Beneath a Steel Sky

Either Beneath a Steel Sky has some very obtuse puzzle design, or I’m just terrible at adventure games. Here I am in the game’s opening location, a factory, and I’m stuck. Perhaps the game wants me to feel out of my element. After all, my character, Foster, is certainly out of his element.

Either Beneath a Steel Sky has some very obtuse puzzle design, or I’m just terrible at adventure games. Here I am in the game’s opening location, a factory, and I’m stuck. Perhaps the game wants me to feel out of my element. After all, my character, Foster, is certainly out of his element. Abducted from his home by scary authoritarian soldiers and nearly killed in a helicopter crash, he just wants to get back home. Unfortunately for him there’s one giant obstacle standing in his way: A city, made of steel and held aloft from the world below by means of giant supports. To get out is to get down. That’s easier said than done, especially when I can’t even figure out how to leave the room.

The factory floor contains an elevator, a large broken robot, and a pile of junk. It’s pretty obvious that I’m supposed to fix the large robot and use the elevator to go down to the lower level, but I don’t know how to fix the robot. There’s junk on the table, but it’s just junk, right? Times like these I’m thankful for the great video game manuals that were so common back in 1994. When you’re stuck like an idiot on the opening sequence of the game, they include a short walk through to help you out. What does the guide say for me to do? “Insert a character board into the discarded robot shell on the table.” But there is no discarded robot shell on the table. It’s all junk, junk I tell you! I click on every portion of the table and my character confirms my observations. Junk. To YouTube I go in search of a hint. I watch as a player in the video makes Foster look at the junk, and all of a sudden it’s a robot! Apparently, I didn’t notice the robot because I told my Foster to pick up the junk before looking at it. How silly of me.

The robot I just activated is named Joey. He’s a friend of Foster’s and came with him on the trip to the big city. But my task is to fix the other broken robot in the room, the one that will activate the lift to the basement. Fixing robots seems like something Joey would know how to do, so I ask him to fix it. “Do it yourself, Foster.” Smug little bucket of bolts. I ask again. Same Response. Again. Rejected again. Just as I’m about to go back to YouTube to see what I’m doing wrong now, I ask a final time. “You just don’t give up, do you?” Joey moves to fix the robot. Is that what this game is trying to teach me? Don’t give up.

bass02
Joey is a good source of comic relief. Upon seeing a human with a lit cigarette in his mouth, Joey exclaims, “Stay away from him, Rob! He’s a human bomb!” Foster responds, “What are you talking about?”. “He’s got a fuse in his mouth!”, Joey alarmingly points out. Foster assures him that it’s just a cigarette.

There’s a common theme or cycle I’m observing as I wind my way though Beneath a Steel Sky: Exhaust all options. Discover people, places and objects. Reveal them for the first time, then discover them again. Pursue every possible option to progress the game. Click every item and search every pixel for something new. Do this, and don’t get frustrated when logic gets left behind. Ninety minutes into the game it almost makes me feel smart. In a manufacturing plant there’s an equipment room that only allows access to robots. I instruct Joey to go in and disable the security system so Foster can go in and rummage around. Once I’m there I take a key and a can of WD-40. Both those items make logical sense to have in an adventure / puzzle game. Key card? Lets you into places! WD-40? There’s nothing it can’t do! Armed with what I’m certain are items essential to my progress, I leave the equipment room. Foreman Potts is there to greet me. He confiscates my useful items, leaving me with nothing and I begin to wonder if I did something wrong.  After about twenty minutes of retracing my steps in the game, I go back to YouTube to see what I missed.

 

The key and the WD-40 were red herrings. I needed to get some putty from the floor of the storeroom. Take a look at this screenshot and tell me if you see any putty. Look long and hard:

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Give up? So did I. That’s because the putty is right here:

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Note to self: look at all the pixels!

I suppose I ought not be surprised at the presence of pixel hunting in an adventure game. It is one of the things the genre is known for. That, and requiring players to be observant, have great memories, and generally willing to combine all manner of inventory items in all sorts of asinine combinations. Beneath a Steel Sky requires all this of its players, and more. And yet, the experience seems to leap from puzzle to puzzle with little to no explanation of what the current objective is. In one case, I was supposed to con a travel agent into giving me a pass for a tour of different levels of the city. Naturally I assumed I was to use this pass to get to the lower levels, whereupon I would be able to affect a new means of escape. Nope. This was another brick wall, with no obvious means of progression. Consulting a walk through yet again revealed that I was to give this tour pass to a factory owner, who up to this point voiced no mention of a need for a vacation, nor desire to travel anywhere.

