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Steel Yourself for a Great Adventure
Beneath a Steel Sky (PC)
Member Name: SWSt
Beneath a Steel Sky (PC)
Advantages: Impressive graphics (for its age), superb storyline and dialogue, free legal download
Disadvantages: Can be frustrating at times, particularly the final puzzle
Beneath a Steel Sky (BASS) is one of Revolution Software's earlier titles and whilst it might lack some of the polish of their later games, it is nevertheless a classic game that is still well worth getting hold of.
You play Robert Foster, a man brought up in the outer wilderness in a dystopian future. One day some men kidnap him and take him back to the city. Robert manages to escape their clutches and must find out why he was kidnapped and who he really is. The only person he has to help him is his little robot friend, Joey.
Beneath a Steel Sky is a classic 90s point and click adventure. As you wander from location to location, you have to find items then work out what to do with them or talk to other characters to glean bits of information which you can then use to progress.
Graphics in this PC version of BASS have held up pretty well. The original graphics were drawn by Dave Gibbons (of Watchmen fame) and always looked impressive. Within the limitations imposed on him by the technology of the day, Gibbons did an excellent job creating the impression of a vast, sprawling futuristic city; individual locations look impressive, whilst the various people you come across look impressive. Sure, when blown up to full screen size on modern PCs, the images might look a little pixelated and rough around the edges, but the overall impression is still very strong.
For those used to the riot of colours of the Monkey Island games, BASS might look quite drab. Whilst this is true, the muted colour scheme actually enhances the game's atmosphere and helps create the impression of a bleak future set in a city which is being repressed.
Sound is very good. Sound effects are relatively limited, but convincing when they occur; a number of tunes play at different points which add a lot to the atmosphere and capture the spirit of individual scenes or locations. All on screen text is reproduced using speech and for the most part the voice acting is pretty good. Crucially, the role of both Foster and Joey just sound right, whilst other voices are well-judged. It's a minor irritation that the in-game subtitles don't always match exactly with the speech, but this is not a serious issue.
Minor irritants aside, the dialogue is a real high point of BASS. Rightly praised at the time of release it still sounds great today. In particular, the banter between Foster and Joey is inspired. It communicates a sense of friendship and warmth between the man and his robot and gives both real character. The banter between the pair is genuinely funny - it's worth playing the game just to hear their bickering. It's also one of those games where you will want to try out every line of possible dialogue, just to hear more.
The dialogue might not be quite as consistently amusing as the Monkey Island series (mainly because the subject matter is darker), but it can be just as funny when it wants to be and this imbues a real sense of depth in the characters. Arguably, this is one of the first games I played where I developed a real sense of engagement with the on-screen avatar. I didn't just want to keep playing because I wanted to complete the game; I wanted to keep playing because I wanted to help Foster and Joey.
It's the gameplay, though, that will make or break any adventure game and BASS gets this pretty much spot on. Overall, I'd say the game is probably a lot more straightforward than many adventures. That's not to say it's easy or that you will complete it quickly - there's still plenty of hours of game time and plenty of challenging puzzles- however, somehow the puzzles seem a lot more logical. There were certainly fewer moments in BASS when I was left scratching my head, clueless as to what I should be doing. Generally speaking, puzzles are quite logical if you stop and think about them in the context of the game. Whilst they are not always instantly obvious (there are some real brain teasers later in the game), neither are they so ridiculous that you would never come up with the solution in a million years. BASS is the best sort of adventure game: one which offers tricky puzzles that are solvable with a bit of thought. It's less likely that you will stumble across a solution by accident and more likely that you will solve a problem by your own lateral thinking, which makes it a rewarding title to play.
As with any point and click adventure, of course, it can be slightly frustrating to become stuck on a particular puzzle and unable to progress. Beneath a Steel Sky also has its share of moments when you are just wandering between locations without any real idea what to do next and you are reduced to simply trying every object in your inventory with every other object. However, this is a weakness of the genre generally and not a specific problem with BASS.
What is more of a specific problem is almost the very last puzzle which is slightly unfair the first time you come across it. This is the only puzzle in the game which relies on reactions as well as brainpower. Essentially, you have a very limited amount of time to work out what you need to do and to do it. If you fail to react quickly enough, the ends (in fairness, you do go straight back to this puzzle and can try as many times as you need without penalty). It's rather unfair, though, because up to this point, the game has relied purely on brain power, not reactions so to suddenly change the rules is not particularly clever writing. This is probably the one puzzle in BASS which makes you feel the game is not treating you fairly, although it's not as annoying as Broken Sword's infamous "goat puzzle".
Beneath a Steel Sky has been re-released several times across multiple formats which means it can be picked up for a pittance (often about £1.) There's even better news. If you're not particularly bothered about owning the physical version. Revolution software has kindly listed BASS as "abandonware", meaning the PC version can be legally downloaded for free. For the hours of fun and entertainment this title will give you, that is an absolute steal. If you've never played BASS before, then you're in for a treat!
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: Still an impressive game today