Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Beneath a Steel Sky

Platform:  Computer
Developer:  Revolution Software
Released:  1994
Genre:  Point and Click Adventure

The Game
A helicopter crash stranded Robert Foster in the wilderness of the Gap as a child to be raised by a tribe of hunters and scavengers.  This life is completely destroyed when years later security goons from Union City bust in, kidnap him, and kill his tribe.  Another helicopter crash strands him in Union City itself, and now he must find his way back out.  But as he delves deeper into the city on his quest, he finds that his past is catching up to him and a destiny he never knew he had is reaching out with writhing, grasping tendrils . . .

BASS, like Flight of the Amazon Queen from about a week or so ago, is a free-for-download game that can be played using the ScummVM utility.

The Characters
Robert Foster is our erstwhile hero.  He was stranded in the Gap (the future name of the harsh Australian Outback) and raised by a tribe that taught him to hunt and scavenge.  He also became a pretty good mechanical engineer and programmer from fiddling around with the scraps of technology he and his tribe found outside the cities.  He's a generally good-natured and resourceful fellah, and despite the fact that he's grown up in what's left of Australia and is surrounded by primarily Aussie and British accents of all kinds, he talks like he's from the United States.  Weird!

Joey is Foster's little robot buddy, who Foster built himself from bits and pieces he found in the Gap.  Joey is destroyed in the intro scene, but Foster manages to save his main circuit board, which he goes on to insert in a number of different robotic shells throughout the game.  Joey starts off as a helpful but sarcastic jerk with a heart of gold, but his personality undergoes changes both subtle and extreme depending on the capabilities and limitations of the shell he's inhabiting.

Union City is further populated by lots of colorful characters with which Foster and Joey must interact as they try to find their way back to their home in the Gap.  Most are simply callous toward Foster (Gilbert Lamb, the owner of the pipe factory) or simply too self-absorbed to give him much notice (security officers Sam and Norville), and most won't do anything for him without some sort of repayment (the travel agency clerk and Dr. Burke) or sponsorship from someone else (Billy Anchor and the bouncer at the club), but there are a rare few who are actively helpful (the lovely Anita).  And almost without exception, they are all wonderfully entertaining in some way.

The Writing
Humor is pretty much a staple of most point and click adventure games, and BASS is no exception, but in this case the humor is tempered by a dark and gritty cyberpunk plot filled with violent deaths, societal decay, paranoia, and generally mean and nasty people.  Which, personally, I love!  I'm a big cyberpunk fan, particularly the works of William Gibson, so the tale told by BASS is right up my alley.

But don't think I'm trying to sell the humor short.  A lot of it is dark, satirical, and sarcastic, but there's plenty of it in there.  I may not have guffawed out loud very often, but playing this game definitely kept me constantly smirking in dark satisfaction and thinking, "Yah!  Take that, society!"

The story itself is quite well constructed and the dialogue was stupendous as well as well delivered, giving me a real connection to the characters and their plights.

The Gameplay
Even more than some other point and clickers of the time, BASS has a pretty simple interface.  Right click to look, left click to use.  There's an inventory window that drops down from the top and uses the same basic mouse clicks.  Simple, elegant.

But while it's very well set up for the most part, there are a couple of points which caused some problems.

The first is that Joey is a slowass.  Joey's abilities are required to solve a number of different puzzles, especially at the beginning of the game, but he moves like his treads are made out of sections taken from a movie theater floor.  He also has a tendency to just wander around for a little while before he even realizes Foster has left the room, and you might be all the way over on the other side of one of the city levels before he's made it halfway through the first room.  There is fortunately an option to increase (or decrease) the game speed so he'll show up faster, but it still a bit of an inconvenience.

The second is that the game is somewhat buggy.  Occasionally Foster will get stuck while trying to talk to NPCs, necessitating a restore to the last save point.  Due to a compression problem with the sound files, it takes a second or two for each segment of dialogue to load up, making the characters all sound a little stilted as they suddenly stop talking partway through or in between sentences.  Sometimes you can perform sequence-breaking actions, such as the time I grabbed a glass from a guy before I was supposed to be able to . . . I still went through the motions I needed to perform that would have allowed me to have gotten the glass legitimately, but it was mostly pointless since I had the glass already.  And once I tried to use one of the LINC terminals and not only would it not work for me, it caused the game's lettering to shrink (as if it had been bolded before but wasn't any longer), making it a little more difficult to read.

These are all minor hassles, however, and didn't really detract too much from the overall experience.

The Challenge
The puzzles in BASS are a curious mixture of several types.  They're all your basic point and click puzzles in one way or another, but even in that narrow style, there are a few variations, and this game seems to want to try and incorporate them all.  There are those that open up only after you've gone through a specific series of conversations with specific people, necessitating you go from one end of the game map to the other - sometimes making multiple trips - before you can open up some new section or puzzle.  There are logically proceeding item use and combination puzzles where you rub everything in your inventory against each other and every NPC and static object you come across.  And then there's the moon logic puzzles.