The only conclusion the game forces me to make is that I must try giving every item to every different character in order to find the correct means of progression. It’s not that any puzzle design is inherently illogical or counter intuitive, but the important details you need are drip-fed to you one minuscule crumb at a time. Talk to a character and exhaust all options with them. Then leave the scene and come back, only to have more avenues for action. Short of repeatedly engaging in conversation with the same people, there’s little indication of what your immediate path of progression is.

That’s not to say the game rewards curiosity. On the contrary, there are quite a few ways to die here. My first experience with death occurred when my character failed a retina scan at security checkpoint. ZAP! The next time it was electrocution at the hand of a light socket (this is what I needed the putty for). SIZZLE! Other times I was exposed to a massive dose of radiation, crushed by a collapsing tunnel passage, eviscerated by a horrible mutant creature, and crushed by an evil android. FRY! CRUNCH! SQUISH! SQUISH! In most of those cases there’s almost no warning that what your character is about to do is potentially deadly. At least it’s easy to save and reload your game. Just remember to save often, else you’ll be stuck replaying large segments you wish you didn’t have to revisit. It would have been fun if it wasn’t so frustrating.

And there’s that key word, “fun”. Beneath a Steel Sky just isn’t. While seemingly self aware, the game exhibits some sudden and jarring shifts in tone. In one scene, your character will ruminate over a series of dead bodies found in storage lockers, but thirty seconds later he removes his overcoat to reveal a gaudy sweater with a teddy bear on it. It’s symptomatic of the larger issue that players don’t have a reason to connect to the story. Is this a comedy or a serious look at something else? While we’re meant to care that Foster desperately wants to leave the city so he can get back to his beloved home on the wasteland, the game makes no connection between Foster and his home. The events of the game seem more like an annoying inconvenience to Foster rather than a life changing event. With no connection to the past or interest in the future, it’s hard to find any motivation to want to progress forward.

Teddy bear sweaters take away the pain.

It doesn’t help that nearly everything about the game is ugly. Don’t get me wrong, the pixel art and classic adventure style is handled fantastically! However, the environments are a little too bleak and post-apocalyptic. Everything is brown and run-down. Environments are ugly and utilitarian, because they’re supposed to be. There is no beauty to be found either above or below the city in the sky. While serving as an effective representation of the game world, it doesn’t make for an environment that players want to spend any time in. There’s no greater indicator of this than a look at how long it took me to finish the game. Somehow I managed to reach the end after about five hours and fifty-six minutes of play time, but those six hours took me seventy-seven calendar days to grind through. Like, I said: there was nothing about Beneath a Steel Sky that drew me in. Maybe it’s not the game; maybe it’s just me? Perhaps it’s been so long since I played an adventure game that my tastes and abilities have completely changed. The only way to know for sure is to try playing another adventure game to see if I get the same results. Only time will tell…

The Final Raving – Don’t Bother. Go to YouTube and watch a video of someone else playing this, and then fast forward through about half of it.

If, for some reason, you’d like to try Beneath a Steel Sky for yourself, you can get it for free from Gog.com. Don’t forget to find a good walk through. You’re going to need it.

Beneath a Steel Sky is the first game to fulfill part two of my Backlog of Resolutions

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Star Wars: X-Wing

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. […] On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow.

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. This is the first time gamers had the ability to freely pilot the iconic starfighters we all know and love without the “on-rails” limitations of arcade cabinets. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re blasting TIEs left and right and waging war against the bad guys! On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow. Those missing elements accumulate in your mind over long play sessions to create an experience that is ultimately one of frustration with moments of bliss scattered about.

In terms of gameplay, X-Wing is something of a “lite” simulator. It’s not as daunting as the fully fledged flight simulators of the late 90s, but it’s decidedly more complex than the Star Wars arcade shooters from the 1980s. Simulation aspects are present in the function of your starship as well as the mission design. Your fighter has a limited amount of energy which must be used to run three vital components: engines, shields, and lasers. A certain amount of skill and tactical awareness is required in order to make sure your ship can do everything it needs to do in the heat of battle. For example, increasing your laser recharge rate and leaving your shields at the default maintenance level will reduce your speed by about 12%. This means you have to make some tactical decisions when approaching a dogfight. It’s somewhat safe to sacrifice some speed to charge your lasers while piloting the nimble A-Wing or the X-wing, but this slowness can be a death sentence in the Y-Wing. These limitations placed upon your starfighter always make sense in the world of X-Wing and never feel like a frustrating game handicap.

