Christopher Brookmyre’s Bedlam is a tightly wrapped first-person shooter, solo nostalgia trip that delivers a cleverly crafted storyline around a not-so-impressive and stripped back video game experience that results in a novel and a pretty unique visual journey. Having resided on Steam for a while, it’s now sneaked onto PS4 bringing along its rough sarcasm, charming graphical style and some profoundly tongue in cheek moments. Bedlam does well to balance itself among the apparent chaos.
The story elements are loosely based on Brookmyre’s book of the same name with protagonist Heather Quinn finding herself transported inside Starfire, a long-forgotten video game from her frivolous days of youth. There’s little by way of an introduction to Bedlam with players finding themselves abruptly dumped into a rather clunky first-person shooter and sent on their merry, cyborg way. This initial environment of Starfire practically oozes with original Doom and Quake references and developers RedBedlam have done a stellar job of making sure you realise this.
The game cameo appearances don’t stop there either. Starfire experiences some technical issues and it starts to glitch out, jettisoning Quinn throughout Brookmyre’s eccentric and nostalgia-fuelled romp through video game history. Players will find themselves trudging though areas that pay homage to some of gaming’s greats with the likes of Pac-Man and Space Invaders cropping up to name but a few. There’s even a feel of the Halo and Call of Duty franchises when Bedlam dabbles with a more current collection genre-defining titles.
Balance Is Key
For those that fall into the ’80s-’90s target audience of Bedlam, the experiences on offer are a thing of warm and fuzzy brilliance. The abrupt drop into such a heavy-handed shooter experience will certainly take some time getting used to but the story delivered throughout certainly does well to make it feel worth the effort. It’s easy to assume that story integrity has been put before actual gameplay, but Brookmyre’s far smarter than that. There’s a finely tuned balance of the intricacies and challenges beneath the initial assumption of poor design that act as enjoyable hurdles between chowing down on hearty morsels of the Bedlam tale, keeping the good bits pleasingly spaced out.
Initial enemies fall to a single bullet and do little by way of testing you, causing an early bout of worry – is this as good as combat gets? In terms of the mechanics of combat, yes, that heavily weighted movement is there for the duration. Fortunately the enemies don’t prove as stubborn and progressively improve in both artificial intelligence and damage, finally proving to be more of a challenge than the handling. This continues the theme of delving through the history of the first-person shooter genre, even documenting progression in enemy intelligence and graphics – a really novel theme.
Wrong Time, Wrong Place
As you delve deeper into Bedlam things start to escalate and the situation begins to carry a more dramatic feel, continuing to keep you hooked to that same strand of storyline that helped you persevere beyond the bewildering prologue. The idea of a game within a game carries a whiff of ingenuity to begin with but staggers to an assumed expectation further in, stripping back much of what previously grabbed you, even with the elements of familiarity found within the level design.
For all its technical shortcomings, Bedlam does well to prove it isn’t necessarily what’s under the hood (or how much is in your pocket) that guarantees delivery of a great story. Alone you’d be confronted with a very poor first-person shooter that probably would have made waves 30 years ago, but would struggle to remain relevant for any length of time at all today. Fortunately the gameplay is not alone, and when combined with Brookmyre’s storytelling and world building, it becomes more than enough to keep you on Graxis and beyond.
Bedlam is undeniably an enjoyable kick for those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, surely drawing from personal experiences with the games it’s emulating. The eccentricities found in Brookmyre’s writing may work to alienate those merely passing through, but for those drawn in by the familiarity of its charming block graphics it’ll simply be an added bonus. If you’re still missing the days of dial-up LAN games of Quake then this is well worth a look, but if you have no idea what that first sentence meant, well you’re probably better off giving it a miss altogether.
Bedlam review copy provided by publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.