Sunday, 11 September 2011

Beneath A Steel Sky (1994/Amiga/PC)

One of the more exotic gaming journeys back into the 90s was to indulge in a point-and-click adventure that wasn’t a LucasArts project, but one that could stand tall against just about any of them. One well-recognised game that matches these criteria is found in the trip back to early 1994, with the destination being an uncomfortable chair in front of a DOS machine with Beneath A Steel Sky ready to play. I first experienced this game as a youngster on the Amiga, but revisiting and playing through the PC “talkie” version brought extra life to the set. The CD-ROM is also slightly harder to use as a murder weapon than the Amiga’s colossal fifteen floppy disks, which resemble a hefty brickbat when taped together and wrapped in something brickbat-coloured, or fifteen highly customised shurikens.

It’s not without its flaws, the most notable being the ill-fitting American accents of Foster and a minority of the cast, and indeed the entire cast bar Eduardo the gardener if you consider that the game is played in Australia, with the rest of the cast displaying a broad array of British accents, among others. Still, the cockneys are close enough. The voice acting has the right amount of ham to blend in with the dialogue to bring humorous overtones to a conceptually sinister game, similar in theory but not in practice to the cream of LucasArts’ contributions to the genre. The background music is typically supplementary, and the moods usually complement the intended atmospheres, but it is a little bit too cheery at times. The Virtual Theatre engine propels non-playable characters around the world, but the need to avoid them at times and to be moved to a particular place on the screen to have a conversation can be grating.

You play Robert Foster. He's stylish... effortless womaniser...
...has a refined taste in music...
...and is quite the athlete, to boot!
The characters are typically very identifiable despite not having discernable faces. This is largely due to the scope of accents deployed, and while it’s something you wince at upon the realisation that you’re getting a vocal tour of the British Isles (London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Belfast, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh are all covered, although 1994 was long before non-footballers from Newcastle were allowed to become celebrities on a regular basis, and the treaty that controversially decreed that Geordie was technically a dialect of English only came into force a decade later), you do start to appreciate the necessity of this as you get further into the game. The primary layer of characters is quite distinctive, with the free outsider Foster, the zealous Reich, the archaic Lamb, the rebellious Anita, and the caustic mechanoid Joey. There are a lot of characters, however, that fit into the oblivious, selfish stereotype, but you still manage to maintain a mental image of them through their often unique voice, which is never subtle but not always a caricature. The French doorman’s accent is a little forced, but it’s more David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot than Peter Sellers’ Jacques Clouseau, so we’re not treated to the sheer mockery of the tongue seen in Jackie Chan Stuntmaster and other games. On the other hand, the Welsh security guard is practically drowning in saliva as he stumbles through lines like “We’re here to serve the community, and shoot people” (which, despite being epitomic of Beneath A Steel Sky, is far too easily missed), and Sam and Norville in the security centre are so brummie that they make Jasper Carrott sound like a foreign national.

Joey is always complaining...
...and Hobbins can see why...
...but that's what upgrades are for
The nagging issue that the characters don’t always stick to the written script is largely the cause of dialect, and this is in evidence as the American Foster meanders loosely around a very colloquial British script, with “jumper”, “it’s well smart”, and “they’re shagged beyond repair” changed to “sweater”, “it’s totally cool”, and “they’re frazzed beyond repair”. You can feel the defiance in the voice actor in the last of those lines. “‘Shagged’? Don’t be ridiculous, frazzed makes much more sense,” he says to himself. He’s wrong, though.

The most intensive the interface
gets, and it's telling you why
Hobbins is in such poor shape
Being point-and-click, it’s hard to complain about the controls. You click either mouse button to walk somewhere, talk to someone, or follow an exit cursor, and you left-click to examine a highlighted object, right-click to pick up or interact with it, and right-click anywhere to skip a line of text. Just one keyboard button is required, to bring up the menu. The interface is dead simple. The unobtrusive inventory only drops down if you move the cursor to the very top, and the only thing that changes when looking at objects is the cursor, which changes from a smaller arrow to a larger one labelled “Exit” for a route out of the room, or to a crosshairs with the name of the object or person, which even changes as the player learns the character’s name. It’s all minimal and effective, and allows you to enjoy the graphics.