Ludicrous Speed! Er, wait...
The “E L S” indicators near the center-right of your cockpit show your energy settings.

The missions also introduce some variety that goes beyond just blowing up every Imperial in sight. You might be tasked with assisting in the capture of an Imperial transport, but before you can do that you need to fly close and inspect multiple starships to figure out which one holds the quarry you’re after. Other missions have goals that are tailored to the ship you’re piloting. A number of capture missions see you pilot the Y-Wing so you can use the ion cannons to disable the appropriate craft. One of my favorites requires you to pilot the nimble A-Wing through an Imperial convoy to identify all the enemy ships present. Sure, you could try to be a hotshot and blow up some of the TIEs that launch and pursue you, but that means slowing down enough so as to be vulnerable to turbolaser fire from capital ships. It’s a risk that’s demonstrably not worth taking. Missions where you’re allowed to play a specific part in a battle, and not perform every action on your own, are the ones that are most fun (and memorable).

Unfortunately for you, the game consistently requires you to fly missions and complete objectives almost singlehandedly. You do have wingmates and other friendly allies, but most of them lack any discernible sign of intelligence and are about as useful in combat as a pet rock. Perhaps the scripting language of 1993 wasn’t detailed enough to write complex AI routines, or maybe this was an intentional design decision to reinforce the feeling of the Rebel Alliance fighting as the underdog against the Galactic Empire. Whatever the reason, the effect is still the same: your allies rarely do more than the design of the mission requires them to do. If your mission as a Y-Wing pilot is to disable a shuttle, you may have X-Wings to cover you while that happens. But the moment the shuttle is disabled and the mission scripting moves on to the next event those X-Wings will be gone, leaving you to deal with squadrons of TIE Interceptors and Assault Gunboats all by your lonesome. Occurrences like this would be fine if they could rationally be explained within the context of the game, but as things are your continual abandonment makes no sense. Why wouldn’t faster, sturdier fighters; X-Wings; stick around to escort the entire capture operation instead of leaving a sluggish bomber; Y-Wings; to singlehandedly protect a target of interest?

Abandonment
Red Leader leaves you hanging again. How typical. Be prepared to see this message. A lot. 

The other major frustration is that since you have to complete most of the objectives yourself, many missions will feel more like puzzles than combat simulations. Frequently, you’ll be assigned with flying a long way downrange of your starting position to take out a squadron of bombers, then be required to hightail it back past your start position to protect some other helpless craft. Everything seems to be going well except… Oh wait, there was another squadron of bombers you missed in your first engagement and they destroyed a mission critical craft. Time to start the mission over and play through 12 minutes to do it again in a different sequence. The missions in the original campaigns aren’t totally horrible; it’s a fair mix of puzzle missions and straightforward assignments. However, the difficulty is significantly ramped up in the B-Wing expansion. So much so that hints for each mission are available during the briefing before the mission starts, should you choose to see them.

The most frustrating puzzle for me was the final mission of the original game: the Death Star trench run. What was supposed to be the crowning moment of the game turned into repeated frustration. Starting above the surface of the Death Star, your first goal is to make it to the trench. Once you get there R2-D2 does his job and increases the power output to your engines, almost tripling your speed.  This helps you evade enemy fire and lessens your time in the trench, but it’s not enough. No matter what I tried; shooting turbolaser batteries, charging everything on full, hiding behind pillars to preserve my shields; I got blown up every time. I’m ashamed to admit that I had to look up what turned out to be, to me, a completely counterintuitive solution: Once you’re in the trench you need to set shields and laser recharge to zero and put all energy to the engines. That’s right, run the Death Star trench with no lasers and no shields. If you furrow your brow and look at it from an angle it might make sense from a story perspective: How else could Vader pick off Rebel fighters with two laser blasts in A New Hope? Because they had no shields! But from a gameplay perspective, it’s totally counterintuitive. After playing three dozen missions where managing your fighter to have sufficient shields and laser power at all times is essential to your survival, having the final and most dangerous mission force you to abandon them completely is mind boggling.