I've played through BASS a few times now, though the last time was admittedly a long time ago.  The point is, even when I knew the exact reasons, results, and methodology behind a couple of the puzzles, it still doesn't seem extremely obvious to me just why I should pick up, say a cassette of kitty videos.  It just seems like a random item to swipe from someone's apartment, and it leads to a series of further events which kind of mystify me even though I know what they're all eventually leading up to.  I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that I understand in the end why Foster would take all these things and perform all these actions with them, but during the sequence of events themselves, I have to keep wondering "Why the hell would Foster use the kitty video to distract a dog long enough to steal its biscuits?"  These seem less like the actions of a hero (anti- or otherwise) and more like those of a madman.  And because these actions are sometimes so weird and out there at the time, it's hard to figure out exactly where you're supposed to go with them next without simply doing trial and error from time to time.

But perhaps I'm not being fair here.  I read in another review of this game (yes, how horribly unprofessional of me, but how else am I supposed to steal other people's ideas and pretend like they're my own?) that Foster's kleptomaniac-like tendencies were actually quite brilliant, and I have to say I found myself agreeing with their reasoning.  He used to be a member of a tribe that survived by scavenging everything they could find and using it in whatever way they could.  So in a way it makes sense for him to continue applying that mentality to his big city adventure.  He'd snatch up the kitty video and the doggy biscuits and all the other things he grabs simply because they weren't nailed down (though even that doesn't always stop him), and even if it didn't always make sense at first, he'd try his best to find some way of putting it all to use.

Still, for those of use who didn't grow up in the Gap, it's a method-in-the-madness that might take some getting used to.

Now, I'm gonna go ahead and spoil a later section of this review and say that I love the graphics in the game, but unfortunately they can hide certain things you need to interact with.  The backgrounds, foregrounds, and everything else are a little too lush at times, making smaller items difficult to make out, and it might take several passes with the pointer to figure out there's something you need to take, pull, push, or otherwise fiddle with.

So, what am I trying to say here?  Hmm . . . I forgot.

Wait!  No, I've got it!  The challenge is very uneven.  Not so much that I was ready to take a bite out of my keyboard, but still sort of an emotional rollercoaster.  Fortunately everything else is so damn good that it can distract from the more frustrating bits or deflect the anger caused by such.

The Graphics
omg it is so pretty

Every part of this game looks like a gorgeously rendered panel from a comic book, which - in a sense - is exactly what it is.  The intro is pretty much entirely a comic created by Dave Gibbons (he of Watchmen fame), and in fact it was included as an actual mini-comic with the game.  All of the backgrounds are based on his designs as well, making the entire game one long sequence of scenery porn.

Now, I haven't found anything to absolutely confirm or deny this, but damn I'd swear that all the character sprites and some other small objects and items are 3D, at least partially.  Even if they aren't - and I suspect that this is the case - they are so well made that they look 3D in many ways.  I think it may have something to do with the insanely beautiful and detailed shading job they did.  It makes my eyes bleed, but in a good way.  Also, the sprites are all so expressive, not always relying on just a few stock poses.  Foster especially has some movements that are unique to only certain situations, seen once and then never again, like a rare and beautiful butterfly that flits by, leaving only the bright memory of its existence behind to bring a soft smile to my face from time to time.

Sadly, I can't just leave this section as a testament to the everlasting perfection of BASS' graphical acumen.  There are a couple of perhaps ill-advised attempts to bring full and partial animation to the comic intro and (much shorter) ending of the game.  It's actually disturbing to see the horrific attempts to sync the stiff, unnatural lip movements to the spoken dialogue.  From what I've come to understand, Revolution relatively recently re-released (wow) the game with even more of this type of animation spread throughout the cut scenes . . . I can only hope they managed to do a better job with it this time than they did the first go-round.

The Music
The music was good, with my only real problem being the same as that I had with FOTAQ . . . it's a bit distracting at times.  Not as distracting, but still.  This would be even less of a problem if the music sound level slider would stay where I put it in between game sessions.  Instead, every time I opened the game in ScummVM, it would be right back up where I couldn't concentrate on what I was doing or hear what people were saying to me.

The Bottom Line
The problems are really minor, and they're easily ignored in the face of the superb story, voice acting, setting, backgrounds, sprite animations, humor, satire, and everything else that Revolution did oh-so-right.  There have been rumblings concerning a possible sequel (both Revolution Software - who still exist! - and Dave Gibbons are interested), and I fully support them having another go at it.  Even if BASS 2 ends up being only half as good as the original, that's still several times better than a lot of other games that have been coming out recently.  More BASS please!

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