Wot I Think: Skyshine’s Bedlam

Skyshine’s Bedlam [official site] (that awkward prefix is because a first-person shooter named Bedlam is already on Steam) is a team-based roguelike in which you drive a giant APC across a post-apocalyptic desert, getting into regular turn-based fights and trying not to run out of food and fuel. It’s out today.

A list of games which have made me swear the most:

5) Syndicate (original)
4) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
3) Mario Kart
2) Quake III: Arena
1) Bedlam

After two decades of unabashed f-bombing, I’m trying to curb the frequency and volume of my bad language, given I share the house with a two year old who currently seems capable of imitating anything instantly. Bedlam destroyed my good intentions, and the air has lately been bluer than a vaguely avant-garde musical stageshow starring men with painted faces and bald caps.

It’s The Banner Saga does FTL does Mad Max, but it seems to have combined all three of those things’ cruel streaks: the regularity of loss and punishment, and the sheer number of balls to juggle, makes it a litany of suffering for the first few hours. Eventually a combination of practice and luck of the draw persistence saw me get over Bedlam’s particularly large hump, but Jesus Christ. I’m entirely accustomed to permadeath games going to hell, but the sustained assault here is something else entirely.

If you’re not losing fuel then you’re losing food, or power, or passengers, or fighters. Something is always in crisis, and that crisis is regularly interrupted by relatively lengthy turn-based battles which each involve their own crises. It is all manageable, especially with practice, but by God it gets its kicks in first. During one attempted campaign, I’m pretty sure I sustained a single low moan for a full 45 minutes. Couldn’t hold onto anything, every dial in the red, every bit of good fortune immediately punished. I got better. It got better. Just don’t go into it expecting a chance to find your feet before the hard work begins.

It’s instantly appealing from afar, but in practice Bedlam’s inspirations and foundations are perhaps a little too obvious. Structurally, it’s FTL in the desert, with all the resource management and 2D map-clicking that entails, while the turn-based combat is very much like a more range-centric Banner Saga, right down to the mixture of human and giant fighters. Nothing’s especially wrong with this, but there is a prevailing sense that this was a game assembled from parts of other games rather than having a strong spirit of its own.

What individuality it has is all down to the cheerfully lurid art style, which comes across like a Saturday morning cartoon for adults. It looks simultaneously crisp and blobby, every character like an action figure-to-be, and it’s pulpy to the point of celebratory, where most recent post-apocalyptic games can tend towards the grim. Even exaggerated death sequences – burned to the bone by acid vomit, atomised by nukes, Chaplinesque frozen-bodied collapse from headshots – are too playful to be gruesome. Not playful enough to stop me shouting ‘fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck yooooooooooooooooooouuuu’ when yet another stalwart fighter is one-shot murdered, however. It looks lovely, and the giant mutant characters especially are a delight, like ‘toonish Warhammer 40,000 models.

Sadly the writing can’t quite keep up with the appearance. While perfectly functional and never as irritatingly referential and memey as the very similar but far less accomplished Convoy, it’s just a bit flat, at odds with the gleefulness of the art. Loading screens contain lame jokes, and very occasional NPCs drone out screens of superfluous lore which isn’t at all reflected (or needed) by the simple in-game structure of mutants vs cyborgs vs AI. Fortunately, the bulk of the game is far more straight-to-the-point, and characters (whether enemies or potential allies) who are described in just a few lines of punchier text make much more of an impression. Comic book post-combat screens with Street Fighterish one-liners are the overwhelming highlight.

Somewhat surprisingly, what doesn’t leave a big impression is assumed star of the show, the Dozer. It’s an apparently huge APC that shuttled your fighters and several hundred ever-unseen civilians across the lethal desert. It’s front and centre of the marketing and its role is much discussed in-game, but all it really does is offer some combat aid (analagous to player spells in a 4X game) from off-map, and appear as a static icon on the progress map. It isn’t that ever-present, precious, vulnerable entity that FTL’s spaceship is, perhaps because the game has dropped vehicular damage modelling in an attempt to strike at least some difference from its great inspiration. Whatever the reasoning, it feels like a shame that there’s no opportunity to see the Dozer in action or care about its fate.