Stunning graphics are featured...
...from the barren to the exotic
And what graphics they are. The background art supplied by illustrious comic book artist Dave Gibbons is painted to a half-realism rather than his comic style, although he does provide a comic strip too for the introduction in the packaging, which was featured at the beginning of the game itself on CD-ROM. From the bleak industrial towers to the plush modern veneers, the artwork is something to be savoured, and you can easily appreciate the effort that the Revolution team put into giving it centre stage. You even have the option to remove speech text from view if you’re feeling cocky about hearing everything first time, but do bear in mind that you don’t get to repeat conversations.

Lifts make transportation easy
Despite the sprawling city and plot, the navigable world is pretty small. Multiply that with the ability to change your game speeds, and you’ve got a much more easily accessible world than say, The Secret Of Monkey Island, a comparably epic world that takes about four decades to explore.

Right from the almost-animated cartoon strip intro, the scavengers that act as the guardians of Robert Foster paint an ill landscape erupting into the sky, and the protagonist’s life summary illustrates the relative wasteland. Another helicopter crash brings Foster, now regarded as a fugitive, to the start of the gameplay. Unlike a fair chunk of its peers, Beneath A Steel Sky presents several situations where our protagonist can die, and the ability to save is most welcome. Points of timing also come up, and the ability to slow the game speed down can prove to be quite nifty at times.

Foster gets backed up against a
wall straight away, and can die here...
...good thing he's so eloquent and
can blag his way out of trouble
You’re instantly put in a situation where Foster can be killed. Walking down the stairs results in instant termination courtesy of the purple clad guard. A simple puzzle leads to a very dead end, but Foster manages to outwit the goon without your help. As the guard leaves the building, your next step is to find a shell for Joey, who can then analyse your items, mend things, break things, fly, complain, and insult you. After convincing the hapless Howard Hobbins that he’s a safety inspector, which becomes his recurring disguise, he steals his stuff and slides down into the recycling plant’s furnace room. Upon attempting to escape the room, gun-toting security officer Stephen Reich (who was in charge of abducting Foster in the intro) bursts in, pointing his weapon at Foster, who as it turns out, is Robert Overmann, but he’s still Foster to us. Some spy camera linked to a system called LINC toasts Reich, and the pun-toting fugitive is becoming aware that someone or something is looking out his survival.

Foster's incisive humour is nothing
short of irresistable...
...he's smooth like ice, but Lamb is
cold to the touch and isn't very nice

Dystopian fashion is questionable,
and yet Foster's coat is ridiculed
The supporting caste bears the
brunt of swingeing cuts
Having looted Reich’s corpse, Foster can access most of the industrial area available to him after this point, waving his imaginary inspector credentials around like a feather duster to any guards and technicians that he chooses to talk to. There are computer terminals that he can use his newfound card on, through which he eventually discovers that this LINC thing had his mother killed. In the pipe factory, Foster meets the suffering rogue Anita Einbeck, who is sympathetic to Foster’s plight, and her oppressive, ostentatious supervisor Gilbert Lamb, who is implied to be some sort of inept hack. After trying to flirt with Anita, discovering that he’s in Union City (Sydney, apparently), learning that this city is a supposed corporation which is at economic war with Hobart (another city/corporation that isn’t renamed), and sabotaging the power plant, Foster fixes the lift and gains access to Belle Vue, home to a couple of characters, and several strange businesses.

Suddenly, you're in what feels
like a different world
Belle Vue isn't paradise, but it
sure beats London
The strange but admittedly not counterintuitive concept of being closer to the ground giving you higher status that Foster had picked up on is in full view here. The rusting housing of industry gives way to stone facades and plant life. Belle Vue isn’t brilliantly lush, but it’s such a stark contrast, particularly outside the conveniently adjacent living quarters of Reich and Lamb, where you can talk to a strange chap called Gallagher, who thinks he’s… William Shatner. Foster can visit the travel agency, insurance company, and the obligatory mad scientist Doctor Burke, replete with a curious German accent and a habit of inhaling anaesthetic whilst cutting up patients, who provides Foster with an electronic port in his head (not shown). Foster can then access LINC (“LINCspace”), which is like some bizarre virtual reality world with a set of puzzles.

