Publisher: Kiss Ltd
Platforms: Windows PC (Version Reviewed), Mac, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: October 12, 2015
Bedlam is the video game adaptation of Christopher Brookmyre’s 2013 novel of the same name. I read the book a month prior to this review.
“Hell if you make it, heaven if you want it to be.” This is how many of the Christopher Brookmyre’s characters view life trapped inside a virtual world. Even in a universe of endless possibilities it’s hard to forget what they’ve lost, and while not perfect, the book manages to scrape together a strong message, and the game an unexpected thrill ride.
follows the journey of Ross Baker, a young Scottish scientist working for corporate giant Neurosphere. After volunteering for a prototype brain scan Ross finds himself trapped inside a ’90s FPS called Starfire. He struggles to find answers and a way out, only to discover a darker truth through a dense web of betrayals, twists, and flashbacks.
Anytime you cater to a specific audience you run the risk of overdoing it, and the book favors excess over subtlety. Bedlam isn’t afraid to name-drop popular titles and the humor is riddled with video call-outs and “gamer jokes”. Sometimes these hit and are actually funny, but many times they deserved an eye roll instead.
…a startling future filled with new ethical decisions.
While some of the jokes and swearing may feel forced or juvenile, the general theme of Bedlam manages to stay very mature. Much of Ross’s internal conflict stems from the strained relationship with his long-time girlfriend Carol, and his failure to achieve a balance between work and life. The future science that the entire plot is based around is well-explained, and it provides an informed vision of a startling future filled with new ethical decisions. Brookmyre lets the true nature of Ross’s new existence hang in the air for much of the book, but he provides plenty of foreshadowing to let you deduce on your own what’s actually happening.
The game takes these 448 pages and smashes them into under 4 hours of gameplay. Instead of Ross Baker, you take the role of Heather Quinn, a new programmer at Neurosphere, but her story is remarkably similar to Ross’.
If you haven’t read the book then this has little bearing on you, but for book readers it creates a cognitive dissonance. The plot of the game contradicts the plot of the book, so to accept one as canon you must discredit the other. It’s a puzzling choice, especially when the game was written by Brookmyre himself.
…odds are you haven’t read Bedlam, and that’s fine.
The game hits most of the beats from the book, but does them in rapid-fire succession without giving you enough context to wrap your head around. It takes characters that were developed over hundreds of pages and squashes them into one-sentence explanations. I understood what was happening throughout the whole game because I had almost 500 pages of research. But I can’t imagine someone coming to the game with no prior knowledge and still making sense of it all.
With its very condensed length, this interpretation of Bedlam’s story was probably destined to be confusing, but odds are you haven’t read Bedlam, and that’s fine. After all, this is a video game I’m talking about. If we forget about all these conflicting timelines and strange story choices there’s still a competent old-school PC shooter beneath it all.
Just like the book, the game is a love letter to the PC gamer who despises regenerating health and enjoys the hunt for hidden secrets within each level. Progress is broken up into a linear list of levels, but each level affords you some freedom to explore at your own pace. The AI is rather dim on purpose, and it conveniently makes any bugs you encounter look like features rather than issues. It checks every box needed for a classic title. Boss fights? Check. No waypoints? Check. It can also get difficult if you don’t stay mindful of your health. Bedlam is exactly what you’d want in your old-school shooter, but it doesn’t stop there.
Bedlam takes you through various generations of video game history and warp them into crazy hybrids that really embody the spirit of the book. Bedlam lets you do things you never thought you’d be doing and it isn’t afraid to break a few eggs in the process.
The weapons you collect stay with you as you glitch between worlds, ranging from ’80s arcade to modern console shooter. One moment you’re fighting skeletal warriors with a plasma gun, and the next you’re in Space Invaders with a German MP40. The scenarios I found myself in left me grinning from cheek to cheek, and it makes Bedlam stand out as a truly unique endeavor.
But its brilliant spirit can’t mask all of its problems. The abstract worlds you use to travel from game to game are full of first-person platforming that can be maddening due to your movement’s lack of precision. And the final level is entirely too long and redundant, feeling more like an attempt to lengthen the direly short game, rather than be a dramatic finale.
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While its narrative proves problematic for both readers and non-readers, the small team was able to take risks, and ultimately make a game that charms away many of its issues. It celebrates our video game past while allowing you to wreak havoc in games you don’t belong. At under 4 hours, Bedlam is a breath of fresh air after a year of 100-hour games, but at $20 USD it’s a steep price to pay for the thrill.
A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review. A retail copy of the book was purchased by the reviewer. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.