And that’s the thing about X-Wing: For every moment of sheer joy, there’s an equal moment of raw frustration.

Successful trench run
Darn it Jim! I’m a spaceship pilot, not a puzzle-solver! Also: Look, no shields! At all!

Note: There are officially three versions of the game, all of which can be found and played today: 

  1. 1993 – Original release – 320 x 240 native resolution, iMuse soundtrack, limited voiceovers
  2. 1994 – Rerelease – 320 x 240 native resolution, runs in upgraded TIE Fighter engine, iMuse soundtrack, many voice parts
  3. 1998 – Collector’s CD-ROM – 640 x 480 native resolution, certain menus and cutscenes redone in higher resolution, polygons (ships and other objects) have textures instead of plain shading, music taken from the soundtrack of the movies plus quality audio

The 1994 version of the game might be worth a quick install just for an understanding of how the iMuse score works; it’s a system that dynamically matches the background music to match the action happening within the game. Not much going on? Slow, relaxing themes abound. Sudden appearance by an Imperial Start Destroyer? The score seamlessly shifts to the Imperial March. It’s quite effective at evoking the feel of Star Wars. However, the super-low resolution visuals and detailess models make for a somewhat painful playing experience. It’s just too “chunky” and jagged to flow right. When flying the Death Star trench run to grab some screenshots I crashed into the surface more than once because I couldn’t tell how close I was to the single shade of solid gray beneath me. Unless you have a nostalgic urge to experience the ’93 or ’94 versions, stay away from them. This retrospective was written about the 1998 version of the game, and is the one I recommend playing.

Regardless of what version you play the game’s menus, cutscenes, and transitions are beautifully rendered in a style that’s barely aged over 23 years. Yes they are a bit “chunky” and you can tell they were done a long time ago, but that doesn’t diminish their appeal. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever get tired of these even after the game ages another two decades. .

Transition cutscene
Pixelated, yes; but still beautiful!

The Final Raving – Qualified Endorsement OR Don’t Bother

If you like Wing Commander, TIE Fighter or Descent: Freespace, then this might be worth your time. However, be prepared for some experiences that can’t help but feel primitive. X-Wing might be best left in your – or someone else’s – memories.

This one is a tough call. If you love Star Wars or space combat games in general, you have to play X-Wing if for no other reason than to experience a slice of gaming history. However, if you’ve only ever played the later games in the series or other more modern space games it’s going to be very hard to enjoy X-Wing for what it is. If you’ve never played any Star Wars space sims and wanted to get started with one, I’d have to suggest you skip ahead to TIE Fighter.

Good:

  • Nails the desperation of fighting for the underdog
  • Distinct gameplay differences between the available ships
  • Moments of theatricality hint at the greatness later games will achieve

Bad:

  • You’re not fighting for the Rebel Alliance, you are the only Rebel alive
  • Mission design gets repetitive about 2/3 through the game
  • The game doesn’t give you enough feedback during missions to let you know exactly what you need to be doing

Ugly:

  • Visuals of ’93 and ’94 versions are just too difficult to adjust to today

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • I own these through GOG.com, and they work flawlessly in Windows 10. You can play the ’93 and ’94 versions using a mouse, but a joystick is required for the ’98 edition. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend playing any edition of the game without a joystick.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Your shields will recharge at an impossibly slow rate, so it’s not usually worth it to increase the power to them. Instead, give your lasers maximum power and shunt energy from them to your shields. It’s always faster to do it this way.
  2. You will be required to blow up a Star Destroyer on more than one occasion. The shield generator towers really do supply deflector shields. Take them out with three torpedoes each and your job becomes much easier
    BwingShields
  3. Once a ship’s shields are down, disable it! This buys you some time to deal with the other interference that will undoubtedly be surrounding you.
  4. Disable what you can, and then leave it there. A lot of missions are scripted to send new waves of ships into battle after one wave is destroyed. In the case of Assault Gunboats in particular, disabling one wave may prevent a new wave from joining the battle.

Details

Release Date:

  • Original Game: 1993
  • Expansion #1 – Imperial Pursuit: 1994
  • Expansion #2 – B-Wing: 1994

Developer: Totally Games

Publisher: Lucasarts

Where to buy: Steam & GOG.com – $9.99

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