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May 2021

Beyond A Steel Sky

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Revolution Software
Release Date: July 16, 2020


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PC Review - 'Beyond a Steel Sky'

by Cody Medellin on July 13, 2020 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Reuniting with legendary comic book artist Dave Gibbons, Beyond A Steel Sky is a follow-up to classic 90's dystopian cyberpunk adventure Beneath a Steel Sky.

Twenty-six years ago marked the release of Beneath A Steel Sky. Like a good number of titles at the time, it was a point-and-click adventure that mixed dystopian sci-fi with smatterings of absurdist humor. While not exactly a classic like its Sierra and LucasArts contemporaries, it was still a hit and drove developer Revolution Software to create its Broken Sword series. Unlike many other titles in its time period, the game remained accessible on PC for free via GOG for several years while iOS players recently saw a remake of it. After such a long wait and a brief stop on Apple Arcade, the sequel Beyond A Steel Sky makes it way home to the PC.

Beyond is set 10 years after the events of the first game, and you revisit the role of Robert Foster. With Union City in safe hands, you've returned to the city outskirts to live with the villagers and help out when needed. That idyllic existence is interrupted when a vehicle containing two androids kidnap a boy from the village. Vowing to rescue him, you follow their tracks until you arrive at Union City to find a palace that looks improved but hides a darkness within.

Although the tale is set in the future and you start in a desert, you aren't given the typical postapocalyptic setting where the people in the outskirts are living in squalor and the people in the city are living in utopia. There are bunches of people conversing around the city, and everyone walks around normally. It feels alive, and that's somewhat of a rarity in the adventure game space.

The other thing you'll like is the humor, which fits with the updated setting. Foster's easygoing attitude goes well with the citizens of this utopia, especially those who heap endless praise at your robot friend, Joey, who has become a god to them, but it works much better against the matter-of-fact robots that populate the place. The dialogue does a great job of digging up ridiculous dialogue threads, and that is amplified once you get your own robot friend who dispenses snark and humor. The comedy isn't enough to turn this into something like the classic LucasArts laughfests or the Deponia series, but it works well.

Beyond is a typical point-and-click adventure that's only modified for the current era. Although you're still restricted to certain areas, you can now walk around in full 3D rather than relying on a mouse to direct you into position via clicks. Instead of pixel-hunting for interactive spots on the screen, everything of interest is highlighted, and the instruction set is context-sensitive, so you aren't dealing with hosts of options that do nothing when selected.

The game also happens to be very dialogue-heavy, so minor and major characters have heaps of lines. Even if you're not fond of characters verbally droning on, you'll like it here because it's all so well written. You'll dislike the fact that the system only presents your queries and responses as two- or three-word phrases instead of something more descriptive, and you'll hate that the indicators for new dialogue trees appear even when nothing new is there, but you won't have to worry about your choices closing off entire dialogue paths or greatly affecting the outcome.

While Beyond doesn't have you hoarding objects to use in puzzles, it replaces that gameplay mechanic with a hacking tool. Once you use it, you can mix up commands for different kiosks, doors, and robots by swapping commands and modules. The good news is that the process isn't overly complicated, as only a few modules and commands can be swapped, and each one is uniquely shaped so you have a better idea of what to look for. While smacking a machine for a free soda isn't essential to getting anywhere, the game gives you the freedom to experiment.

Gameplay-wise, Beyond succeeds in keeping things engaging. Unlike most titles in the genre, the puzzles and solutions make sense. The puzzles that require physical interaction don't go in nonsensical directions, and the programming sections don't add so many variables that you get hopelessly lost. You'll dislike the fact that some of the puzzles require perfect positioning to get all of the necessary modules together, but that happens less often than you'd think. For those jumping into the genre for the first time, the game adds an optional hint system. The game doesn't give you the solution outright, but the text hints push you toward the conclusion. The good news is that while you can use it as often as you want, you have a cooldown of 30 seconds between each hint, so you can't use it as a crutch.

For all of the praise that Beyond gets in some areas, there are others where the execution isn't so tight. Despite the story starting off strong, it falls apart toward the end, with some loose ends that wrap up without much explanation. This is especially notable during the final moments, when you'll only understand some of the discussions if you were meticulously paying attention to the mountains of dialogue. You can't shake the feeling that the narrative could've been tighter. The game also suffers from only having a small amount of environments to explore. With all of the talk about city levels and Qdos ratings, you never get to visit the less affluent areas of the city except for a recycling plant. The city feels too locked down, as you'll see plenty of space below you that looks enticing to check out, but you can't experience it.

Then there are the bugs. There are moments when you can trigger an action, but it won't happen since Foster is still animating to get into place, resulting in you calling the action again for it to go through. There are other moments when you can't complete smaller side-quests because the game fails to create action points for them. An example of this occurs early on, when you try to give a kid a sandwich, but once you find the sandwich, there's no way to select it. While the game is compatible with the keyboard and mouse as well as a gamepad, you're better off with the former, as the latter has some issues with the menus. In particular, one menu had the directional input go to different menu categories, and another screen was unresponsive except for the exit button. It's fine otherwise, but you'll want the keyboard and mouse handy if you're more comfortable with a gamepad for third-person viewpoints.

Graphically, Beyond seems to strike a balance where something good is offset by something bad. The style goes for a comic book aesthetic, but it is so subtle that it's almost unnoticeable. The character models look fine for major characters, but all of the minor characters look at you with completely dead eyes. There are moments when, during a conversation, the camera moves into a position where you're looking at a wall instead of at the person. Other times, you'll see characters failing to make eye contact with one another or bystanders walk in front of the person you're talking to or people failing to move their mouths. There are also occasions when bystanders clip through other characters or walk over them before landing on the ground again. While most animations are good, some are awkward, such as running or when you're shielding yourself from a potential attack. Aside from the usual texture pop that plagues most Unreal Engine games, it ran well on 1080p using a Ryzen 5 2600 with a Geforce 2060, so performance is the least of the concerns.

As for the audio, it's rather nice most of the time. The soundtrack is generally absent, and having it go missing during the end credits sequence is quite jarring, but when it does play, it gives off the classic sci-fi vibes of grandeur during big plot twists or breathtaking views of the city. The voice acting is also quite nice and features a good mix of accents for diversity. It would've been nice if the idle conversations could be heard, and there are times when the dialogue audio fluctuates from being fine to being too quiet, but for the most part, you'll be happy with the results, especially when you realize how many roles were taken up by the small cast.

There's a solid adventure game in Beyond A Steel Sky. The puzzles make sense and ease newcomers to the genre, the story is mostly on point, and the writing is robust. Whether you're a longtime fan of the original or just coming to its world now, there's plenty to enjoy in Beyond. The multitude of technical gameplay and presentation issues make it difficult to eke out all of the joy you can from the title. If you can deal with all of that, then you'll find a fine adventure game to sink your teeth into. Otherwise, you might want to wait for a few patches to see if the issues get ironed out.

Score: 7.0/10

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