Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Beneath a Steel Sky (MS-DOS)

Beneath a Steel Sky logo
Alright, the next game I'm looking at is Beneath a Steel Sky, originally released for DOS and Amiga systems, and now sitting in the game collection of basically everyone with an account on sites like gog.com and dotemu due to its freeware status. It's Revolution Software's second point and click adventure, after Lure of the Temptress, and it's actually pretty highly regarded. It also has a badass logo, but you've probably noticed that already.

Back in the early 90s adventure games like this were huge, and I'm not just talking popularity. On the Amiga, Monkey Island 2 and Fate of Atlantis took up 11 floppy disks each. This game came on 15 disks. Of course these days you can just stick the CD version into ScummVM and it runs, no disk swapping or installation required. So I did.

The game begins with a comic book style intro, as a narrator explains how the chief of his village predicted that evil was approaching from a nearby city, and that its was coming... for him! The narrator I mean, not the chief.

Unfortunately the warnings came much too late, as a chopper was already flying in overhead, firing on everything that moves, including the narrator's robot friend Joey. As he ran for cover then recovered the personality card from the robot's wrecked shell, he thought back to that last time he saw the chopper's S shaped logo. Flashback!

The narrator first arrived in the wilderness as a young child, the only survivor of a helicopter crash. Fortunately he was found by a kind group of hunters who raised him as one of their own.

The narrator knew his first name was Robert but had apparently forgotten his surname, so his adopted father decided to give him the last name 'Foster'. Y'know, because he's his foster child.

Anyway they're all dead now, as after they'd finished kidnapping Foster the bad men annihilated his entire village and everyone in it. Just because they're assholes.

The assholes then take him to a cool Blade Runner looking future city, which looks far better than the blurry art of they show of Foster in the copter so I'm showing a screen of it instead.

It's like they scanned the intro art from the comic book that comes with the game, as the smaller panels show up really fuzzy on screen.

But the copter's systems are suddenly mysteriously jammed, leaving the machine hurtling out of control as it darts between the skyscrapers. Though that scene didn't look so great either, so here's another shot of the fantastic city art instead.

Fortunately our narrator survives his second copter crash and successfully manages to run away and slip into a nearby building to hide without getting shot in the back by assholes, saving me from having to sit through a whole other intro setting up a replacement protagonist.

Foster managed to get up onto this walkway out of sight before anyone followed him, so he can safely spy on his pursuer having a conversation with a worker. We've left the comic book art behind, but people here are still talking like comic characters. The subtitles LIKE to EMPHASISE every other WORD.

And... they've finally ended the cutscenes and given me a mouse cursor.

My eye was immediately drawn to that red cloth or whatever tied around the broken railing, but it's not something Foster can pick up, and strangely it doesn't appear at all the Amiga version. He can grab the hard to see bar sticking out next to it through, which makes me think the red thing was added in to lure people over to the railing.

With the bar in hand I decided to go and sort out the guy downstairs. It... didn't work out. Hey I thought he said a second ago that they were trying to bring me in unharmed!

The interface in this is about as simple and effective as you can get in an adventure game. Left click looks at things, right click uses things, and there's a drop down inventory. They've nailed it.

Well he's definitely dead. I guess the developers weren't that impressed by the LucasArts 'no fail state' adventure game philosophy. Hopefully they at least decided to avoid letting the player miss items or do things in the wrong order and make the game unwinnable due to bullshit puzzle design.

Well with the staircase guarded, there was only one other way out for poor Foster. It's okay, he's in a better place now: hanging behind the door, waiting for the security officer to leave.

I gotta say that I love the visuals in this game, they give the game a really miserable Blade Runner kind of atmosphere. The game's background graphics were actually created by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, and he does not disappoint.

Alright now he thinks I'm dead and has wandered off I'm free to move around the factory without being shot, though I'm still trapped inside. Foster seems to think his first goal should be to revive his old robot buddy in a new robot body, so I'll follow his lead.

There was a pile of junk here labelled 'Junk', but fortunately I took the time to click each section of it until a piece was revealed to be 'Robot shell'. Another problem solved, Joey's back online, and now I can move onto goal 2: get out of here.

I managed to convince the worker next door that I was meant to be here and that I'm performing a routine inspection, but he still has an issue with me grabbing his sandwich. Unfortunately for him, I ain't leaving until I get his lunch. It very well may turn out to be a crucial component in my escape plan. It's not like anything else in this room is any help.

I think I'm going to need some kind of distraction first.

Sorry bro, routine inspections require that I stand on the robot lift and set off the alarm. Don't worry, I'll keep an eye on your sandwich next door while you're out here trying to turn the alarm off. Sucker.

