Do you remember how bad 90’s first-person shooters were? Of course you do; with their horrible narratives and blocky environments. It’s all terribly embarrassing. We all played games like Quake, Wolfenstein and the like- but going back to these experiences can be cringe-inducing. What if I told you though, that there’s a new game that parodied these early FPSs, complete with awful controls, bad voice acting and a ridiculous premise. Well, that’s Bedlam in a nutshell, but I’m sad to say that this parody becomes a joke rather quickly. Despite its feeble attempts at hiding its problems behind its subject’s faults, the team at RedBedlam have created their own mess that feels better suited for an Abandonware site than costing twenty dollars on Steam.
There’s a decent enough setup within the game’s world. You work for a company that has designed a machine that can import personalities into digital environments, including video games. Your faithful employer decides you’d be best suited entering the fictional world of “Starfire,” an early 90’s FPS game from your youth. These points are the full extent of the story. Sure, you’ll pick up some emails throughout the game, explaining your love of the “Starfire” franchise, but it doesn’t contribute in any way. The story might be one of the most offensively simple I’ve seen in the past year.
Characters are introduced and are either completely thrown away, built up into nothing, or are clearly the villain; one that turns by their second appearance. You jump from one bad gameplay experience to the next, waiting for Bedlam to evolve or add new elements; but it never does. You’ll travel through a collection of retro shooters in an attempt to escape. Its final level is one of the longest and worst paced finales I’ve ever spent two hours slogging through and ends with quite possibly the laziest boss fight I’ve ever played. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it doesn’t attack you, it doesn’t move, and it requires you to bounce on a jump pad over and over in order to get a shot in on it. Then, the game wipes its hands, leaving you without answers or memories of enjoyment in one of the most unsatisfying endings I ever slammed my keyboard over.
I was really looking forward to playing this game too, because at least on paper the premise seems to work. Evoland 2 did a great job of taking a ton of different tropes and elements from entries in it’s genre, and I really enjoyed that experience despite its flaws. This game however just doesn’t bend these aspects into anything engaging, and ends up leaving the experience feeling as dated as it’s subject. Jumping from space stations on an alien planet to a World War 2 shooter sounds like a winner. It gets even more bizarre when you visit some 2D arcade shooters and even an RTS board with a giant hovering mouse cursor above you. It’s all so delightfully self-aware and inventive. The reason it doesn’t work however is because they didn’t throw any new ingredients into the pot, and it leaves the whole experience feeling repetitive and boring.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything unique about their product. One thing I was excited about was when I discovered that my main character was female. I really enjoyed the idea of breaking a norm, and getting something fresh out of the experience. Sadly, the developers enjoyed this thought a little too much, because her character spends the entirety of the game discussing the plight of female gamers. While I agree that girl gamers have to “prove themselves twice as hard for half the rep”, it’s like she has nothing else that identifies her as an individual. She becomes just another vapid, one-dimensional female character; isn’t that kinda self-defeating? Sure, she also has cheeky Justin Bieber slams and hackneyed video game references, but the entirety of the experience is her covering her gaming “cred.” The coding isn’t the only thing Basic about this game.
You’d think that with so little attention spent on the story, you might actually get some love from the retro gameplay. It was nice to go back to a non-regenerating health bar, but there’s a reason the genre has evolved. Like Duke Nukem Forever, it does nothing to modernize or even make the experience feel smoothed out in anyway. If it was the intention of the designers to recreate the frustration of unintuitive controls, broken assets and game breaking bugs, well congratulations; you nailed it. Having my gun suddenly stop working in a middle of a firefight threw me into a fit I haven’t experience since I was five years old.
The game does feature a large assortment of guns and weapons that you pick up from various points in the game. This does provide moments of bliss when you take a flame sword and shoot fireballs at miniature tanks, or shoot a rocket at spooky scary skeletons. It’s interesting having such a wide assortment, but sadly not all of the guns have their advantages, and some will get forgotten when you get a better version later in the game. As I mentioned earlier, if the guns work. And even if they do, you’ll find moments where you’ve laid five shots into an enemy’s chest, only for them to vaporize before connecting.
I mentioned the disappointing final boss earlier, but pretty much all of the bosses are weak as well. Battles consist of out-strafing them, as you fire endlessly into a constantly turning opponent. The game even makes a joke of it, mentioning that the strategy will work. While this might’ve been funny the first time, when you discover that every boss has this same approach, it becomes annoying pretty quickly as you run through them.
You remember when developers thought that allowing a little give to run controls made it feel looser and more realistic? Well, this game cranks it up a notch, to where running feels like you’re on ice. It doesn’t help that you’re slipping around in a game where half the time you’re jumping over digitized platforms. Controls are sluggish, even with a mouse and keyboard. So, not only does the game’s story match 90’s game design, it “parodies” all the bad controls too.
Art design is all over the place. All the elements feel purchased, like a hodgepodge of different styles and intent. The environments are barren, and lacking diversity outside of the same six assets. This is one area where I could almost forgive the lack of polish, as amassing a ton of components for a 10 minute section would be overkill, but the game does a bad job of hiding its small library.
Sound design matches the relic-like qualities of everything else. Music is bland and forgettable. The sound effects are average, and aren’t mixed very well. Probably the most grievous oversight however, is that everyone speaks with a heavy accent through fuzzy and digitized filters. It makes sense, given that many of the characters are off-screen in the distant land of “Liberty City” and “Saints Row”, but I can’t make out anything they’re saying over the static. This forced me to read the entirety of the game’s dialogue, and the constant yammering of actors who have no idea what ‘inflection’ means. The performances are simply atrocious.
For “parody” to work, there has to have a clear target and its own sense of enjoyment. If it doesn’t, your take on the subject will come across as a cash-in over an entertaining effort. Nothing feels like there was any effort put into it; to engage the player with questions about why games like Heretic worked. If you want to side with the idea that these faults were intended, to match the subject- be my guest. Me personally, I see it as convenient as writing a movie set from the visual perspective of a blind person. You can call it clever- I’ll call it a radio drama with a movie’s ticket price.