Revolution Software are known for their visionary approach to the puzzle adventure genre and with Beyond a Steel Sky (a spiritual successor to 1994’s Beneath a Steel Sky), they have coated a classic formula in a new sheen of paint. Having spent a great deal of my formative gaming years bending my head around the multilayered puzzles of the Broken Sword series (also developed by Revolution), I was looking forward to experiencing how such a game would look and feel in 2021. Charles Cecil, the lead writer of both the Steel Sky and Broken Sword series, is a fantastic writer and Revolution have a way of presenting a gripping, often poignant story through relatively simple mechanics.
Initially released in June 2020 on PC, Beyond a Steel Sky has been ported to consoles, including a lovely physical edition on Switch that includes a sleeve. Heralded as a “cyberpunk science fiction adventure game”, Beyond a Steel Sky’s aesthetics definitely tick the boxes there. Whilst the gameplay is mechanically simple, Revolution’s approach to layering complex puzzle solutions with NPC interrogation reveal a narrative that is replete with engrossing characters, dry humor, and a utopia where all is not as it seems…
Beyond a Steel Sky takes place around 10 years after its predecessor and you assume control of Robert Foster. Having made a Gapland village his home (“Gapland” being the term for settlements outside of the cyberpunk utopia of Union City), things are peaceful. One day, he takes a young child from his village, Milo, fishing. However, the routine trip turns tragic when Milo is kidnapped and bundled off in a strange, quadrupedal armored vehicle. Foster follows the trail to Union City, which is where the adventure truly begins. The tutorial section introduces you to the key mechanics very organically, from talking with NPC’s and being able to question them on a number of topics, to using the items in your inventory to solve environmental puzzles.
As you progress deeper into the city, you become involved in something far more sinister, whereby the general populace feel as though civilization has reached its telos and things couldn’t get any better. They trust in the Council to look after their needs and are endlessly chasing “Qdos” – a sort of social credit system that allows citizens access to lower and lower levels of the city. I say lower, because in Union City, the uppermost levels are reserved for the poorest members of society.
I adored how relevant the whole approach to utopia was in this game. Whilst everything is humorous and clean, the idea of the ruling class having a “Ministry of Wellbeing” which monitors your work attendance, relationships, social life, and hobbies to make sure that you’re “happy” reeks of the saccharine corporate jargon that office HR teams use to let you know that “they’re there for you”. A wonderful example of this is when you discover that Graham Grundy (a citizen that you’re masquerading as) takes photos with an “old” camera. Therefore, he can’t utilize the Ministry of Wellbeing’s approved filters, tags, and automatic upload to their Union City database. It’s little things like this that as they unravel, reveal a rulership that has crept into every aspect of their citizens’ lives and has convinced them that things couldn’t possibly get any better. It’s a relevant, almost all too familiar tale of an out-of-control surveillance state posing as though it has everyone’s best interests at heart. However, this subtext isn’t thrust in your face as some sort of political statement – it’s merely a mundane, matter-of-fact aspect of the lives of the folk who dwell within Union City.
Whilst Beyond a Steel Sky is a game that aims to make you part of a gripping story, the gameplay ain’t half bad either. Revolution have ditched the point-and-click approach to movement and interaction and instead utilized a more traditional, over-the-shoulder system. On PC you use WASD to move, the mouse to control the camera, and left-click on things when prompted – it’s all fairly standard.
At the end of the tutorial, you acquire a MINOS scanner, which you use to scan for terminals that you can hack. Hacking consists of manipulating pieces of code, which are represented as jigsaw pieces. Dark pieces can be swapped around, although sometimes you’ll find an extra piece of dark code within a bigger piece of unmovable code. This means you end up trying to time your scans to incorporate multiple devices within range, allowing you to chop and change bits of code between different devices – finding the right combination of code is critical to solving puzzles and as the game progresses, these hacking challenges become ever more complex.
There isn’t much more to Beyond a Steel Sky than that. You walk around, talk to people, find out clues, discover items, stumble across obstacles, and pull together what you have learned, what you have collected, and what you can hack to proceed to the next part of the game. That said, a game such as this doesn’t need any complex gameplay mechanics to achieve what it wants to. In fact, I think being too ambitious in this department would hinder the ability the game has to tell you a story set in a believable world with relatable characters.
