“First-person shooter” is easily the most successful genre in the gaming industry. With that success comes a rich and colourful history that’s ripe for exploration in novels, films, comic books and even other games. We’ve seemingly come full circle with Bedlam, a curated, self-referential shooter that frequently breaks the fourth wall in the name of examining recent FPS history with a bit of nostalgia and humour. It’s a fantastic idea, but is this love letter to shooters all its cracked up to be?
Bedlam places players in the role of a Scottish scientist named Heather Quinn who, through a brain-scanning device, is transported to a video game universe, complete with other humans trapped within. While retaining her identity and remaining aware of the fact that she’s now part of a video game, the characters and scenarios of the games play themselves out as normal, forcing Quinn to go along with it and see how things unfold. However, exploiting glitches and being self-aware allows her to cross over into other games and access otherwise unreachable portions of the game world. In between all this, our protagonist muses on her gaming memories and the challenges she’s faced as a female gamer and being a younger sibling.
It’s based on a novel by Scottish author Christopher Brookmyre, but familiarity with the book is not a requirement to enjoy the game. Fundamentally, it’s just an excuse to pick up lots of unrelated shooter tropes, mash them together and just have a blast shooting ugly creeps in the face with little regard for continuity or common sense. The problem is, while it’s an intriguing idea on paper, in action Bedlam never quite hits the right notes.
Once you get over the meta-humour and references to Quake II and Call of Duty, you realize that the game behind it all is actually painfully lacklustre. While it models itself on antiquated gameplay tropes, it never really gets what made those older games so enjoyable in the first place. The result is horridly bland level design and unsatisfying gunplay that comes across as a poor imitation of classic games rather than a tribute to them.
The game attempts to keep players interested by falling back on trusted mechanics such as classic deathmatch and domination game modes, but these are far more annoying than fun and just seem disjointed. Later on, the game invokes other genres entirely, with RTS and even Pac-Man references, but again these feel shoehorned in and aren’t fun at all. Add in annoying characters and glitches such as clipping issues and you have yourself a recipe for a game that has “avoid” written all over it.
Being part of its target audience, I really, really wanted to like Bedlam. Sadly, it’s just a great idea with a poor game backing it up. They certainly tried to make something different and interesting, and the effort shows, but goodwill alone does not make a good game. As somebody who grew up with all the titles referenced, implicitly or explicitly, I was sorely disappointed to see the treatment of these classic bits of nostalgia. If you really want a worthwhile trip down memory lane to appreciate gaming history, you’re better off actually playing the games that are the basis for Bedlam instead of this shoddy knock-off. It doesn’t come recommended unless you’re a connoisseur of “joke” games or it goes on sale for dirt cheap. [Wait, so do I give it a Must Play award, or not? – Ed.]