Unfortunately grabbing his food didn't actually do me any good, and I'm no closer to finding a way out of here. I just have no idea what I'm meant to be doing in here. Every screen has buttons I can't press or screens I can't use, or machinery that serves no purpose but to sit there in the background "WHEEZING and BANGING like an asthmatic DINOSAUR in the MATING season!"


LATER.


After trying to use everything in my inventory on everything I could find, in my desperation I decided to return to the worker and try the really dumb dialogue choices. You know, the ones you really shouldn't say to a guy when you're trying to persuade them that you're here to carry out an inspection.

Fortunately acting dumb turned out to do the trick, giving me the information I needed... to tell my robot to solve my problem for me. Joey may a bit of a sulky asshole right now, but he's got his uses.

Well shit, I managed to escape right into a dead end, and there's no way back. I can't get out without a keycard, simple as that.

With nothing else left to try I turned to Joey for advice and he just opened the door for me. And then in walked sinister Officer Reich, the man who kidnapped Foster and murdered his people. The man he has sworn revenge upon. And the bastard's got a gun.

Quick as lightning, Foster strikes Reich with a well aimed karate chop, cutting him in two, and... actually that's a complete lie. That big mysterious eye on the left shot him to death.

Anyway, same end result. I get to escape the factory, plus I've even grabbed his wallet.

Though I haven't actually escaped to anywhere yet, as I'm still stuck on this floor, surrounded by security officers. Fortunately they have no idea I'm the man they're looking for, and honestly I can't blame them. No one's going to believe I'm from the wasteland with a coat like this, I look like I should be the guy's boss.

Oh damn, I've just realised what this place is like. I was thinking Blade Runner, when I should have been thinking Judge Dredd. Foster basically came here from the Cursed Earth and this dystopian metropolis looks just Mega-City One. Apparently Dave Gibbons even drew a fair number of 2000 AD comics.

Well my efforts to sneak into the security office were less than successful, but I was able to talk my way out of it. He totally fell for the old 'dropped my ID card in my breakfast' line. Seriously. Unfortunately I wasn't able to convince him to hire me, as I just don't have enough tattoos for security work.

Fortunately getting into a LINC terminal turned out to be less stressful, as Reich's card did the job. Man I love these futuristic computer systems in games, they always give the designers a chance to cut loose and think up some really innovative visions of what the internet could become. Of course what they come up always turns out to either be TRON, or the most basic text interface imaginable. Sometimes with a little numeric keypad if I'm lucky.

Anyway, this was less than useless and it wouldn't even let my use my actual keyboard's numeric keypad to type in the numbers! Though at least now I know where Reich lives and how much money's sitting in his account. I wonder if he left his pin number written down in his house somewhere.

Awesome, I finally managed to solve another puzzle and Foster had a chance to demonstrate his razor sharp wit. Randomly trying stuff to see what happens has paid off once again. Now I suppose I have to get this wrench back out of the works if I'm going to get this job finished...
 
With the assembly line disabled, I was able take apart a welder robot to upgrade Joey. To tell you the truth I was expecting Foster to take the personality card out of the little vacuum bot and stick it in the welder, instead of just dumping the outer casing straight on top. I suppose he knows what he's doing, he did build the little guy in the first place.

Anyway this finally cheered up Joey a bit, which is cool. There's been a noticeable drop in the amounts of whining coming from his voice speaker.

Though he's also gone mad with power. Foster helpfully reminds Joey that Asimov's three laws of robotics clearly specify that robots must never weld humans. In turn Joey reminds Foster that the three laws are fictional. So I decided to keep him busy by disabling this supply room's security sensor.

I wasn't actually that impressed with the voice acting in this at first, though I think it's growing on me. Foster and Joey's banter seemed totally out of step with the serious tone of the game at first, but then the game dropped all attempts at playing it straight about three screens in.


LATER.


I can't believe I'm still on this bloody floor. I've been in every building, pressed every set of mysterious buttons and looked at every undecipherable monitor, and I'm still no closer to figuring out what the game wants me to do.

I mean I know my next objective, it's to get down to the floor below, possibly in the elevator. But the elevator is shut down until they find the guy who escaped from the crashed chopper and as that's me I'm not sure that turning him in will further my goals.

I'm just trying everything on everything at this point, but I'm still having no luck. I'm not sure what this power room's got to do with anything, but all my attempts to meddle with the machinery have been foiled either by a locked control panel or concerns that 'it's electrical'.

I tried pressing the buttons on the right, but one's jammed, and the other one's locked with a safety mechanism. So either I'm looking for a button unjamming device, or this is just another useless panel.

