Bedlam PS4 Review: A Trip Through Gaming's History

Bedlam's concept is certainly interesting: take a trip through FPS games from different eras. But does it work?

Review by Jaz Rignall, .

Today is not a good one for Bedlam's protagonist, foul-mouthed Scot, Heather Quinn. She's just woken up inside an old video game called Starfire, something that she used to play when she was younger. Not only that, but she soon discovers that she's one of the game's villains – an ugly, chunky cyborg. What's going on? Your mission is to find out.

Written by author Christopher Brookmyre, and based on his eponymous book, Bedlam's concept is pretty damn awesome. It's basically an homage to classic titles of the 80's, 90's and 00's, and features a variety of different minigames-within-a-game. A clever concept for sure, even though, unfortunately, its execution leaves a lot to be desired.

The action starts as Heather wakes up – inside what looks like a typically blocky 90's style FPS whose color and art style is highly reminiscent of DOOM and Quake. Almost immediately, the rather excellent dialog begins – irreverent, self-referential banter between the game's protagonist and the overlord of Starfire's enemies. He's not particularly helpful, but does at least send Heather on a mission that is her first step to figuring out how to escape from this nightmare.

The first level plays out like a version of DOOM, and you run around a fairly linear environment popping off shots at enemies with a peashooter of a pistol. Fortunately, the enemies aren't that tough, and, after a couple of shots, go down in a pile of pixilated blood spurts and boxy body parts. As the game progresses, there are additional weapons to pick up to help you along the way – very useful for when you encounter the first boss character, who is quite challenging. At least, he is until you figure out you can just circle-strafe behind him with a rail-gun and blow him to pieces without him being able to touch you. Hurrah for glitchy, old-school boss AI!

During the DOOM-style levels, I came across a portal that led to a low gravity Deathmatch mini-game where I played against five other "players" and had to be the first to score 15 frags so that I could win and escape. This sub-level was really funny, with each player having their own pre-pubescent dialog, most of which seemed to be them whining about lag when I killed them, or boasting massively when they managed to shoot me. It was highly enjoyable, and was without doubt the most fun I had in this game.

The biggest problem with Bedlam is that its 90's-style controls are an entertaining novelty for a while, but soon begin to become annoying when the game dials up the difficulty level, and you have to storm rooms full of enemies. Unfortunately, shooting is very imprecise, and trying to line up the very stiff-feeling reticle to aim at speed is far more difficult than it should be, so you end up whiffing shots – while getting nailed by enemies. The targeting also seems to be very fussy, and sometimes I'd shoot something that I was sure I hit, but for some reason it wouldn't go down without me adjusting my sight by a pixel or two and shooting at it again. The collision boxes sometimes just didn't seem to match up with the graphics.

This frustration is compounded by a checkpoint system that's fairly punishing – and can send you way back almost to the start of a level, even though you've very nearly reached its end. Perhaps this is a deliberate throwback to the difficulty of 90's games, but I didn't really appreciate it.

As you progress deeper into Bedlam, you play through different genres and eras of gaming, which is a great concept for sure – but like I said at the start, it's just not very well executed. There's a 00's Medal of Honor-style set of levels, a Heretic-type RPG section, and a sci-fi FPS akin to Halo – as well as 3D minigame versions of Pac-Man and Space Invaders – but while the game is evolving and devolving around you, the controls are unfortunately not. It's just different skins put on the same chassis, and that horrible, stiff-feeling shooting continues as a running theme throughout the game.

It's such a shame, as Bedlam is a really great idea that actually has many of the pieces it requires to be brilliant. It manages to nail the graphic style of the different eras very well, and the dialog is consistently funny. Heather has a wide variety of comments and putdowns that are genuinely hilarious, and the banter between her and the various game denizens that she encounters is exceptionally well written and voiced.

Unfortunately, though, its gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. The finicky aiming and shooting is a huge bugbear, and the punishing checkpoints, and awkward difficulty spikes just make the game frustrating. It seems like developer RedBedlam bit off more than it could chew, and couldn't quite tune the game to be fun. Indeed, I even encountered a few weird glitches, and there were numerous times when the framerate dropped in a very pronounced way.

Ultimately, Bedlam feels like it needed more development time. It's a great idea, but unfortunately not one whose potential has been fully realized.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Lasting appeal: Bedlam is a tough game, so there's plenty to challenge you. The problem is, though, it's just not much fun.
  • Sound: Very well voiced, but the effects and music are fairly forgettable.
  • Visuals: Very good. The game nails the FPS periods it's copying, from Doom-style graphics through 00's WWII games to a more modern-looking sci-fi game.

Bedlam's concept is absolutely brilliant, and it's voiced very well too. Unfortunately, its stiff, unforgiving gameplay just isn't much fun, and what you're left with is a great idea whose potential just hasn't been fully realized.

