Beneath a Steel Sky is a second game made by Revolution Software, after the decent success of their first game Lure of the Temptress. For this game Revolution Software really put the effort and love in this game. Writers Cecil Charles and Dave Cummins goal was to find a mix between the seriousness of Sierra games and the comedy of LucasArts’ games.
The game is set Australia after the Earth has been significantly damaged by nuclear fallout and pollution. All that remains are six states and two territories, and each has their capital cities, here described as “city-states”. In this social-political context, the intelligence agency ASIO has a great deal of power. In this future, after the “Euro-American War”, all sides agreed on a set of ideals, called “neo democratic principles”, which removes all labor representation and social benefits. Ironically those that follow the ideals are called “Unions” and those who opposed them are “Corporations”. Hence, all the cities in Australia are either Unions or Corporations.
The story follows Robert, a boy who is a sole survivor of a helicopter crash in the Gap (a wasteland of sorts in the game) and was raised by an aboriginal tribe. Remembering only his name Robert, the tribe names him Robert Foster, partially because they fostered him and also because of a beer can of Foster Lager (a reference lost in other releases of the game), found near the crash site. Robert is intelligent and he learns to engineer and builds a talking robot companion Joey. Joey’s personality is stored on a small circuit board and thus can easily be put in different robots, which allows him to change his “shell”, provided that the circuit board is not damaged. The game starts, when the soldiers from Union City kidnap Foster and destroy his tribe. Shortly after arriving in Union City, the helicopter malfunctions, but Robert survives and flees. He learns that the city is controlled by LINC (Logical Inter-Neural Connection) and that he has been labeled a terrorist by soldiers. With nowhere to go, Robert decides to roam the cities and hopefully find some answers.
As the game progresses you will learn that not all is well in Union City. First of all, there seems to be a conflict between Union City and a rival Hobart Corporation, and each of them wants to achieve market dominance by the use of sabotage. Various residents will say that Hobart Corporation is winning the “economic war”, by flooding the market with as they say “cheap, gimmicky garbage”, but it is never revealed if this is true. Also, the city inhabitants seem to be going crazy, seemingly unaware of the situation around them, which is hilariously presented in a trial scene, where the judge thinks that the trial is a game show, and hands out ridiculous sentences. In a subversion of a cliched trope, at the top of the city are the shop workers and janitors, and as you progress further down you will find wealthier citizens. You will also encounter unique characters like Hobbins who doesn’t care who you are and what you do as long as you don’t mess with his stuff (which you naturally do), and Gilbert Lamb a rude plant manager who walks around in a fur coat while his workers struggle in grey jumpsuits. It’s not clear how he got this position, as he doesn’t know or doesn’t care about his job, but is happy where he is and enjoys the status that his position brings.
In a traditional cyberpunk fashion you must enter the cyberspace, and to do this you must get a port installed in your head. This procedure is done by a seemingly insane Dr. Burke, who constantly huffs his own anesthetic and he routinely plays around with the hole in the chest of his patient. You can also talk to the patient, who is still conscious and he doesn’t mind it at all. Your only option is to donate your organs, but because Robert spent his life in the wilderness and away from pollution, he is far healthier and your organs can fetch far more money. Robert has no choice but to donate his testicles, which will, fortunately, be harvested after his death. Entering LINC, Cyberspace is presented in an 80s/90s style with grids, and abstract objects while Robert is presented as a blue avatar, and there are several simple puzzles to solve, and while playing I had to decrease the speed of the game in DOSBox in order to solve one of the puzzles. One of the major flaws in the game is to get the explanation for one of the plot points you need to die. Yeah, Beneath a Steel Sky features death, but most of those are amusing and easy to avoid.
The music in the game is good, but the game starts seriously, and it is odd when the game plays up beat, jolly music when the several scenes ago you were running away from your pursuers. Fortunately, the music gets darker and serious as you begin to reveal darker parts of the story. Voice acting in the game is mostly good, but all of the voices seem to feature British accents, then Australian ones (at least that’s the impression I got). Each character has a good and unique voice, which gives them more depth. Beneath a Steel Sky uses a Virtual Theatre engine, the second game to use it after the Lure of the Temptress. According to Charles Cecil, the Virtual Theatre, the engine seems less applicable to Beneath a Steel Sky, like the ability to issue commands conflicted with the game they wanted to create. As a consequence, some parts of the engine were scaled back. The Virtual Theatre also allows for the characters to move independently of the player input, which makes the game more dynamic and believable. Other than that Beneath a Steel Sky features a pretty traditional point-and-click gameplay.
Beneath a Steel Sky, also had a bit of troubled development. The game was originally developed for Mirrorsoft, back in 1991. When the game was near completion, Robert Maxwell, Mirrorsoft’s owner died in a yachting accident, and the publishing house went under in December of that year. As a result the game was on a back burner for a while. Revolution Software approached Virgin in March of 1992 and asked them if they wanted to publish Underworld (name of the game at the time), as well as Lure lure of the Temptress. Fortunately, they reached an agreement on the condition that Revolution Software uses Virtual Theatre 2, an updated version of the engine used in Lure of the Temptress. The name was also changed from Underworld to Beneath a Steel Sky, following the release of Ultima Underworld. The budget of the game was approximately £40,000, a huge amount at the time, but the game sold extremely well at retail, about 3,000-4,000 copies, most of which came from Europe. The artwork for the game was made by Dave Gibbons (of Watchmen fame), and he also made a comic book which was included in the box release of the original game (as of 2000 the comic book is available at the Revolution Software’s website).
Over the years the game gained a small cult following. In 2009 the game received a remastered release for the iOS. This release features some cleanups in sound and adds some new artwork in cutscenes, which is also drawn by Dave Gibbons, and also features a hint function. On August 2nd, 2003 the game was made freeware. The creators of ScummVM asked Revolution Software for a look in the source code, so they could bring it to their interface. They got more than they expected when Revolution Software released a CD version of the game available to everyone. The game is relatively short and easy, compared to other adventure games at the time, and you should give it a try if you are looking for a good cyberpunk adventure.