Aha! A key and some WD40. Perfect for unlocking control panels and unjamming buttons. Now I can finally make some progress.

I've no idea what I'm going to achieve by screwing with the power, but as an adventure game hero it's my duty to pick up everything that's not nailed down, fuck up everything I come across, then come back later when I've found a hammer to prise out the nails and nick everything I missed the first time around.

Oh crap, you can't do this! A man's inventory is sacred, not something to be searched through, examined and judged. The man is shocked that I'm carrying around so much junk, and a bit annoyed I'd stolen his WD40 and key. He takes back the stolen property, and my sandwich too for good measure. I'm actually glad though, as that thing had probably started evolving into a bio-weapon.

It's funny how this is supposed to be set in Australia, yet everyone has strong British or American sounding accents. You know, it's almost as if they were making the game in England and decided to hire local actors!

In the end I gave up and checked a walkthrough, just to get off this floor so I could end this post. Turns out I had to use my trusty wrench to unjam the buttons. I guess the lubricant was just there to steer me in the wrong direction.

Some plastic explosive was enough to open up the control panel (and blast Foster to his death on the first attempt), and then I finally learned what these switches do when flicking them powered up the  elevator outside. Honestly it never even occurred to me that these two unmarked switches were somehow related to that lift sitting a few buildings away.

Actually now that I think about it, that security guy right at the start of the game did mention they'd cut off power to an elevator. Would have been nice if anyone had mentioned it again by the point I had to deal with the problem. Maybe they could have even had some power lines running here from the lift I could've followed.

Comedy music, comedy backgrounds, and comedy dialogue. The transformation into a LucasArts adventure is now complete. Well, assuming I don't get him killed again.

I've finally completed my ambition of reaching the next floor down, and look at this place, not a control panel or an asthmatic wheezing machine in sight! It almost makes me want to keep playing, but I think it's best to quit while I'm ahead.


Beneath a Steel Sky seems like a really average point and click adventure, though I admit I haven't played a lot of them lately to compare it with. I can at least say it's better than Lure of the Temptress and Curse of Enchantia, but not on the same level as something like Curse of Monkey Island. I mean the characters are entertaining enough, the interface is great, the graphics are fantastic for the time, and music's a big step up from Temptress, but I had no idea what I was doing for 90% of the time. In a bad way.

I'll use Curse of Monkey Island as an example of something that often gets it right. I'm told near the start I need to travel to an island, and to do that I'll need a map, a boat, and a crew. I find there's three crew members I need and each has to be recruited a different way. One wants me to find treasure so I have to go off and find something valuable etc. Each part of the puzzle leads down to the next part, so I have a clear idea of what I need to do, even if I haven't figured out how yet.

In this I'm told to go to get down to the ground. To do this I needed to activate an elevator. But I had no bloody clue why the elevator wasn't working, so instead of following the puzzle along to the power plant, and then trying to figure out how to open the door to reach the switches, I was left entirely aimless.

I felt like I wasn't always being given all the information I needed to solve a problem by myself, so I was left to work through all my options until I eventually found the trick to open up the next area. Which is a bit annoying because being stuck isn't much fun, and the satisfaction of figuring out a puzzle is half the point of these games. Of course it's possible I just wasn't paying enough attention, but the game wasn't exactly throwing out hints. Just being able to go up to someone and say "remind me again why the elevator isn't working" would have helped.


So what do you think about Beneath a Steel Sky? Is it overrated or am I just rubbish at adventure games? Feel free to leave a comment.

6 comments:

  1. It's been a long while since I finished this, but I don't really remember being stuck, as I recall it was pretty smooth. Could be my memory keeping only the best of it, though.
    I did look and sound great, though.

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    1. I agree with this guy, and I finished it again a few years ago to double check.

      Sure there were a few areas of "adventure game logic" (I recall getting stuck at the goddamn wrench puzzle too) but overall I really liked the story and atmosphere, and I found the banter with the robot buddy really amusing.

      Maybe it's not quite at the level of the LucasArts games, but it's not far off them either.

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    2. Ha ha, "I" sounded and looked great. Silly me, I meant "It", obviously.

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  2. Go back to modern games it's pretty obvious you suck at everything that isn't Crap of Duty simple or involves using a small amount of your brain.

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    1. Seriously? Don't think you're better than him, cause you're not.

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  3. Hmm I've just replayed this and it's not you. I found myself very penned in (unlike the expansive environments of Monkey Island or Fate of Atlantis) but also feeling like I had little clue as to what I should be doing next. The switches in the power plant stumped me for a bit too. I liked it overall, but still found it lacking compared to Lucasarts' offerings.

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