Getting inside of Union City is a hassle. Union City is a giant futuristic city in the heart of the Gap, the desolate post-apocalyptic alien wasteland, and when you start playing Beyond a Steel Sky, you might find yourself a bit lost. The giant city walls tower over you, and getting inside seems utterly impossible. Beyond a Steel Sky gives you the classic adventure game introduction, a bunch of people to talk to, and a bunch of obtuse tasks you must tackle before making your way inside. And, for better or worse, it keeps up this momentum throughout.
Beyond a Steel Sky is the modern sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky, the 1994 adventure classic, and in many ways, it is incredibly faithful to the classic PC adventure titles that people know and love. You play as Foster, the protagonist from the original, and years after leaving Union City he is returning to look for a child kidnapped from his village. The introductory cutscene features comic art by David Gibbons, illustrator of The Watchmen. As far as introductions go, this already feels distinctly like a 90s game.
But the experience itself has taken some important cues from the likes of Telltale Games and other modern adventure titles. The world is reminiscent of The Walking Dead’s art style – though that’s probably unsurprising, given that this is another 3D adventure game inspired by comic art. Foster strolls about environments with a solid, chunky animation which you’ll be seeing a lot, and has some kind of “witty” remark to be made about almost everything of interest that you come across in the game.
The walls of Union City feel like a testing ground. This is possibly because the outside of Union City is the area that was focused on a lot during early development, but the first area of the game feels the most complex and detailed. You could easily get lost in the myriad of characters, dialogue options, items to collect, where they go, and what to do with them. It feels like the developers spent a long time here, testing what works and what doesn’t, iterating on the base mechanics of the game until they had a solid template for the rest of the game to follow, because everything past this point is distinctly easier.
Once inside of Union City you will be moving from area the area, each of them with a variety of pointless items and objects you can interact with, and a handful of objects you will actually need to interact with to continue. You receive a Hacker before entering the city which allows you to manipulate some of the automated systems in place around the city, but this ends up being reduced to a fairly simple puzzle solving tool. You’ll use the hacker to move “functions” between different robots. For example, you can approach a drink dispenser a set it to activate the alarm when people attempt to purchase a drink, terrifying the next customer to approach. Of course you’ll also need to use the hacker in more interesting ways, like setting a cleaning robot to clean a building’s exterior, all so a potentially suicidal jumper can use it to make their way down.
Let’s make this clear: solving the small puzzles of Beyond a Steel Sky feels great. You can spend literal hours wondering what you’re supposed to do next, before the answer suddenly comes to you like a bolt of inspiration, and if it works out, you’ll be ecstatic. Those moments where you feel like you’ve genuinely deciphered a solution from nothing but the environment are amazing, but the time you spend trying to find the next obscure item to interact with to progress the story all feels wasted and frustrating. Truly, Beyond a Steel Sky is at its best when you’re initially confused, and the solution slowly reveals itself to you. The time you spend in confused limbo is just wasted. But this is an adventure game – obscure solutions and some complete nonsense is just part of the routine.
It’s a shame that the puzzles outside of that opening area are so much more streamlined and simple than those you are first introduced to. Areas like Graham Grundy’s apartment, the Old Museum and the Recycling Centre have fairly linear, simple solutions that you should be able to find yourself comfortably. I can’t really say the same about the intro area – especially since this game has a fair few bugs, luckily only one I found which can be game-breaking. In that first area you need to lure a Gang-Gang bird to get a key item. Being a bird, it can be scared off if you go too close to it, and if you’re unlucky, the game will not have the birds respawn or fly back down. Couple that with a low actor draw distance resulting in character pop-in, and you have a recipe for disaster.
That brings us onto the port. I have played PC builds of Beyond a Steel Sky before, and the game absolutely supports customisable graphics settings and high resolutions, but you won’t find that on Apple Arcade. I played the game on my iPad Mini 4, one of the oldest Apple Arcade compatible devices, and therefore one of the worst places to experience the game. And despite the fact that I was getting the lowest-tier experience, Beyond a Steel Sky holds up incredibly well. It is entirely playable. Sure, there were bugs, characters walking over me or me walking over them, camera getting stuck in walls during conversations, crashes, but none of these significantly impacted my enjoyment – even the crashes were more of an annoyance than a deal-breaker, thanks to the auto-save system. If this is the worst case scenario for Beyond a Steel Sky, then it only makes me more optimistic to see the game running on other platforms, because even on Apple Arcade it works really well.
Throughout playing, Beyond a Steel Sky jumped between being frustrating, and putting a smile on my face. Those moments of success made me feel like a scientist, while those moments where I was lost made me want to do something else. Anything else. Despite it all though, Beyond a Steel Sky is a quality adventure game, one of the better titles on Apple Arcade, and definitely worth looking forward to when it launches on PC.
Reviewed on Apple Arcade.
Beyond a Steel Sky is a classic adventure game because it’s obtuse, complex, frustrating, and once you’ve gotten past that difficult puzzle, endlessly satisfying. Whether or not this will satisfy fans of the 1994 original remains to be seen, but this is the best adventure on Apple Arcade, and has a lot to offers fans of Telltale Games and other adventure classics.
- A classic adventure game
- Entering Union City for the first time is excellent
- Solving puzzles is endlessly satisfying
- A classic adventure
- Exploring Union City can feel limited
- Searching for puzzle solutions is endlessly frustrating