In a gaming universe where many genres have gone just about as far as they have, it's rare to find a field that keeps growing and growing. Flight simulations are taking small steps all the time, as are platform titles and even the odd shoot 'em up, but nowhere is as much energy and excitement being thrown about as the graphic adventure market.
It's hard to guess what makes them so playable and so popular: the graphics? The complexity of the puzzles? The number of icons you have to play with? Whatever it is, no-one can deny that there's nothing like a good graphic adventure to stop you from actually interacting with the rest of the human race for a week or two.
Possibly one of the most important advances for the graphic adventure was Revolution's Lure of the Temptress. A challenging and involving game, it's strongest feature was the implementation of the (then) new Virtual Theatre system. A virtual play tries to create a realistic backdrop to a game, where locations connect sensibly and everything is believable. That is not its strong point, though.
The selling point comes from the characters in the game. In a virtual play, everyone has something to do. They live somewhere, they go to work, or shop. They interact with each other, whether or not you are actually there. If you followed someone around, they would perform the tasks they would normally do in a day, talk to other people, not talk to the rest, have arguments or friendly conversations and generally live out a day to day existence. It's quite something in practice, as you no longer feel you are playing a game where the world revolves around you. A blow for the old ego, maybe, but infinitely more realistic, and by extension, more involving.
VIRTUALLY AN OUTLAW
The Virtual Theatre system has been dramatically updated for Revolution's Beneath A Steel Sky, the second outing for Virgin Games and the results are outstanding to say the least. In case you aren't familiar, the game tells the story of a young man, orphaned and abandoned outside a giant metropolis, and brought up by a group of savages living in an area of desolation known as The Gap. All is well until one day security officers come from the city to take him back. The helicopter they are travelling crashes, and he escapes into the urban jungle. This is only the beginning.
You are this man, lost in a Blade Runner background, with security hunting high and low for you. You have no money, no tools and no knowledge of what you have to do, apart from the fact that you have to get out of the city and back to The Gap as quickly as possible. The only real problem there is that you - for some unknown reason - have become enemy number one.
So we roll into the kind of adventure where you have no idea what you are meant to do, and just hope you are performing the right moves to make the story unfold properly. As in good thrillers, you are kept guessing right to the end, gradually being fed small pieces of information as you go along. For example, at the start of the game you are mistaken for a guy called Overmann. Who is he? Why do the police so badly want to catch him? All these questions, and many more, will be answered at the end of the game.
YOU'RE NOT ALONE
Life would be really tough if you were left abandoned on your own. Thankfully you aren't. Hidden in one of the pockets of your rather snazzy Ministry-style coat is a circuit board which holds the personality and brain of your lifetime companion called Joey. Joey lost his robot shell in the crash, but luckily you had enough presence of mind to take his controlling board. Once you find a shell for him, you can get him on his feet/tracks/wheels/whatever and then get him to help you out with some of the trickier puzzles in the game. Watch out, though, as Joey has a very strong personality on his own, which will conflict with yours occasionally.
You may wonder how it adds to the game. If you've ever played Planetfall or Stationfall and are familiar with Floyd the Droid, then you'll know just how humorous a conversation with a robot can be. A tin can with feelings paves the way for plenty of moments that, while not exactly gut-busting, should bring a smile to anyone's face.
The whole game is darkly funny, if you can laugh at a fugitive from the law, that is. All the way through, just like Day of the Tentacle, there are set pieces that happen that really draw you into the game. At one point you need to get Joey to jump-start another robot. He gears up to do this, but asks you to look away as he finds it embarrassing. A probe then extends from the top of his head, and thrusts in and out of what can only be described as the other robot's posterior until the other robot starts moving. It has to be seen to be fully appreciated, believe me.
The other key to the game's charm is the variety of characters you can meet. Many are based on people know to Revolution, although I wouldn't like to name any names. Hobbins is a stereotypical caretaker, happy to be left tinkering but will kick up a stink if you so much as look at a piece of machinery in the wrong way. Lamb is the boss of the building, and throws his weight around whenever he gets the chance.
You have two police desk-jockeys, apathetic in the extreme and bureaucratic to the point where they actually have to do some work. These and many others are just waiting to help you out, slow you down or mow you down, depending on how you deal with them.
Of course, if you're going to have that many puzzles, then you need a fairly large environment to put them all in, and Beneath A Steel Sky is huge. With almost a hundred different screens, most of which you return to more than once, there sure is a hell of a lot to be done. Unlike certain other games, Beneath A Steel Sky doesn't have you wandering through dozens of screens doing nothing.
There is generally at least one puzzle on every screen, and the game is designed so that it is almost impossible to die or fall. The puzzles need to be completed in order, as you usually can't progress very far if you miss something. This means you won't end up on the final section and discover that the laser welder you didn't think you needed thirty screens ago is actually very important. If you've missed something, chances are it's only a couple of screens away.
Most of the puzzles are formed from the phrase 'Use [name] on [name]'. This might sound a little simple, but thanks to puzzles being multi-layered, and the ability to use the same object more than once, you can have a hard time just figuring out what to use.
PICK UP JOINT
The control method in Steel Sky is so simple that Revolution can finally lay claim to having created the ultimate in intuitive control methods. The left mouse button selects an object to look at, and the right mouse button selects an object to use. To look at a door, you click with the left, and to open it you click with the right. You don't need to tell the program that you want to open it - it knows that the only thing you can really do with a door when you want to go through is open it.
In much the same way that the only thing you can do with a closed window is look through it. In places where something has no real use, the main character will pick it up and stuff it in his coat. From this point, moving the mouse to the top of the screen will call up the inventory, and the same mouse controls apply, although using an object from the inventory will require you selecting something to use it on. What could be simpler?
The graphics in the game are simply stunning. There is no other way to describe them. Hand-painted backdrops, scanned in and retouched, stop it from looking like a run-of-the-mill adventure, and the use of exceptional detail make the smallest, dullest rooms interesting to search. Small ceiling-fans rotate and, in the far distance, cars travel along the highways.
Every character has a whole range of moves and expressions which along with the personality generated through conversation gives them depth and makes them all the more believable.
So what is it actually like to play? A lot of fun, to be honest. The puzzles are logical without being too obvious, and the control method means that you can get into it immediately. There is enough challenge to keep even the most ardent adventurer going, while beginners will work through it without straining too hard. There is a really nice learning curve to the game making it taxing without being frustrating.
There are always enough clues to help you figure out problems, but that isn't to say the game is easy. After a few hours play I had managed to work through the first sixth of the game, but the speed I was progressing was definitely slowing towards the end. No doubt by the time this review is printed, I will have finished the game, but only because it's so much fun to play that I can't think of playing anything else in its field.
Beneath A Steel Sky also features one important aspect that I find sadly lacking in a lot of adventures. It's extremely addictive. You always want to know what someone will say to you next, or what the next problem is going to be.
A genuinely enjoyable experience, and one where there are so many different ways to play it. I can definitely see myself returning to this one after I've completed it, just to find out what I've missed. Simply one of the best adventures ever released on the Amiga.