Final Thoughts 09

Beneath a Steel Sky


Note: This is not a review, but merely my musings after having recently completed a game as part of my Rogue's Adventures playthrough of my backlog. Follow @RoguesAdventure to keep up with my playthroughs.

Also Note: This was originally written (and game was completed) in March 2013.


Developer: Revolution Software

Original Release Date: March 1994

Good Old Games, or GoG as it is commonly referred to now, is the king of selling older PC titles at super cheap prices, all digitally free of any copyright management or strings attached. Whenever you first sign up for a free account, they deposit a few freeware games into your library. Like most free things, I dismissed them all as crap, and spent the next two years happily waiting for sales to bring down the already low prices and snatch up some forgotten gems, or to simply get a nice, easy to use digital copy of an old favorite.

When I began this Rogue's Adventure's backlog playthrough and decided to begin with Adventure games, I frequently looked through's Top 100 Adventure Games of All Time List (published in Dec. 2011) to discover how well a classic game or modern revival stacks up. I was in for a surprise when I noticed one of the free games I had nearly completely forgotten about listed as #19. I quickly added it near the end of season one's schedule, and my playthrough of Beneath a Steel Sky was achieved!

Beneath a Steel Sky is very much an Orwelian dystopia where the Earth has become largely uninhabitable, and most of the human population is forced to live in gigantic towering cities on top of one another. Unlike many multi-level dystopias, however, in this one it's the poor that live in the skies with the industry and smoke stacks, while the rich get to live on ground level with the waxy fake trees. Access is tied to elevator tubes, and the whole of Union City (the location of the game) is run in large part by an interwoven computer AI known as LINC. However, recently LINC has been getting a little out of hand, security has tightened, and everyone is more miserable than usual.

The story begins with the backstory of Rob, the only surviving young boy of a helicopter crash trying to flee Union City. Rob was taken in by a rural tribe that lives in the small sliver of slightly livable land outside the city known as The Gap. They give him the last name of Foster, as they found the name on a crushed beer can near the wreckage. During his time with them he builds his own robotic friend out of spare parts, naming him Joey.

At some point when Rob has become a man, a helicopter resembling the one he crashed from comes to The Gap, captures Rob, destroys Joey, and nukes his entire tribe from the sky. As the helicopter, led by Officer Reich (so evil!) approaches the city, it suddenly goes haywire and crashes. Once again Rob survives, and finds himself in the upper levels of the city by a factory. He's left with only Joey's circuit board, his wits, and lots of questions.

The comic book intro was kind of spiffy, and the game was co-written by comic book artist Dave Gibbons, famous for co-writing and drawing the Watchmen comics. The actual graphics are nice, considering it's a twenty year old game. The minimal UI allows for a large screen showing the action. The left mouse button Looks while the Right button Interacts, and moving the mouse near the top reveals the simple inventory screen. 

Aside from a single puzzle involving making a grappling hook, there is no item combination to speak of, and most of the puzzles revolve around using items or talking with people. There are several inhabitants of Union City, but given the limitations of the era, it's difficult to ascertain the proper sense of scale they probably would've liked to convey. The factory has three people, the security headquarters two, etc. The game is fully voiced, which is nice, and most of the voice work is pretty good though a tad overdramatic. Everyone seems to have British accents except the American voiced Robert.

The music leaves much to be desired, however. Though the muted brown colors and general industrial dismay surrounds the city's aesthetic, the music is a weirdly upbeat, recycled midi affair like you'd hear in the old Might and Magic games. It was mostly annoying although I did find the repetitive theme that played in the virtual world of LINC Space to be quite catchy.

Rob's overall goal for the first third of the game is to reach ground level, and to do that he needs the proper security clearance. Stealing the ID card from Reich's obliterated body in the beginning of the game is a good start. In what ended up being one of the cooler scenes, Reich catches up with Rob after the first few puzzles gets him out of the factory, but he's saved when LINC (represented by a giant camera) blasts Reich with an energy blast, leaving Rob and the player with more questions.

One of my favorite parts of the game was Rob's robot friend Joey. Reminiscent of The Whispered World's Spot, Joey acts as an NPC that follows you from scene to scene, offering insight on puzzles and objects, and in many times utilized to solve problems, distract people, or entertain with his hilariously sarcastic jabs. Unfortunately the game makes a huge mistake and knocks Joey out of commission once you reach ground level, and he doesn't make another appearance till almost the very end of the game. Granted he plays a huge and awesome role at the end, but for the middle section of the journey he was sorely missed.

Rob's journey finally gets going once he's granted a tour of the factory and meets Anita, a D-LINC that is essentially an indentured servant. She had been in talks with rival city Hobart about how bad things had gotten here, and was trying to come up with a way to stop LINC. She gives Rob a jammer that allows him better access with his card, and eventually Rob manages to acquire a Schribermann Port, a literal hole in the head (think jacking into The Matrix) that gives him access to LINC Space - the virtual reality abstract representation of LINC's network. Since it's the early 90s, the world looked like an acid-trip version of TRON, and offered Rob all new abilities (in the form of inventory items) but sadly only one real puzzle to solve, though Rob would need to return twice more with different people's cards to access new areas with new abilities.

Rob's journey eventually takes him into the abandoned Subway Tunnels beneath the city. Things have gotten a bit more serious as he had found Anita's corpse dumped in a locker beneath the church, along with several others, and a creepy army of androids. He finally reached the underground chamber containing LINC, with the outskirts serving as a creepy android growing facility. It was here I finally found a new body with Joey, though it was quickly destroyed as he defended Rob against another android. A cool solution for Joey presented himself with some rubbery naked android bodies ready for a memory board. Downloading Joey's mind into the android gave me a new friend, which Rob hilariously renamed as Ken.

The finale involved using Anita's computer virus on LINC to destroy it, though there was an interesting twist with using it: the virus infected the tissue/organs that were being grown to feed the organic matter, and using the infected tissue poisoned the organic part, allowing access to the central chamber of LINC. There Rob found his father, still attached to LINC as he had built it, now shriveled and nearly dead. He explained that LINC wanted Rob here as a new vessel, as his brain was nearly spent. He had tried to crash the helicopter to spare Rob his fate. Joey/Ken arrives right when his father is disconnected, and before LINC can grab Rob, he tells Joey/Ken to plug into LINC. He does so, and instantly wrests control, embracing his destiny as the new benevolent AI of Union City.

The epilogue shows Ken operating as a proper civic leader, while Rob decides to leave the city and return to The Gap (to what though?). The ending was much happier than I was expecting, with Ken being a massive Fixit for all the problems with LINC. Finding his father connected to LINC was expected as the game was dropping hints along the way. All in all the story and world was interesting, and I dug the dystopian sci-fi setting. The puzzles were mediocre, however, and the game was very short. I did have to consult a walkthrough several times, not necessarily on how to solve puzzles but more that I missed an object in my pixel hunting of the screen. The writing and dialogue were enjoyable, filled with satire and dark humor, particularly a courtroom scene with a hilariously inept judge that serves no purpose other than to entertain. Given its age, poor audio quality, and lame puzzles, I'm not sure I could recommend it to anyone except Adventure Aficionados interested in seeing one of Revolution Software's earlier games, and a successful engine that was independent of LucasArts' popular SCUMM model or Sierra's Icons.