Back in my day we could could run sideways at 60mph!
Have a quick gander at Steam or the Playstation store and you’ll see no end of titles lovingly recreating pixel-art 2D console games, scratching a nostalgic itch for gamers of a certain age. However, those who harken back to old school PC FPS titles tend to find that same itch on that hard to each spot between the upper back and shoulderblades – remaining irritatingly unscratched. Now, Bedlam is here to give you all the low-res, low polygon count, unrefined circle-strafing shootery you can handle! Bedlam situates itself as both a parodic post-modern pastiche of gaming history and a frenetically fun FPS in its own right. It largely succeeds in the former goal, but in the latter, it’s a few rocket jumps short of reaching its destination.
Easily the best part of Bedlam is its protagonist, Heather Quinn: a cheeky Scottish researcher finding herself lost in virtual reality following an experiment seemingly gone awry. Now she’s searching through cyberspace, leaping between different videogame worlds, trying to unravel the secrets of the totalitarian group “The Integrity”, who look to destroy her and her new-found hacker friends. What’s so endearing about Heather is that she’s very fond of telling wisecracks in-between murdering digitized nasties, but she’s so much more authentic than your archetypal hero. When Heather finds herself inside Starfire (Bedlam’s non-copyright-infringing version of Quake) she recalls how she used to have to navigate her older brother’s room full of soiled tissues just to get to play, and how she needed to play twice as well to get half the respect as the only girl in her clan. Heather felt like a real person to me, and I couldn’t help but grin whenever she’d yell a thickly accented “plum!” “wanker!” or “cockwomble!” in-between gibbing nogoodniks.
There’s one sequence that’s particularly masterful where Heather finds herself in a deathmatch with a group of snotty teenagers who moan about hacks and lag. There were a couple points when I thought the game was bugging out as I’d suddenly freeze before finding myself teleported to a different part of the landscape. I then realised this was just a loving recreation of multiplayer gaming in the clunky dial up modem era! It’s quite impressive how Bedlam’s well-paced story about Transhumanism accommodates the humorous evocation of PC gaming’s halcyon days, but not surprising given the story was created by acclaimed Glasweigian novelist and gamer: Christopher Brookmyre. However, as much as Bedlam gave me a chuckle, it’s unlikely to seem quite so amusing for younger gamers or those unfamiliar with the various references. For example, jokes about a wide eyed turtle monster looking a bit like Britain’s prominent anti-immigration politician Nigel Farage are likely to fall flat with those on the burger eating side of the Atlantic.
Every nostalgic beat is hit in Bedlam, including the endearingly ugly pixelated explosions and enemies who explode into a shower of dismembered limbs when shot. There are a few levels which provide light amusing lipservice to games from the eighties. There’s a side-scrolling space shooter level in the style of Defender and even a Pacman-esque level where you collect dots and run through a maze from a first-person perspective. However, the bulk of Bedlam is religiously faithful to a 90s run and gun ethos. Heather can carry an unlimited number of weapons and strafe around like an olympic sprinter without tiring. There are some pretty fun weapons to use, and it’s really entertaining how you can keep them between different worlds, meaning you might be shooting Nazi soldiers with laser guns and blasting space-age troopers with an MP4. The wide variety of weapons on offer are hilariously unbalanced, such as the rapid firing medieval crossbow that’s actually more powerful than a pulse rifle. It was quite satisfying being able to use a wacky gun I’d saved up ammo for several levels ago, rather than having them all replaced by a boring rattly machine gun and pistol like every other FPS under the Call of Duty hegemony.
Bedlam doesn’t try and update the gameplay of the games it idolizes, and you’ll never be doing anything more complex than strafing around enemy projectiles while running for the next medpack or armor piece to buoy your non-regenerating health. Bedlam makes no attempt to evolve the run-and-gun FPS genre and this is what gives it a manic charm, but also what limits it from becoming truly great. This is really a shame when you compare Bedlam to the Shadow Warrior reboot that takes the same old-school inspirations but actually improves and expands on them.
Though Bedlam isn’t shy of emulating the uninhibited fun of old-school shooters, Bedlam tends to focus on some of the more naff level design of the era it apes. Jumping puzzles of the most basic press-space-at-the-last-second variety abound in the digitized Tron-style levels that link different worlds together. These platforming sections are just as much fun as all the other first person platforming sections in the pre-Portal era (ie: not very). You’ll also find some springboard style jump-pads, but these don’t integrate into the gameplay other than getting you from one platform to the next or to provide the basis for a deeply disappointing boss battle (which Heather actually mocks for resembling an equally unenjoyable part of Half-Life). There’s also exactly one box moving physics puzzle in the game, which shows the developers must have at least considered the idea of mixing up Bedlam’s very simplistic gameplay up a little, but instead left it as is.
Whereas games like Duke Nukem 3D would be packed to the proverbial (and sometimes literal) rafters with secrets, power-ups and destructible scenery, Bedlam’s levels are lacking in depth or intricacy. There are these hidden portals that transport you to mini-levels, which contain ammunition and expository emails about Heather’s life, but finding these portals is usually as simplistic as turning left when the next objective is to the right. In the Medal of Honor style World War II setting, you’ll often find yourself on tedious scavenger hunts for keys to open doors, methodically checking every house and killing all the Nazis inside with no real clue where to search. There’s an exclamation mark that appears on your HUD to guide you generally where you’re meant to go, but even that doesn’t always appear, sometimes leaving you lost in the largely featureless terrain. There really isn’t much self-consciously retro excuse for having such bland, aimless, linear levels. The twenty-plus year old Doom is the ultimate old school FPS, and it had a fully functional map overlay, complex level design and puzzles!
Bedlam is a very cheeky game, not just in its wry Scotch humour, but in how it tries to disguise its weaknesses as strengths. With my review copy I received a “reviewer’s guide”. It was careful to inform me in advance that the rock solid stupid AI I would encounter was a deliberate design choice! The AI is indeed dumb – completely faithful to FPS games of the Bill Clinton era. Enemies will simply run towards you and attack with all the finesse of a lobotomized lemming. The problem is that the moronic AI – as well as being another endearing part of Bedlam’s nostalgic shtick – also compounds the fundamental problems of the game.
In the classic nineties FPS games that Bedlam so fondly recalls, there would usually be more deadly monsters that would force you to use a different strategy. You might have to kite a bullet sponging melee monster around corridors or switch to a more powerful weapon you’d been carefully saving up ammo for. The adversaries you face in Bedlam – whether nazi soldiers, mutant space aliens or zombies – all die in a few shots, and they never encourage you to change up your play style because there’s no variation in their brain-dead modes of attack. Even when I faced Predator style troopers equipped with cloaking devices, I didn’t need to worry as they were too dim-witted to use their ability to sneak up on me, instead decloaking right in front of my fully loaded minigun. This complete lack of variety in your cannon fodder opponents really makes fighting them get repetitive towards the end of the game.
Bedlam is a title that will raise a few smiles if you’re a PC gamer who is closer to thirty than to twenty, particularly if you’re British. Sadly, it’s also a bleached bare bones run-and-gun shooter with a retro novelty value that starts to wear thin by the end. Playing Bedlam is like getting some old friends together for an old school LAN party. There’s a warmth and fun to it, but it can’t recreate the feelings of playing those classic games for the first time, or recreate the person you were when you played them.
Final Verdict: 3 / 5
Available on: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One; Publisher: Kiss Ltd; Developer: RedBedlam; Players: 1; Released: October 13th, 2015 ;
Full Disclosure: A copy of Bedlam was provided to HePoorPlayer by the publisher.