Christopher Brookmyer is a prolific Scottish crime/mystery writer, and his first dip into sci-fi, Bedlam, was met with mixed reviews. A novel that is essentially about video games from the inside out, Bedlam’s premise is that a Scottish scientist has been transported inside a series of classic-type games and must figure out how to escape. Critics found fault with the novel’s pacing, underdeveloped game worlds, and insider references that were a turn off to the general, non-gaming reader.
Brookmyer had a hand in developing the game Bedlam as well, and while it’s almost always promising when a bona fide writer is allowed to craft story and dialogue, there is no guarantee that even a brilliant writer will succeed. Unfortunately, while Bedlam preserves the core of the novel’s premise, and a good deal of the dry wit as well, the execution and game play fall short.
The novel obviously begins with context and backstory, giving us some reason to care about the protagonist. In contrast, the game immediately dumps the player into a Quake-inspired FPS as Heather Quinn, with no context and one or two lines of dialogue (in heavily accented Scots). It would be forgivable for casual players to assume, in fact, that Bedlam is nothing more than just another indie, retro shooter clone, without the tight controls and satisfying combat that defined the originals.
But that Quake-inspired level is just one of many that Heather will visit in the game. Call of Duty, Pac-Man, and Resident Evil (all with non-copyright-infringing alternative names) are just some of the games that have informed Bedlam‘s story and while the developers obviously don’t have the artistic or technical resources of bigger houses, they do a pretty good job of capturing the look and level design of those classics.
But, even if the levels weren’t too long and the textures were really sharp, there’s the combat, the core of a FPS. Bedlam’s shooting is consistently limp and underwhelming and the controls are imprecise and loose, making for hours of tedium. Weapons carry over between worlds but that doesn’t matter much if they’re not fun or satisfying to use. Difficulty is wildly inconsistent, usually centered on spiking it with hordes of enemies, which is code for “there is no enemy AI, so we’ll make up for it with numbers.”
The excellent horror game SOMA begins with a similar premise–a protagonist sucked into a alternative world that he doesn’t understand–but that game succeeded with great pacing, presentation, and well-executed ideas. Bedlam’s story hook is a good one, and had the shooting been even a close approximation of the originals to which the game pays homage, the low rent art and design would be more forgivable. Playing the game, one hopes that Bedlam will do a little more than make some wisecracks about games, but no “big picture” ideas ever really emerge.
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Reviewer statement: A copy of the game (for PS4) was provided for review.