A good story hook can get you a long way, and Bedlam has a ridiculously enticing premise. You play as a Scottish scientist called Heather Quinn who inexplicably finds herself in the worlds of various popular games from the history of the medium and vows to find out why and escape. Quake, Halo, Pac-Man, Resident Evil and CoD are among the games homaged during the story. Does this mean we have a game without an identity of its own? Or is the homaging merely just a small part of a newer game’s overarching tale?
Bedlam comes from both an independent developer and the mind of Scottish author; Christopher Brookmyre, who created the source material of the same name and the game itself. Having the plot and input from an actual novel and its writer, definitely shows big positives as the dialogue is well written and often amusing in a very British manner, as Heather’s less than formal methods of conversation with the other inhabitants of the game worlds shows. Heather’s nostalgia for the games she’s reintroduced to soon crumbles into pithy putdowns and withering criticism for their lack of technical grunt. However, she does begin to embrace the idea, renaming herself ‘’Athena’’ and effectively roleplaying within the games. Jokes are constantly made at the expense of brainless NPCs, archaic mechanics and ridiculous game lore. The problem with teasing these touchstones of videogame culture is that you leave yourself open to attack if your game suffers from problems of its own. Bedlam calls to mind Eat Lead; a 2009 shooter that played on the idea of mocking all the nonsense you get within videogames via a meta commentary by the protagonist, but ultimately, it turned out that its observations only made its own numerous glaring faults all the more telling. Bedlam suffers much the same way.
Right from the start Bedlam goes about its premise all wrong. It begins with Heather finding herself as an enemy combatant in a 90’s shooter that seems eerily similar to Quake. The visuals are made to match that era, as are the mechanics. For the crowd that queue up to slate every indie game that arrives on PlayStation Plus each month the deliberately dated visuals and finicky aiming and shooting that has no iron sights would be enough to have them frothing at the mouth, screeching that gaming is doomed (probably while still asking for dire stuff like Knack to be added to Plus because it cost more money at retail). Thing is, you can see where some of that flak originates from when you have games being retro to the detriment of being enjoyable for anyone under thirty. Having this 90’s themed shooter level at the start doesn’t do Bedlam any favours. If your opening salvo is a dated-looking game, with dated mechanics then that’s exactly what people will see it for. Worse still, it’s not even as fun to play as a game like Quake. Believe me, I typed that and wondered if I was just being contrary, so I played Quake again and yep, it’s true. It may not hold up brilliantly yet it still plays well enough. That’s what Bedlam should have aimed for, it would have made for a far more impactful beginning when coupled with the genuinely humorous dialogue.
As it is the controls are just a little too skittish, and hitboxes a little too inconsistent for the gameplay side of Bedlam to keep you enticed. If it wasn’t for the story it would be a complete washout before the thirty minute mark. Luckily the story does just enough to carry you into the later sections and it’s there that things improve somewhat. The Resident Evil and classic Call of Duty aping levels are standouts for closer coming to a balance of jokes with some interesting gameplay as well as looking a bit more presentable to boot. Indeed, the Pac-Man homage shows that you can be inspired by a retro game and not look ancient and crusty. These later levels, within the context of where you started, paint Bedlam in a far brighter shade of decency than the initial hour or so provides, but those underlying FPS mechanics are still there, and are still detrimental to the game’s overall quality and enjoyment.
There are neat touches such as bringing guns from a different game through to the next, yet they only ever provide a fleeting glimpse of the potential chaos they could bring before they’re out of ammo and useless. At every turn, the game’s narrative is fighting a losing battle against its design. It may improve as it continues through the various games, but perhaps I’m underselling quite how bad an impression that initial level makes.
I keep bringing it up for a reason. It almost scuppers the concept with the way it is handled. For so much of the game’s running time it is an average shooter with a good hook, nothing that’d set the world on fire, but at least it could have been a cult hit that got mentioned often in conversations about gaming’s guilty pleasures. I’m sure that it may end up being just that for some, but for me Bedlam sadly stands as a bitter disappointment, a promising concept that fumbles the execution like a half-cut warden on death row duty.