Review: Skyshine's Bedlam

By Owen Faraday 23 Sep 2015 0

We picked the wrong year to go to Burning Man

Skyshine's Bedlam is one of the most brutally unsentimental games I have ever played. This is a tactical combat game where the average squaddies' life expectancy makes X-Com look like a day at the paintball range. Your troops in Bedlam aren't faceless minions, either -- each one is an individual that Skyshine have taken the trouble to gloss with an backstory and a lavishly drawn character portrait. Skyshine want you to feel it when somebody dies, and with the game's unusually possessive title, they seem to want you to remember who killed the guy.

Bedlam is the latest pretender to the throne of FTL. In the three years since FTL's debut, many games have attempted to replicate its genre-defining mix of tactical combat, customisation, and roguelike replayability. Like all of its fellow challengers so far, Bedlam isn't in danger of knocking FTL from its perch, but it's definitely one of the most credible claimants yet.

Bedlam takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where all that remains of civilisation exists within the walls of Bysantine, the last city. The world beyond the gates is the titular Bedlam, a wasteland overrun with amoral marauders, abhuman cyborgs and mutants, and robots gone rogue. If that menagerie of villains looks cliche on paper, it's decidedly not when seen in motion -- Bedlam's art is directed by Dark Horse graphic novelist John Mueller, and his style papers over every corner of the game.

I bet you say that to all the dozer crews.

You lead a team of adventurers exploring the wastes in one of several unlockable Dozers, a giant rolling mothership where you store perishable supplies like oil, food, and power cells that fuel your journey across the map in search of a fabled second city. In FTL-like fashion, you'll uncover semi-random encounters along the way, some of which are text-based choose-your-own adventures and others which are resolved in turn-based square-grid combat using your crew.

The text adventures are occasionally fairly long and always pleasingly atmospheric, though this genre is an ungainly vehicle for interactive fiction. Like FTL, Bedlam is a game that's intended to be played over and over again (you only unlock new dozers and crews by successfully crossing the map at moderate difficulty or harder) so before long you'll be seeing the same vignettes for a second time.

Skyshine took the trouble to write eulogies -- I mean bios for every character.

Encounters that result in combat begin with you choosing a crew. Your characters are divided into four classes, each with different health, damage per attack, and movement radius; there's a sniper class, a low-damage tank class, a shotgunner whose weapon knocks opponents, and a moderately powerful pistoleer who automatically retaliates against any assailant whose attack he manages to survive. You can bring as many fighters as you like to any fight (up to six), but choosing to bring fewer means that you'll take home greater rewards -- a clever little push-your-luck mechanic.

The character classes are clearly defined and all useful -- but they're also all terribly fragile. This is where that brutal unsentimentally comes in. It's common to lose at least one character in a fight and not unusual to lose everyone. Bedlam gives you an option to retreat on your turn at the cost of whatever supplies you might have won, and because your dozer is constantly haemorrhaging fuel and food retreat can't become a habit. But replacements for dead and wounded fighters can only come from random encounters, making your crew as scarce of a currency as consumables. You're always on the edge of defeat in Bedlam.

Just like an Indiana Jones travel montage.

Constantly rubbing elbows with death makes winning especially exciting, but it does give the game an oppressive atmosphere. Bedlam feels very carefully balanced to me -- it's possible to bounce back from early disastrous encounters and unlucky dice rolls even at high difficulties -- but it's a game that's not recommended for anyone trying to quit smoking or nail-biting. The moment that you get attached to your Level-3 veteran deadeye is surely the moment she gets immolated by a marauder's molotov.

The combat in Bedlam is never less than interesting. The three enemy factions are nicely distinct from one another and require you to adapt your play style to their strengths. Mutants, for example, gain a point of health every turn, forcing you to play more aggressively to win before your enemies turn into a squad of late-career Mark McGwires. The dozer can be customised with powerful weapons that require plundered energy cells to use, which ties the tactical game nicely into the strategic layer. Aside from your crew's eagerness for the grave, the only annoying rough spot in the combat is the quirks of the UI, which occasionally make it difficult to understand when your enemies are in range of your team's attacks.

Bedlam's high body count makes it seem harder than it actually is -- it's probably not a million miles away from FTL's difficulty -- but the special joy it takes in slaughtering your crew enhances the effect. It's a memorable game with interesting combat and exceptional visual panache. Just keep some Elizabeth Kuler-Ross handy while you're playing it.


Skyshine's Bedlam is available on Steam.



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