Unlike those Revolution games of days gone by, Beyond a Steel Sky utilizes the Unreal 4 engine, so performance is okay and things look decent enough. The cell-shaded, comic-style graphics set in a post-apocalyptic desert world are nice. Once you get into Union City, you can sort of fast travel to different locations via “monopods” and each NPC you meet has a very unique personality – these characters are well-rounded and add to the immersion you experience when you solve your way through Union City.
The simplicity of the gameplay, matched with the depth of the narrative makes for a genuinely fun experience. The puzzles are often complex but never obscure, their solutions always making sense when you have all the details figured out. The score and audio are really great, along with the voice acting and script. Everything and everyone are believable and the humor in the dialogue isn’t corny or forced but organic and actually funny! (I find this a rarity in gaming).
As for Beyond a Steel Sky’s art style, whilst not being particularly unique, it is in fact extremely well done. It nails the “cyberpunk utopia with a sinister underbelly” really nicely and I can definitely see the nods to media such as Metropolis or Fallout.
The puzzles themselves, which are the core mechanic of this game, are excellent. Set within scenarios from the mundane to the ludicrous, I never get bored or frustrated, even when I was utterly stuck. I knew there was a way through, something I was missing, and closer examination of the things I had available to me always provided me with just enough information to piece together what I needed to do. There is an option to turn on hints, but I never used this – having been on the struggle bus through much of the Broken Sword series, I thought I owed it to myself to experience Beyond a Steel Sky in that same vein.
I should also note that the game play time is in my opinion just right. It’s extremely well-paced and with my playthrough clocking in at around 8 hours, I never felt Beyond a Steel Sky overstayed its welcome or fluffed out its runtime. It did what it needed to do, said what it needed to say, and it did so without making me feel merely obligated to see things through – I wanted to see what the game had in store for me, and I was completely satisfied when it drew to a close.
On the flipside, Beyond a Steel Sky is not without its flaws. There are a whole host of technical issues with this game that I feel are largely (though not solely) down to the Unreal engine. Cameras will assume bizarre or obscuring angles on players during conversations, NPC’s are very robotic until you interact with them and on one occasion during my playthrough, every character on screen split into two separate character models, exhibiting different poses and repeating their audio. So no, Beyond a Steel Sky is not completely polished! I also felt as though totally abandoning the point-and-click system in favor of a WASD movement system was hit and miss. On the one hand, it did make larger environments more navigable, but in smaller settings, especially when there were a number of prompts to investigate or hack, things became a bit muddled.
On that note, after a while I took issue with the scan-and-hack system (yes, I’m coining the phrase “scan-and-hack”). Sure, it was novel at first but after a couple of hours, I found that the game’s puzzle solutions began to not only depend upon it, but outright overuse it. There is a balance to be found between using items and environmental interactions to solve puzzles and a “hack machines and watch them do peculiar things” mechanic. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with the way that Beyond a Steel Sky makes use of a scan-and-hack system, it fails to hit that fine line between pragmatic and over-reliance. I realize earlier I stated that I didn’t find myself getting bored, and this remains true. However, I did find myself becoming frustrated in advance that I already knew, before a scenario had even played out, that the solution to the puzzle would almost always be hacking something, with said hacks just becoming more elaborate as the game progressed.
As someone who grew up familiar with Revolution Software’s games, the amount of time spent cycling through dialogue options to find the smaller details didn’t bother me too much. However, I think for a newer player this may be a sticking point – you do spend a lot of time simply talking to NPC’s, and sometimes this may be a little irritating.
On the whole, Beyond a Steel Sky is a wonderful example of how that old-school puzzle adventure game can translate into the modern gaming landscape. It’s thought-provoking, good-looking, and fleshed out, all whilst retaining the spirit of the puzzler.
Sure, it isn’t the most polished experience but it’s a well-crafted game with bags to offer for anyone who wants a story to engage with and some puzzles to stroke their chin at.
BEYOND A STEEL SKY IS RECOMMENDED
As full disclosure, the PR initially sent a non-functioning PC review code for this title and then did not replace it. Many thanks go to a friend of the site who sent us an extra copy to complete this review.
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Damien (dkpriory) has grown up gaming, from the humble days of the Atari all the way through to modern PC gaming. Unafraid to let a game steal his life for a few months, he is passionate about playing something immersive but also yearns for something to take him back to his childhood. Sadly no longer a member of the NookGaming team or creating content, but check out his archives on Youtube here.