Robert Foster’s a complicated man. Brought up by indigenous Australians in “the Gap”, a barren wasteland much like Fallout 3′s post-nuclear Washington, after surviving a plane crash as a child, Foster seems like a mish-mash of Rick Deckard and Mad Max with some extra dry humour and a hot-tempered robot side-kick. Still, you’d think he’d take being kidnapped by stormtroopers who then murder his adopted family a little bit harder than he does.
Meet Revolution Software’s Beneath a Steel Sky, a 1994 sci-fi point and click adventure for MS DOS and Amiga, often forgotten alongside more famous games in its genre like LucasArt’s Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max or Sierra’s Gabriel Knight series. For modern gamers, games like Cing’s Hotel Dusk and Capcom’s Phoenix Wright dominate the adventure game mindshare – the touchpad and stylus (and sometimes the Wii remote), we assume, so perfectly suited to point and click gameplay. So, at first, playing Beneath a Steel Sky feels like a relic – a reminder of those dim times when we would spend countless hours in front of our PC monitors, our retinas burning from intense pixel-hunting sessions, right mouse-button clicking like there was no tomorrow.
However, once you’ve conceded that you’ll be playing this game with a strategy guide an alt-tab away, the linear (and sometimes frustrating) puzzle-solving becomes background to the game’s engaging Orwellian sci-fi story, light-hearted humour and wise-cracking, memorable characters. Even for today’s high standard of 3D graphics and visual fidelity, Revolution Software’s relatively understated depiction of the bleak but strangely offbeat dystopian Union City, where Foster searches for why he is wanted by the city’s security forces, remains to this day, vivid and full of character. Notably, fans of Alan Moore’s Watchmen will enjoy the opening comic-style cinematic drawn by Dave Gibbons, whose involvement in Beneath A Steel Sky also encompasses some of the in-game artwork.
For many, Beneath a Steel Sky will fail to hit any nostalgic chord. While being a critical and commercial success in the mid-90s, today its archaic game mechanics will frustrate rather than endear. However, for those who appreciate atmosphere and art design (Bioshock and Fallout 3 fans specifically) or for those looking forward to more modern adventure games (see Phoenix Wright and Hotel Dusk, or the upcoming Broken Sword for the Wii and DS), Beneath a Steel Sky is an interesting look back and a game worth seeking out.
Beneath a Steel Sky by Revolution software is now available as freeware on the ScummVM.org website.