2.5 /5

Bedlam PS4 Review: A Trip Through Gaming's History Jaz Rignall Bedlam's concept is certainly interesting: take a trip through FPS games from different eras. But does it work? 2015-10-28T20:00:00-04:00 2.5 5

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Comments 7

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  • Avatar for docexe #1 docexe 3 years ago
    Sounds like a fun premise indeed, too bad about the execution.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #2 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    I really hate that you list punishing checkpoints as a negative.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #3 link6616 3 years ago
    Sounds a little like Evoland in a sense. Great idea, you can see they understood what was cool about their idea, but the core itself just wasn't strong enough.
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #4 Jaz_Rignall 3 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Why? I don't mind checkpoints, but when they are excessively frustrating, I have to call them out. It just seems like a poor design decision in this particular instance, hence the negative comment.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #5 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @Jaz_Rignall Here's the thing. There is almost never a problem of checkpoints spaced too far in modern games. What IS a big problem is over-checkpointing, and yet you never read about this in reviews as a negative. Here's why that's a big problem: when there's nothing at stake, there's no tension. You need some sort of risk / reward element in order to have a real sense of tension and excitement in a game. A lot of modern games just don't seem to have that spark of excitement. And when you lose that, then the challenge of the game stops being fun, and just becomes a rote exercise.

    To use an analogy, it's kind of like the difference between playing a basketball game and throwing free throws repeatedly. If you think about your goal in a game as just to get "progress" as quickly and efficiently as possible, then the "game" part of basketball could just be seen as a nuisance. If you miss a shot in a game, all your effort for the last couple of minutes was in vain, and you have to work to get the ball back. No doubt about it, that's frustrating! It would be a lot easier if the other team would just let you have the ball back immediately, and just keep repeating that shot over and over again until it goes in. You'd get "progress" a lot faster!

    Most modern games, which tend to be heavily checkpointed, feel just like that. When you die to some challenging section, you don't have to expend any effort getting back there... you're just put right back in front of that hoop to keep trying as much as you want, until you get progress. It's just as if the opposite team handed the ball back to you and said "here, try again buddy. Keep trying until you make it." If all you care about is progress, then this is certainly a lot less frustrating, and it's certainly a lot more efficient. It's a kinder way for the game to treat you as a player. Those points are inarguable... but is that actually better?

    For me, it ruins it. Frustration and excitement are two sides of the same coin... you can't have one without the other. The moment to moment tension, excitement, and frustration are exactly the kind of feelings that make video games fun! If I screw up in a game, I don't mind if I have to expend some effort getting back there so I can try again. The fact that there's some sort of penalty for failure is exactly what creates excitement. If I know that death is going to cost me, I'm going to try a little harder and feel more involved in what I'm doing.

    Conversely, if I know that a game is going to be kind to me and just hand the ball right back to me when I make a mistake, it makes me feel less involved with whatever I'm doing. If there's nothing at stake, it's harder to care. I zone out while I play. It becomes a rote exercise... just like throwing basketballs repeatedly towards a hoop until they go in.

    And yet, you never see reviewers complain about games being over-checkpointed. It's common to see complaining about a lack of checkpoints, and about the frustration that comes with it, but no one seems to recognize the effect that over-checkpointing has. And that's exactly why most modern games are over-checkpointed. And you DO see people commonly complain that modern games are missing some sort of spark of excitement, that there's some feeling that games gave us in the past that seems to be missing today, but all too rarely do people ever make that connection.
    Things like that tend to be discounted by the broad handwaving term "nostalgia" and not thought about too deeply. That's disappointing to me.

    It's rare to see modern games like that that have sparser checkpoints. Perhaps this one does it just as a throwback... but whatever the reason, it was a bold decision, knowing full well that would get the ire of some game reviewer. And you have punished them for it, and I think that's a big shame. Well, you should write what you feel, and it's not my place to tell you your feelings are wrong... but even so, I wonder if we actually completely different? I feel like the things I'm saying shouldn't be completely alien to you. There's probably a lot of gamers out there that notice the obvious ways games can make us feel, but miss the not so obvious connections. Like how there could be a connection between a game's kindness and the lack of that all important spark of excitement.

    Well, hopefully what I'm saying makes some sense to you. This is why I hate to see punishing checkpoints listed as a negative.
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #6 Jaz_Rignall 3 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Thanks for the response - and it's a really good one.

    You're totally right about the balance between challenge/excitement and frustration - you indeed can't have one without the other. Done right, checkpoints can make you yell in anger, but then you go back to the game even more determined to beat it. That's doing it right, and how it should work.

    Ultimately, I don't have an issue with punishing checkpoints when they work. It's just in this particular case, the already flawed gameplay of Bedlam compounded with the checkpoints to create a game that was overly-frustrating. Had the gameplay been of a good quality, I probably wouldn't have even noticed - and just got on with the task of making my way through the level again. But instead I felt like flinging the controller against the wall and not wanting to continue. The balance is tipped too far in terms of frustration, and that's why I ended up calling it out.

    It's all about getting the balance right. Bedlam didn't quite get it right, unfortunately.Edited November 2015 by Jaz_Rignall
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #7 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @Jaz_Rignall Yeah, I get where you're coming from on that. But I wouldn't say that more convenient checkpointing is actually a solution to flawed gameplay. Sure it eases the pain a bit, but it's like a band-aid... it's not actually solving the problem, it's just shallowly covering it up.
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