Beyond A Steel Sky PS4 review – graphic novel adventure

90s point ‘n’ click adventure Beneath A Steel Sky gets a very belated sequel from Revolution Software and Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons.

Nobody knew it at the time, but 1990 was the start of the peak decade for point ‘n’ click adventures. The Secret Of Monkey Island and its sequels, Indiana Jones And The Fate of Atlantis, Day Of the Tentacle, and Broken Sword all shared an interface, a sense of humour, a problem solving attitude, and an era. In those days pacing wasn’t too important, whereas irreverent characters, a colourful art style, and sassy dialogue were absolutely central.

Against that backdrop, 1994’s Beneath A Steel Sky was a perfect fit. Its serious themes; heavyweight comic book talent, in the shape of Watchmen’s Dave Gibbons; and its script’s general silliness were clearly part of that zeitgeist. And to give you an impression of just how long ago that was, it was originally released for Windows, Amiga, and the dear old abortive CD32.

Arriving 27 years later, its sequel, Beyond A Steel Sky, does its best to retool the genre for a modern world. That means the 2D point ‘n’ click interaction has been replaced with fully 3D environments, while its puzzles, dialogue, and cel-shaded looks remain rooted in the 90s. It even brings back Dave Gibbons, whose artwork is extruded into 3D for the first time.

Taking place 10 years after the events of the first game, you start by heading straight back to Union City, the setting for the original’s brightly coloured cyberpunk romp, only this time you’re on the trail of the kidnappers. Your first conundrum is how to get into the city in the first place, as you find yourself locked outside one of its gates with no way of even raising the bridge to get in, let alone finding a vehicle to drive across it.

What ensues will be immediately familiar to lightly greying fans of the genre. Talk to everyone you can see, pick up anything not nailed down, then try and figure out which fresh piece of information combines with which newly acquired trinket to trigger the next piece of plot. If you know that routine, you’ll also know what happens next. You either succeed more or less straight away or try all the combinations you can think of before beginning the tedious process of trial and error, where you try everything with everyone in the hope that you’ll stumble across a clue.

To help you along in these circumstances there’s now a hint system, which gives you increasingly leading pointers towards your next goal. They’re timed, so you can’t just spam them all in one go, and they also don’t take you all the way to a solution – you still need to make small leaps to get what you need. They do provide direction when you most want it though, which is a welcome change.

Another new wrinkle is the hacking tool, which lets you reprogram nearby electronics by dragging and dropping chunks of their instructions to make various machinery change its behaviours. That could be forcing a cleaning robot to run out of water, so it has to make more visits to its base station, or giving a broken toy a different way to output its tracking data but working out what to hack and how to alter it is the nearest the game gets to letting you think for yourself.

The rest of the time you’ll be solving puzzles by figuring out what the designers wanted you to do. It’s all fairly tongue in cheek, despite the child abduction at its core, but does regularly lead to frustration when the perfectly reasonable idea you’ve come up with has nothing to do with the way the game wants you to work things out.

You’ll also find multiple references to Beneath A Steel Sky, from recurring characters to the city itself. You certainly don’t have to have played the original to enjoy this, but it helps. The game’s closing scenes, especially, almost make more effort to tie up loose ends from the first game than resolve the plot of this one. It’s an odd choice given the absence of any recap, and how little explanation is given to events you’re only likely to have witnessed a quarter of a century ago, if at all.

Despite having debuted on Apple Arcade over a year ago the game is also still full of bugs. The museum’s security guard is inaudible during one of his conversations, and a man sitting outside a coffee shop hovers high above his chair. You’ll also sometimes find Foster sauntering off on his own, ignoring your control inputs until he finally settles. None of the glitches prove game-breaking but given the time frame involved you’d be forgiven for expecting better.

That sense of mild disappointment also extends to missed opportunities around the plot’s themes and world building. For example, every citizen of Union City is assigned Qdos points, which govern their social standing and whether they hang out with the ‘degenerates’ on the upper industrial levels, or associate with the chattering classes who live below. It’s an interesting concept, reminiscent of modern China’s horrific social credit system, but along with many other seemingly fecund concepts, it’s left to rot with little more than a few passing references.

Artistically, the city and its characters have a warm and inviting look and feel, the game’s shining skyscrapers extending to the horizon. But look too long and you realise the city is dead. There’s no air traffic and its futuristic perfection is undermined by the absence of bustle or atmosphere, the game’s scattering of major scenes playing out in tiny, limited areas; never unleashing you on what might otherwise be an inspiring open world.

If you played and loved Beneath A Steel Sky this is a nostalgic return to its themes, puzzles, and setting, even if it lacks the original’s cleverness. If you’re not familiar with the series, you’ll likely leave baffled by the game’s self-imposed limitations and missed opportunities, from its rigid attitude to puzzle solving to the unexplored faux-utopian paradise of Union City. It’s not a bad game, but you can’t shake the sense that it could have been significantly better.

Beyond A Steel Sky PS4 review summary

In Short: A colourful and good-humoured 3D retread of 1990s point ‘n’ click adventures that despite the odd innovation suffers from the same frustrations and limitations as its ancient forebears.

Pros: Union City looks beautiful. Characters are wryly amusing even when discussing serious topics and the game’s hacking tool is an interesting new addition.

Cons: Puzzles still rely on fixed solutions that don’t always make much sense. Plenty of potentially interesting concepts remain unexplored, and there’s a lot of bugs and glitches

Score: 6/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, and iOS
Price: £34.99
Publisher: Microids
Developer: Revolution Software
Release Date: 30th November 2021
Age Rating: 16

By Nick Gillett

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