That’s a headline packed with good things, isn’t it? And here’s another good thing – even if you don’t like any of the games films and comics listed in that headline, there’s still a possibility that Skyshine’s Bedlam [official site] will have something for you. Maybe you liked The Banner Saga? Bedlam is built on the engine used in that game. Maybe you really like the idea of riding around a broken world within the guts of a giant mutation? Sure. You can do that.
I was sold on Bedlam after about a minute in its company. The FTL influence is in the structure of the map, which shows a series of territories in a post-catastrophe United States. You take control of a Dozer, a huge vehicle that is home to your crew and passengers as you travel from point to point in an attempt to build up enough resources to tackle a threat in the distant south. Working from the top of the map to the bottom, you’ll engage in scripted interactions with various characters and turn-based tactical combat.
The combat is superficially similar to The Banner Saga’s handcrafted battles but a combination of randomisation and a more rapid pace make it feel altogether unique. Rather than chipping away at armour and health as in Banner Saga, the encounters force you to rely on the specific abilities of each of your units. They can move and attack in a single turn and where you choose to place them will determine whether they survive to see the next turn. Even the toughest units are relatively fragile, and they will die if you leave them in harm’s way. Developers Skyshine draw a comparison with Chess and it’s earned – there’s a tension as to every placement and sacrifice will be required to draw enemy units into vulnerable positions.
There’s no equivalent of initiative or turn orders. You can move any unit on your turn, so using a single character to manipulate the movement of enemies is a legitimate tactic. The kill-range of every unit is visible and the small maps are split into safezones and dangerzones. You do not want to be welcomed into a dangerzone but it might be necessary if you are to expose an enemy to your allies.
The variety of units is impressive. They’re drawn from four factions: Marauders, Mutants, Cyborgs and The A.I.. Each has their own style of Dozer to play with and combatants to encounter or deploy. Skyshine showed me the Marauders and the Mutants. The former are raiders/Warboys, kitted out with spiked shoulder armour and funky goggles. Mutants are one with radiation and the remnants of chemical warfare. They have to be taken out quickly because the gain hitpoints with every turn that passes. That makes combat encounters with them a completely different tactical proposition to a fight between two gangs of Marauders, who have a more conventional set of abilities.
All combat has a time limit of sorts though. A meter rises after every turn and when it’s full your opponent gets two moves for every one you make. Life is unfair and so is Bedlam’s world. You’re working with one save per playthrough – if you lose half of your crew or passengers during an ill-advised detour into the land of sentient machines, you’ll have to make the best of whatever’s left over – but the game is designed to grab your interest from the first minute. Part of that is the randomisation, ensuring you’re not simply repeating the same opening stage over and over, but the other part is the structure around the random elements. From what I’ve seen, there’s a real sense of progression built into the game. You’re always moving forward, always improving your Dozer’s weaponry and abilities (which can sway battles in your favour), and always discovering new encounters.
It all looks splendid. Smart combat and a compelling string of encounters across a fascinating world. The world is the icing on the cake. It might be the cake as well as the icing actually. It’s a mish-mash of science fiction ideas that felt more like Dredd’s Cursed Earth than Mad Max to me, and it’s a creation that two of the developers have been toying with for years. A fusion of many of the pop culture worlds that they love, it manages to feel novel, partly thanks to the context of such an unusual game and partly thanks to the sheer brilliance of the art. Sometimes visuals that look fantastic in stills lose something in motion – Bedlam is even more striking when it’s happening right in front of you. I haven’t seen a better looking game this year.
Whether the simple resource management will be sufficient to make the journey between one encounter and the next compelling in its own right isn’t clear. Resource gathering carries through into combat in the form of optional risk-reward pickups but I think it’s mainly handled during encounters on the main map in the form of brief choices – send a few crew members to steal fuel from marauders and risk losing them. That sort of thing.
Whatever the case, this was one of the highlights of a crowded and exceptionally entertaining Gamescom. It’ll be out later this year and, busy as I am, if it were out tomorrow, I’d be playing it right through the weekend.