Now, 26 years later, Revolution Software is back with a bigger and bolder sequel in the form of Beyond a Steel Sky, which once again puts players in the wayward boots of Robert Foster across a dystopian adventure amidst interweaving storylines of intrigue and mystery. After trying out a demo build of the game and seeing the first couple of hours, I came away extremely eager to see how this one turns out.
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The first thing worth discussing is the complete shift in gameplay style. Rather than being another actual point-and-click adventure game from a side-scrolling 2D view point like the original and Revolution’s other popular series, Broken Sword, Beyond a Steel Sky actually plays a lot like most other 3D action-adventure games of the modern day. There’s a familiar third-person camera floating behind Foster, movement uses WASD controls on PC, you can hold down Shift to jog more quickly, and you’ll navigate conversations with Bioware-style dialogue topics. But don’t get it twisted: this is still a classic adventure game at its core.
In Beyond a Steel Sky, you’re on a mission to track down and rescue a young boy named Milo who’s been captured by a giant mechanical beast. It flees across the desert toward Union City, so you set off to figure out who took him, why he was kidnapped, and how to get him back. It’s a good story hook that adds urgency and doesn’t take long to get you invested.
While purists might initially lament the shift in perspective, it doesn’t take long to realize the developers didn’t lose sight of their origins. Sky’s got a wonderfully colorized comic book-style intro scene reminiscent of the original and the art style is bright and vibrant with bold lines resembling graphic novels, much like TellTale’s adventure games such as The Walking Dead.
The vast majority of your time is still spent sifting through conversations, meticulously searching environments for items and clues, and good old-fashioned trial and error to get through countless puzzles. What stood out to me with the approach this time around, though, is a larger focus on set-piece moments and using the power of 2020 hardware to deliver iconic, sweeping visuals that would have never been possible nearly three decades ago.
For example, after the intro animation, the camera pans over the desert (or gapland) showing Foster walking out through the wasteland. That sort of cinematic presentation just isn’t possible with a more traditional adventure game format, and it helps build up the emotion and anticipation of the narrative. The same thing happens again once you finally get Foster inside of Union City itself, with a sweeping camera shot that highlights the cyberpunk aesthetic.
All that being said, classic adventure games have a certain type of simplistic charm that is missing here. Perhaps it’s due to the era in which I grew up, but pixel art is just inherently endearing to me whereas a cel-shaded aesthetic often struggles to flow well, can come off as stiff, or even lack nuance since textures are mostly flat. A finely crafted scene of pure pixel art just oozes personality by contrast. It’s also much faster and easier to quickly scan entire environments, click on many things, and try out puzzle solutions without having to always physically move your character and explore every nook and cranny manually.
To counteract this it does seem like, at least initially, Revolution Software is utilizing more simplistic puzzles from what I’ve seen as compared to adventure games of yore. You can still expect multiple solutions to some events and often overlapping objectives, but I didn’t find myself bashing my head against the wall getting stuck on things as often.
That’s not to say things aren’t complex though. For example, I still had to retrieve a data transmitter from a bird, to then give it to a young woman to get an ID, which I needed to get into the city, to find a person. Domino effects like that still happen everywhere and adventure games are all about figuring out which order to lay out the pieces before you start knocking things over.
With Revolution Software’s new format and modernized form of play, the elegance of playing Beyond a Steel Sky seems to be due to clear game design and decades of experience building worlds that tell stories both implicitly and explicitly.
David Jagneaux is a contributor to IGN. Chat with him on Twitter at @David_Jagneaux.