jaunty in places. But that was easily handled by turning it off.

Be chatty
Foster gets around in the third person by pointing and clicking. The cursor will indicate an object that can be examined or interacted with. Left click for one, right click for the other. Inventory items appear at the top of the screen in response to the cursor, and are clicked and dragged to use.

Dialogue trees advance the plot and the game. Some conversations trigger events, others simply add depth. You will revisit characters and places more than once, as you gradually work your way down to ground level.

Several characters have a definite life of their own, and finding them is at times critical. Others remain in one place, and will be where you last saw them. Initiating a conversation requires a simple mouse click, but way well then result in a little fancy quick-step as Foster and the character concerned get themselves into the right position to talk. Why this is I don't know, but Foster most definitely will not talk to some persons until he gets himself in the right spot.

I thought the game screens were fairly detailed given the age of the game, and nicely drawn and coloured. Exiting from one will bring up another, and whilst it is not a continuous scroll, a glitch does exist as you go from one screen to the next which will crash the game, but which can be overcome by hitting the "scroll lock" key each time you start to play.

Foster can die, so saving is advised, and it is easy and unlimited. The same menu screen lets you restore, turn subtitles on or off, and to control the speed of the game, which I found extremely useful in getting Foster to move faster between screens. Joey though seemed to have a pace all his own, and leaving him behind can work against you.

The puzzles are predominantly inventory based and reasonably integrated into the story. They are not too hard, and like many such games trial and error will often overcome. The voice acting is reasonable, and the length of the game quite good.

As Rosemary will attest, I am not a huge fan of wise cracking inventory quests (think Gilbert and Monkey Island), but I did rather enjoy my time as Foster. More than that, there are many newer games with infinitely superior graphics and sound that are inferior experiences to this. It's also easy to see the debt that the Broken Sword games owe to Beneath a Steel Sky. On the strength of this game, there should definitely be more such re-releases, and I will certainly try a few more DOS experiences. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
IBM 386 processor, DOS 3.3 or above with MSCDEX, 2 Mb RAM, 256 colour VGA graphics, CD ROM, Supports Ad Lib, Roland and Soundblaster cards.

Windows 95/98, Pentium 166, 4X CD ROM, 16MB RAM, 2 MB SVGA graphics card DirectX 5 compatible, DirectX compatible soundcard.