The first golden age of the point-and-click adventure was brief. Just moments after Lucasfilm Games graduated from the kindergarten clunk of Maniac Mansion, The Dig was in its Spielberg-endorsed grave. That was 1987 to 1995. Everyone agrees the early '90s were where it was at – even those who wrongly preferred Sierra Online. (See you in the comments!)
Sierra-philes and Lucas-fans alike are united in sorrow by the words “cat hair moustache”, the eternally-echoing death knell of the genre's golden age which came gonging out from Gabriel Knight 3’s infamous doppelgänger sequence. But Beyond a Steel Sky invites you to pretend that never happened. It’s a straight follow-on from Revolution Software’s 1994 critical darling Beneath a Steel Sky, recreating its charm and depth for 21st century gamers.
The scenario is Douglas Adams meets Phillip K. Dick: Everyperson’s trifling concerns play out right under the nose of world-sized, reality-challenging nefariousness, but it’s all only semi-serious. In some far-off future, life is a scattering of megacities on a wasteland known as the Gap. Cushy city-dwellers must comply with the extreme social codes of the megacorps that own them, while Gaplanders must fend for themselves in self-sufficient tribes. The story is kicked off with a kidnapping and your Gaplander character Foster’s resulting efforts to infiltrate Union City. It’s a great set-up, and the comic book presentation inherited from the 1994 prequel bursts with energy.
While it’s hard not to see Beyond a Steel Sky as a point-and-click, there’s no pointing or clicking. It’s standard two-stick third-person controls, with a leisurely pace for exploring. However, the core concepts of interactive hotspots, verb choices and inventory are all here. The puzzles are, in the best possible way, like something from 1994. There’s the good old tease of discovering a new scene and knowing what to do but not how to do it, and the insider satisfaction of twigging the secret that finally gets you in with an NPC.
It doesn’t all match the rose tint, however. In the 2D days, the game world was unveiled one screen at a time and puzzles had quite clear bounds. Here, gated areas do a similar job, but some are fairly large, so re-walking past every last nook – the 3D equivalent of mouse-hovering every pixel – can be hard going. This is exacerbated on occasion by pop-in: even if your eyes tell you a space is empty, it may not be once you arrive – so get walking.
Dialogue can be equally patience-testing, something true to the game’s roots. Too frequently, dialogue trees we assumed to be exhausted were actually hiding the last comment needed to get a new item or trigger the next event. This led to many, many repeated lines. The dialogue is good, but not good enough to withstand that level of overuse.
Nonetheless, Beyond a Steel Sky magically brings its 1994 ancestor back to life. The style, the humour, the chirpy dystopia are all revived. However, a lot has happened since that first golden age of adventures, and if you want a creative addition to the indie-fuelled inventiveness of the modern genre then you should look elsewhere. This is a game that remembers exactly how great things were in 1994, but isn’t much interested in how great they were last week.