Beyond a Steel Sky is a cyberpunk adventure puzzler and spiritual successor to the 1994 cult-classic Beneath a Steel Sky. Set a decade after the events of the original, hero Robert Foster returns to the sprawling metropolis of Union City – now a burgeoning Utopia since he overthrew the tyrannical regime ten years ago.
The creators of the original, Charles Cecil ( Broken Sword series) and the legendary Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) reunite to bring a new sci-fi adventure with modern sensibilities. If you’ve never played the first game, it’s currently available to play for free on Steam.
After defeating the corrupt AI, LINC, Foster puts his best robot pal Joey in charge of running Union City before returning to his village in the Gap (an arid plain beyond the city walls). In Beyond a Steel Sky, we pick up Foster’s story ten years later. When a young boy, Milo, is kidnapped from the village by a mysterious armoured vehicle, Foster sets off in quick pursuit.
Out in the desert, you follow the vehicle tracks to an unknown corpse by the side of the road. A girl is trying to extract a chip from the corpses hand with a small device until a vicious gang-gang bird swoops down and steals it from her as she flees.
Milo’s trail leads continues right back to Union City, the place where it all began. But without a fancy newfangled UI chip, there’s no way you’re getting in. Not even guest list. Luckily, the grave-robbing girl from the roadside is here. After helping her to retrieve the gadget from the gang-gang’s razor beak, she agrees to implant you with the dead man’s chip in order to gain access to the City.
You are now Graham Grundy, a seemingly ordinary citizen at first glance. But as you delve into the depths of Union City, all is not what it seems.
Hack My Bridge Up
Gameplay consists of interacting with people and objects in Union City to solve environmental puzzles. A reticule will appear when you’re near and you tap X to bring up a small menu of options. This lets you examine something, use an inventory item, or talk to them.
Early on, you gain access to the hacker tool that lets you scan for hackable objects within your immediate surroundings. Most of the puzzles in the game are based around the tool, and boy, it’s a real hoot! In an early puzzle, you need to get a bridge to lower in order to cross over into the City. However, poor Graham’s UI chip doesn’t have the latest firmware installed so, accessed denied and all that. A quick scan of the bridge console will bring up a screen showing the machine’s basic programming; a set of blocks containing modifiers which govern its behaviour. Swap these around with a simple click and drag, and hey presto – anyone with an out-of-date chip now has permission to lower the bridge.
The beauty of the hacker tool mechanic is that you’re not just limited to the game’s puzzles. You could (and should) wander around the Plaza hacking vending machines to set off alarms on unsuspecting citizens, or make the holo-ads display a giant image of a rat. It’s great that you have this degree of interactivity with the world, and subtly subverting the City is great fun. It’s also a clever way of extending the theme of challenging the establishment through gameplay. This is the level of detail you expect from a cyberpunk game (I’m looking at you, Cyberpunk 2077).
A Helping Hand
While hacking a bridge is pretty simple, the puzzles in Beyond a Steel Sky ramp up in difficulty and complexity as you progress. For the most part, they level alongside you as you get to grips with the mechanic but there are a few that feel needlessly obtuse and some of the logic puzzles can be a little repetitive.
That being said, the game has a well designed hint system which I’m not afraid to admit I used a couple of times. In the options menu, you can press X to reveal a hint. At first, you’ll be given a fairly vague clue with each subsequent hint adding another layer of detail. This is great if you just need a gentle nudge in the right direction and doesn’t leave you feeling guilty about asking for help.
However you decide to solve them, cracking each puzzle is immensely satisfying and pushes you to acutely observe your surroundings.
Lore and Order
I must admit, when I started getting stuck-in to the game I was surprised by just how good the writing is. The dialogue is sharp, intelligent and witty; you’ll catch yourself laughing out loud at least once. There are a myriad of quirky, larger-than-life characters to meet throughout Union City – from the sophisticated droid-cum-poet Tarquin, to the eccentric old-school hacker, Leet, with his wonderfully thick Welsh accent. Fans of the original will smirk at a few long-running jokes and for the newbies there are pop-culture references aplenty – from Monty Python to Kanye no less.
The central mystery story is gripping and will keep you hooked, even if the ending is a little unsurprising. And if you’re worried that you’ll need to play the original to understand the game, don’t sweat. One of your earlier leads will take you to the Museum of Old History which explains a lot of the events of the first game through interactive dioramas. In less competent hands, this could easily translate to a massive lore dump with reams of tedious exposition. But the developers cleverly fuse lore with gameplay by making the museum displays part of a puzzle.
I’ve Seen Things You People Wouldn’t Believe
With Dave Gibbons at the helm, it was safe to assume that Beyond a Steel Sky would be visually appealing, but oh man, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The cell shaded art style gives the world a comic-book feel with popping vibrant colours, lush greens and futuristic clean whites. The lighting in particular is fantastic – the city bathes in neon hues at night and by day you feel the warmth reflect off the sun-kissed buildings. The result is a lively atmosphere brimming with hope and Utopian fervour.
In the main menu visual options, you can choose between two graphical settings. ‘Low’ which is at 30fps or ‘High’ at 60fps. It’s not made clear at what resolution both settings are but I found little difference between the two so stuck with 60fps. Aside from the occasional frame-rate drop, it feels pretty smooth and steady. There are a couple of aspects that could use a little polish. The NPCs for example, sometimes walk straight into each other or across the camera during a cut-scene but it’s nothing game-breaking.
The game uses sound sparingly, but when it does, it’s enough to evoke the atmosphere of a bustling city or the hum of an industrial plant. When you reach the opening credits after just shy of an hour of gameplay, classical strings swell into an epic crescendo reminiscent of a John Williams’ score.
Beyond a Steel Sky is a gripping adventure game with innovative puzzle mechanics and a well-written story. More puzzle variation and a little polish could elevate it to greater heights, but its dry humour and excellent world-building make for a compelling cyberpunk experience.