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Beneath a Steel Sky: Remastered (iOS) artwork

Beneath a Steel Sky: Remastered (iOS) review

"The dialogue, characterisation and puzzles are so full of mad character and creative energy that you can ignore the grand narrative and still enjoy the adventure. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s part of the charm. "

Union City is a dystopian version of Sydney that has been influenced by the ideas of almost every major science-fiction author and film-maker. Surrounded by a post-apocalyptic outback setting that recalls Mad Max, the city is guarded by a protective dome designed to keep savages out and citizens in. It’s an Orwellian surveillance state controlled by an artificial intelligence modelled on HAL 9000, a Brave New World of scientific “progress” where wealthy hedonists oppress and abuse the weak and poor. The city-state itself is split along class boundaries, although in a reversal of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis the poor live in the sky while the rich live closer to the ground, away from harmful pollution. The endless layers of human society stacked on top of one another lend this point-and-click adventure its name, Beneath a Steel Sky.

I’ll give you a second to catch your breath.

Beneath a Steel Sky struggles to survive under the weight of its own influences. It juggles complex ideas drawn from many literary and cinematic sources, mixing them into a plot that’s not really long or deep enough to bring all the individual strands together. The foundations are solid enough -- as Robert Foster you must uncover the secrets of Union City by making your way down to the lower levels -- but the story is far too ambitious for its own good. It’s as though the writers have made a deliberate effort to add substance to the basic premise by chucking in as many sci-fi topics as possible, from robot ethics to virtual realities. The short narrative is unable to explore these ideas in sufficient detail, glossing over them as it rushes to a rather predictable conclusion.

That Beneath a Steel Sky is still such an engaging experience is testament to the other qualities that lie beneath the cluttered story. In some adventures the dialogue, characters and puzzles are little more than a means to an end -- with that “end” being progression of the narrative. In Beneath a Steel Sky these three individual elements rise above the overarching plot, becoming the central attractions. Allow me, for instance, to introduce you to plump socialite Mrs Piermont. Accompanied by her own cheesy jazz theme, this rather rotund upper-class lady swaggers about the immaculate streets of the city’s lower level greeting anyone that catches her eye with an ear-splitting “Helloooo DAH-LING!” Her pooch, Spunky, is at the centre of a wonderfully creative puzzle that involves stolen dog biscuits, a see-saw, a pond, a policeman who won’t let you enter the cathedral he’s guarding and a very agitated Mrs Piermont. I’ll leave you to wonder how these elements all fit together, but I’ll give you a clue: Spunky can’t swim.

It’s the attention to detail that makes Beneath a Steel Sky so endearing. Dialogue, for instance, is consistently entertaining, borrowing heavily from the style of Douglas Adams. Wry references to classic British sci-fi and Hollywood films are combined with corny jokes and quips. At one stage, Robert Foster actually says that a computer is “WHEEZING and MATING… like an asthmatic DINOSAUR in the MATING season." It’s not just the one-liners that’ll have you grinning, either. Beneath a Steel Sky features farcical situations that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy stories. A particularly memorable example is the city court, which is a run by a judge who’s convinced that he’s a gameshow host and that the defendants are actually contestants. Foster finds himself thrown into this warped reality when he’s forced to act as the defence lawyer for a handyman accused of intentionally breaking a water pipe to soak a policeman. Ironically, it was actually Foster who tampered with the pipe in an earlier puzzle.

These puzzles will be familiar to anyone who has played a point-and-click adventure. You’ll need to study both the environment and your inventory to work out solutions, which range from the straight-forward to the obtuse. Sometimes overcoming a puzzle involves little more than common sense -- putting on a protective suit to enter a hazardous area, for example. Other predicaments are much more elaborate and require a combination of logical reasoning and lucky experimentation. Just how do you get that anchor off the statue without its owner seeing? Most puzzles are like jigsaws, with several different pieces that have to fit together in a particular way. So you get the magazine to bribe the salesman to get the ticket to tour the factory… and so on. Working out how these pieces fit together is the appeal of point-and-click adventures. It’s usually clear from the context what you need to do, but one piece of the puzzle might have escaped your notice. This can lead to frustration, but when you finally work out the solution you’ll feel a deep sense of satisfaction that will allow you to sit back and appreciate the intricate and creative design. Well, maybe.

It would be misleading to suggest that Beneath a Steel Sky is an example of perfect point-and-click puzzle design. Some puzzles are a bit too abstract, such as those that take place in the virtual reality world of LINC. These puzzles involve tongs and eyeballs and data, and the solutions are obscure. Sometimes the regular puzzles can be awkward too. Beneath a Steel Sky features the “Virtual Theatre” system introduced by its predecessor, Lure of the Temptress. Characters wander semi-freely round the game world, which succeeds in bringing Union City to life, but also means that you have to wait for certain characters to arrive in certain places before you can progress.

These minor imperfections expose the game’s age, but it would be wrong to argue that all Revolution has done is port a very old and very free Amiga game and charge money for it. As the title screen suggests, the game has been “remastered”. Although the visuals haven’t received an upgrade on the scale of the recent Monkey Island games, graphics are definitely sharper and brighter. This version also features a stunning animated opening by David Gibbons, although sadly the music is still awful. A more significant improvement is the interface, which been redesigned to suit mobile hardware. When you tap on an object you’ll bring up two icons, an eye and a cog. If you touch the eye you’ll examine the item and if you touch the cog you’ll attempt to interact with it. Similarly, you can use inventory items by touching them and dragging them onto the screen. The streamlined control scheme brings you closer to the characters and puzzles by removing a layer of cumbersome commands. You could say it’s more touch and go than point and click…

If you’re expecting Beneath a Steel Sky to deliver a mature, serious science-fiction plot then you’re going to be very disappointed. It’s clear that the designers have tried to reach for some sort of “epic” feel, but it’s equally apparent that what they really wanted to do was deliver a barmy sci-fi comedy in the tradition of classic British sci-fi. The dialogue, characterisation and puzzles are so full of mad character and creative energy that you can ignore the grand narrative and still enjoy the adventure. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s part of the charm. There’s a surprise around every corner, from subtle allusions and one-liners to full-blown Monty Python farce and countless engrossing puzzles. Every time I think about the game another one pops into my mind -- exposing the gardener, for example. I won’t ruin it, but I will give you a hint: what colour are dandelions?


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Community review by JANUS2 (April 08, 2015)

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