After hearing about the upcoming rerelease of Beneath a Steel Sky for the iPhone later this year, I’ve been replaying this old classic using ScummVM. Beneath a Steel Sky was one of my favourite games as a kid, with its haunting dystopian vision of the future firmly entrenched in my memory, clearly taking much inspiration from films such as Blade Runner. It combines an incredibly poignant story with artwork from one of the authors of Watchmen, Dave Gibbons, and it’s fantastic news to hear that modern gamers will get a chance to experience this piece of gaming history.

But what about the game itself? Sadly, playing it again made me realise that it has some serious flaws in the gameplay department, and is something of a frustrating experience. The story is so compelling that I couldn’t help but plough on to reach the dramatic conclusion, but there were a number of occasions where I was very aware that I was mostly definitely not having fun. Here are just a few examples of the types of issues I came across (Edit: I’m mostly just recording these for my own benefit as I go about writing my own adventure game, not purely for the sake of griping about what is at the end of the day an incredible game):

  • Solutions involving obscure conversation items – on a number of occasions, making progress required discussing a rather unlikely-looking conversation topic with a particular character, for which there was no clue that it would lead to the breakthrough you were looking for. I quickly learnt that there was no short-cutting the somewhat tedious process of exhaustively discussing every single possible topic with every single character (and to keep trying it at regular intervals in case some other action of yours opened up new avenues of conversation). This was only exacerbated by a tendency for the NPCs to break off conversation with you, leading you to assume there was nothing more to be said even when there was still plenty more your could (and needed to) talk about.
  • Puzzles requiring little thought but split-second timing – this happened especially within the “Virtual Reality” section of the game, where you would fairly quickly work out what the solution to a puzzle was, but pulling it off required milli-second precision in the clicking of your mouse. Granted, I wouldn’t have been so bothered by this if I weren’t playing the game on my mobile phone where moving the cursor around was a somewhat arduous process in the first place, but I can assure you that this was not fun. Especially when I died and had to repeat the whole fastidious process all over again.
  • Unexpected death – yes, you read that last point correctly: I died, and had to go right back to my previous save point, something I hadn’t bothered to do for several hours. You see, there are no clues in the game itself that you might die, and you can go about 70% of the way through the game without incident, lulling you into a false sense of security. But then, for absolutely no reason whatsoever (certainly not because it would make the game more fun!) you get eaten by a giant spider, and the only options you are presented with are “Restart Game” and “Restore Game”.

Such flaws are a real shame, because deep down I love this game, and I definitely don’t want to put anybody off giving it a try who might have been thinking of buying the upcoming iPhone version. Given that it’s described as a “Remastered” version of the game, I’m hopeful that they might even make some improvements to the game to make for a more enjoyable experience: as Charles Cecile, the developer, said recently, they’re coming at it now “armed with 25 years of game development experience”, after all. Regardless, the story is so great that it’s probably worth your while putting up with these flaws just for the thrill of it all.

Edit: Check out this awesome fan-made trailer:

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