LINCspace is like stepping
into another game
With enough trickery and help from Anita, Foster gets to Hyde Park at ground level, and manages to get some answers from Danielle Piermont, whose deceased husband’s work led the pair of them to be close to the Overmann family. The frightening Piermont is incredibly wealthy and well connected, and can get you access to an underground club, and her dog Spunky can be used to create a good distraction for one Officer Blunt, who is basically Parker from Thunderbirds, who ‘as no h’idea what h’exactly you’re h’up to. After entering a truly bizarre courthouse scene in which a dated judge presides over his court as if it were a game show, Hobbins hastily befriends Foster after standing accused of assaulting Blunt with some water spray, which was an unseen result of Foster’s work in the power plant.

Very good, m'lady:
h'Officer Blunt h'is 'opeless
Here's your starter for ten:
Judge Chutney hosts a sham court
Doctor Burke is definitely
on something
After discovering Anita’s radiation-cooked body in the cathedral, an increasingly vengeful Foster vows to finish what Anita was planning, and destroy LINC. He sneaks into the underground to find some of the strangest things imaginable in the circumstances. LINC is a pulsating organism hooked up to Foster’s dad, and some guy with a surfer dude voice is totally growing rubbery androids. Joey, whose job is to annoy you and keep breaking shells, has his last one broken after an altercation with the mysterious Gallagher, who turns out to be... another android, and Foster downloads him into an android and dubs him Ken. A few more puzzles and sharp thinking leads to Foster meeting his father, and then on to victory. Fast forward a little spring cleaning, and everything's fantastic, so Foster declares his return to the gap, despite all of his tribe having been exterminated in the explosion courtesy of Reich’s entourage in the introduction, leaving Ken and Hobbins behind. The fate of the rest of the surviving citizens of the implied nicer, uncorrupted Union City is left open, apart from Lamb, who is suggested to get a return to work in a less prestigious position. End game, roll credits, “be vigilant”, whoopee.

Things get weirder by the minute
Some of the puzzles are easier than others. Along with the threat of death that isn’t always obvious, some puzzles are abstractly different to others, which keeps you on your toes at all times. While many hallmarks of adventure games are there, such as the initial level acting as a silent tutorial that equates to “use that metal thing to open that metal door or get shot”, and the increasing complexity, moving around LINCspace makes you feel like you’re playing a different game.

The plot is heartwrenchingly good
Beneath A Steel Sky is a killer game
Dizzying heights were achieved
in the creation of this game
The game is completely gripping, and while a huge part of it is because of the amazing art, challenging gameplay and intriguing plot, a fair chunk is down to uncomfortable juxtapositions. From the way LINCspace feels compared to the tangible walkways, and how oddly cheery Belle Vue and Hyde Park are compared to the rest of the world, to the strange hodgepodge of current and dated technology that the dystopia setting allows for, and the strands of humour woven into such a serious tapestry, you're always wanting to play more just to achieve a greater sense of clarity. While The Secret Of Monkey Island and LeChuck’s Revenge were conceived from a grim idea that was crafted to be brimming with charm, the use of humour in Beneath A Steel Sky added a dimension to the game rather than just changing it to a different type. By straddling the borders of multiple concepts rather than firmly establishing the game as something distinct, the folks at Revolution risked a game that would fall flat and not achieve in any category. However, they put the work in, and served up something that, while not quite perfect, overachieved in many ways. Beneath A Steel Sky is one of the pinnacles of the genre, and its release to the freeware world in 2003 and inexpensive remastered release as a sort of iApp thingy in 2009 by the company, which was a demonstration that they understood the emulator scene and disaffected consumers better than the bigger players, have helped to keep the flame of adventure games alive. It is inspiring gamers to dig back into the past and indulge in the classic games, and encouraging developers to dedicate their time to creating games for the so-called unfashionable genre. Its place as both a quality game and a historically significant package are in no doubt.

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