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Beyond a Steel Sky (PC) artwork

Beyond a Steel Sky (PC) review

"A LINC to the Past"

1994ís Beneath a Steel Sky is a dystopian cyberpunk point-and-click thatís a much bigger deal than you probably realise. Set in the awful future all dystopian cyberpunk scenarios have plotted for us, Robert Foster is an adopted citizen of the Gap, the new name for the new hell that has become the Australian outback. Heís kidnapped and strong-armed along to Union City where he has to try and undo the oppressive regime of tyrannical AI overlord, LINC (you see why that tagline is so clever now?). Foster eventually succeeds in dethroning LINC and, in lieu of taking command of the city himself, replaces the evil AI with one he built as a child. His AI, Joey, had been the comic relief throughout much of Beneath, a sassy, sarcastic foil to Fosterís earnestness and, while the game ended with a hopeful vibe, the player was left to wonder if it really was the best choice to oversee the rebuilding of a broken city.

Curious people would have a hell of a wait on their hands. It would take over 25 years for Revolution Software to revisit Steel Sky off that back of a kickstarter goal not quite met when they were funding Broken Sword 5. Beyond a Steel Sky finds Foster has indeed returned to the Gap, living that nomad life. On the trail of robotic kidnappers snatching kids from villages, he reluctantly finds himself returning to Union City after a ten year hiatus. He finds the city seemingly thriving, its citizens clothed, fed and housed. Working state provided jobs, issued droids to clean their houses and cook their meals. Social status is regulated through QDos points, which reward the citizens who stay in line and offer demerits to those that donít. Union City is vibrant and alive, bustling and safe. The horror of the Gap kept firmly at bay by massive metal walls peppered with the occasional gun turret or two. They seem to exist to keep people out. You might start to suspect theyíre just as prevalent at keeping people in.

That thereís something sinister about Union City is made clear very early on. Fosterís accent into the city proper is ruthlessly anchored in delicious bureaucracy. As a filthy outworlder, he doesnít have the clearance to enter the city without first being chipped, which lets the city track his every movement. Even assuming he can bypass that, heís barred from entering the city at the entrance heís arrived at, because itís an entry point for vehicles only. No pedestrians; rules are rules. Thereís a gruesome solution in the ID of a dead man left rotting in the desert sun, but even hidden under the umbrella of citizenship, Union Cityís waxen smile continues to feel false. The more youíre required to burrow into the suspiciously pristine world, the more it seems ever so slightly wrong.

Case in point: letís talk about Spankles the clown.

On the face of things, heís an innocent mascot for a soft drink, which is routinely offered to the citizens for free. Youíre never too far away from a Spankles vending machine and, so long as you let it read your chip, unlimited cans are yours for the taking. In the confines of Union City, Spankles seems to be a Very Big Deal. Banners are draped across walkways, asking you if youíve enjoyed a Spankles recently. Holo-adverts flicker and change as you walk past them, asking you why youíve not tried any of the new Spankles flavours yet. Your private messages included sponsored polls about what new tastes you want to drop into circulation. Itís never pushed as part of the gameís narrative, but once you start noticing how hard the city wants you to drink nothing but Spankles, regularly and heavily, itís impossible to stop noticing. You walk into a hip coffee bar, slices of cheesecake out on display and various syrups and lacquers lining the shelves behind an immaculate serving droid. But scan the service point to order a drink and itís not a double espresso skinny latte with vanilla you might end up; itís a Spankles. Youíll notice countless rubbish containers filled with countless discarded Spankles cans. A machine designed to regulate your health will recommend Spankles as an unlikely remedy. Maybe its slogan is starting to feel just a little more ominous: ďSpankles - Explodes your mind!"

I started hacking every vending machine I saw, making them oft inoperable. I didnít need to, but it made me feel like I was fighting against something bigger than myself in the defence of the common man. Usually, rather than waging war against soft drink distributors, hacking forms the bulk of Fosterís offense against Union Cityís new world order. It lets you mess with various softwareís goto commands, borrowing a prompt from here, or a direction from there and mashing it together into manipulative program code to suit your needs. It might be as simple as changing switching positive and negative commands around Ėfor example, a door is programmed not to upon while an alarm is triggered. Usually, this would mean finding a way to shut off the pesky alarm, but now you can take the command that lets the doors open with no alarm, and swap it with the active alarm function. The blaring alarm is now you ally, and your path is now clear.

Hacking becoming your (ahem) goto tool makes sense because of how heavily automated Union City is. But it does mean a shift away from the originalís purely inventory based puzzling, making Beyond a third person adventure game in departure to Beneathís point-&-click roots. But rather than distance itself from its founding title, Beyond a Steel Sky does everything it can to celebrate it, with little Easter eggs, sly nods and returning characters. Some of these are obvious, and some much more sly; for example, though the game is set in Australia, the original gameís voice cast were all hired from North England, where the Revolution studios were located. Casually browse information consoles, and youíll learn the founding fathers of Union City were imported from Hull, alongside building materials and steel.

While these little nods are appreciated, itís equally laudable that prior investment in the series is not required. Beyond a Steel Sky builds the city of tomorrow on the ashes of LINC and leaves you free to explore the new without the burden of prerequisite context. Itís a sombre look at a possible future, while still making time to poke fun at itself. One minute, you could be dealing with the very real consequences of your identity theft; the man youíre pretending to be had a life and a family and a position in a dystopian cityscape that you can bet has noticed his unexplained absence and sudden, random return. The next minute youíre trying to outwit a stubborn Monty Python referencing security droid or throwing firecrackers at gatherings of angry birds.

Beyond a Steel Sky found itself Beneath a Large Shadow, but manages to emerge all the better for it.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (July 22, 2020)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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