If publisher Revolution had been more prolific, I'd wager they would have stood on the same footing as Sierra and LucasArts did in the world of adventure games. I mean, they certainly had the talent and sense for quality to pull it off. As things worked out, however, they wound up producing only two games using their Virtual Theater technology during the heyday of adventure games - Lure of the Temptress, and Beneath A Steel Sky.
Fortunately for us, both have been released as freeware. Lure of the Temptress is a neat game and worth a look, but today we'll focus on Beneath a Steel Sky, which despite having a less sophisticated game engine than Temptress really ended up being a more solid all-around adventure.
Beneath a Steel Sky takes place in a near-future version of Australia that has a sort of a mesh of cyberpunk and Fritz Lang's Metropolis going on for it. Protagonist Robert Foster lives outside the major cities in the wilderness known as the Gap, having come there as a child by unknown circumstances and been raised by the bush people that inhabit the area. He grows to manhood and becomes a proper aboriginal, but one day a bunch of military ships from the cities come to scoop him up for unexplained reasons, and they do the discourtesy of wiping out his whole village while they are at it. However, on the way back into the capital Union City, Foster's helicopter transport has some sort of technical failure and crashes. Foster quickly flees into a nearby building with Evil Empire Security hot on his heels, and so the adventure begins.
BaSS's Orwellian empire and its ambience is probably the greatest overall achievement of the game - it seems more like what I've always suspected a real techno-fascist empire would be like than what is usually portrayed in fiction. The usual portrayal has armies of impossibly well-organized and completely soul-dead automata working in perfect concert to repress everyone, while BaSS is more like a small handful of semi-sharp sociopaths heading up an empire mostly composed of lazy, non-violent buffoons who aren't very bright and who are often working with janky, jury-rigged technology. Background art is really nice, and the game features cut-scene art by one of the illustrators who worked on The Watchmen (not Alan Moore though.) The music could stand a bit of improvement, though - it's not bad, but loops way too quickly for something you have to hear playing for such long stretches at a time.
Overall the game feels more like a LucasArts title than anything, particularly reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis despite the very different settings. You can die in this one, but deaths are relatively few and usually warned ahead of time. I can't really think of any hang-ups that freeze you later in the game if you miss something early.
Revolution's Virtual Theater dealy is not quite as well employed here as it was in Lure - most NPCs stay in one spot, and only a few wander about in repeated patterns. In one case, this is a pain in the ass when you need to give an NPC something, but his routine has him walled off from you napping in his apartment for minutes on end.
Despite the minor knocks against it, BaSS is still an upper-tier adventure game. Everything about it is well polished, the characters don't hit Monkey Island or Grim Fandango levels of epicness but they are solid enough to carry interest forward and the overall plot and setting are pretty decent. All in all the game is easily worth a run at the bargain price of $0.00. It can be run fine in DOSBox, though ScummVM is probably the engine of choice for this one.