US: 13 Oct 2015
You play as Heather Quinn (or as she’s known online, Athena), and you begin the game stuck in the game. Or rather, you’re stuck in Starfire, a fast-paced 90s shooter that’s clearly a stand-in for Quake. From there you’ll hop into other games representing other genres, though with an emphasis on first-person shooters, and Bedlam becomes a tour of 90s gaming.
At its best, these genre hops showcase the evolution of gaming from Quake to Halo, and each one plays just differently enough to actually feel representative of its respective genre. For example, I never really liked the Starfire/Quake levels: too many enemies shooting at you from every direction, forcing you to keep running. This game within a game is too frantic, too kinetic, just running and gunning with little thought to tactics. But, then again, I was never much of a fan of Quake to begin with.
However, the quick detour into a faux multiplayer match against bratty teenagers is amazing. They accuse you of hacking whenever you kill them and demand you “go back to The Sims” when you talk smack back and reveal yourself to be a woman. It’s a moment played for laughs, but it also highlights the frustration of online abuse. Even when you win, they keep talking shit. It is, however, quite satisfying to lord it over them on the leaderboard, reveling in their impotent rage and toothless threats to ban you.
My shooter education began with Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, so it’s only fitting that I enjoyed the World War II levels the most. I loved sneaking through the streets, watching every window for snipers, clearing out buildings room by room. This experience is slower and more methodical than Starfire‘s is. And more fun—for me at least.
But that’s the point. Each section feels different, and what’s more impressive is that Bedlam manages to evoke that change without changing the controls. It’s all due to level design and combat design. The major downside to this is that the controls aren’t very good in the first place. They’re serviceable at best and more likely feel better when using a mouse and keyboard, but I played on a Playstation 4. So, that wasn’t an option. On the console, the sensitivity of the sticks always felt wrong, either too sensitive or not sensitive enough, an issue that made the general act of aiming rather difficult. However, the saving grace for Bedlam is its copious options for aim assist. You can customize the distance and strength of auto-aiming, ensuring that your gun always magnetizes to a target, making you a crackshot. It’s a workaround for the poor controls, but it’s a workaround that works, allowing you to more easily consume the story, which is the best part of Bedlam anyway.
There’s an interesting universe within this game, a society of people stuck in game worlds and an AI intent on erasing them. It’s a neat concept, like a gamer-centric Tron, and then a late-game revelation makes things even more intriguing, raising questions about consciousness and our perception of the self.
Throughout its first half, Bedlem just keeps getting better.
Sadly this trend doesn’t last. Eventually the game abandons its exploration of early shooter genes and settles into a pattern of fighting boring enemies on boring levels, and all of the interesting ideas raised by the story go nowhere.
The levels become wide open but with nothing to point you in the proper direction. You’ll have to wander aimlessly until you stumble upon the right location that will progress the story. While you’re wandering, you’ll have to fight generic alien soldiers armed with sniper lasers and impeccable aim, meaning they’ll often hit you before you even see them. Since the game relies on health packs instead of regenerating your health, every cheap shot by a sniper makes you weaker and less prepared for future combat. Soon one of those cheap shots will kill you, and you’ll have fumble through the poorly implemented quick save system to load back into the game.
This goes on for several levels until the slow burn death-by-sniper is replaced with a faster death-by-massive-horde. The game throws every enemy at you at once. Whatever joy could be had from seeing WWII soldiers fight alongside space aliens and skeletons and zombies is mitigated by the sheer frustration of combat. Auto-aim becomes a hindrance with so many enemies on screen at once, but turning it off just forces you to play with the original inaccurate controls. However, even if the controls were great, this stretch of combat still represents the worst kind of mindless run-and-gun shooting.
If you’re still playing by this point, the game has likely turned you against itself, but just in case you still have some measure of goodwill left, it ends on a cliffhanger that leaves most of its ideas and plots and themes unresolved.
Bedlam starts with such potential, but squanders all of it by the end.
// Moving Pixels
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