It can run out of fuel – leading to game over unless you’re prepared to do something icky to your passengers – but that’s the only sense of peril to it. It’s an inventory screen, really. The aforementioned passengers, of which there are 1000 at the start of a playthrough, are essentially unseen too: they’re just a number at the top of the screen. With all scale thus absent, the essential Battlestar Galactica-on-wheels concept just can’t breathe.

Far more tangible and fragile are your combat characters, who once dead are lost forever. Split across four classes (longest range = high damage low health, shortest range = low damage high health), they’re initially a collection of fairly indistinguishable grunts, but their ranks will be augmented with hulking, heavy-hitting boss monsters if you can first defeat those bosses. This is a great system, encouraging you to seek out danger even when you’re already on the back foot, because the possible gains are immense. Taking down a boss involves a huge sigh of relief, both because you’ve survived and because your dwindling army just received mammoth reinforcement.

It takes a lot of practice and not a little luck to reach the point where you can do even that at all reliably though, let alone survive the huge fights towards the end game. The attrition rate is traumatic at first, making those initial XCOM forays seem like the height of kindness. To a certain point, Bedlam is fair, which is to say tragedy is a consequence of your decisions rather than something simply heaped upon you. But a system whereby you only get two actions per turn, no matter how many characters you have in play, is extremely limiting – sure, you can potentially take out one or sometimes two enemies, but that won’t leave any actions to move an endangered character to safety.

The enemy’s in the same boat, although after a few turns they can activate ‘blitz’, which gives them three actions, but there were many situations in which I felt it was impossible not to lose. In hindsight, I can see that they all came down to recklessness or a lack of forethought and with that acceptance comes the realisation that this is chess with guns rather than XCOM or Fallout. The moves you don’t make matter perhaps more than the moves you do.

A faintly aggravating targeting and range system denies Bedlam’s combat the purity it’s striving for. A sniper can’t shoot under a certain range, bodies and boxes and anything block line of sight, a shot will reach from this square but not the one right next to it…the rules are fixed but not entirely transparent, and I spent more time than I’d like panning the cursor around while painstakingly trying to figure out where I’d have to move my guy to if he was to shoot anything, rather than simply knowing from experience what was and wasn’t going to work. I had to do the same for the enemy’s range and LOS too – to know whether I was about to move a unit into a square an opponent’s sniper could hit involved far too much clicking back and forwards.

It sounds minor on paper, but in practice all of that clicking goes into the mix of what I felt, for some time, to be straight-up cruelty on the game’s part. Eventually, the logic of the systems becomes decipherable but the trouble is that the game doesn’t offer a chance to get a sense of the world and the controls, or more importantly form a loose plan of action for progression, before it’s kicking your feet out from under you.

As I said, I managed to haul myself over the hump eventually, making my way through a few fights without losing almost my entire crew, and winding up with precious, precious veterans in the process. Then I hit a bug which meant a) two or three of my guys spawned on top of each other in combat and could not move and b) none of the enemy would move at all. So it was a cakewalk. And it happened almost every other fight. Reloading the game didn’t sort it, and I didn’t want to start over, so I levelled up my guys, grabbed endless resources, and the late-game boss fights were no trouble at all. I feel a bit guilty, but it does leave me in a position to declare that, if Bedlam’s early and mid-game does make you swear at the skies, what happens when you reach your apparent destination may well lead to ragequits.

That helpful bug wasn’t the only one I encountered. I was playing pre-release code, but the build arrived just two days before release, so I doubt you’ll be getting anything significantly different today. Lock-ups, disappearing objectives and savegames which lost huge chunks of progress were the main offenders, plus it all broke down entirely at what I think was the end proper. It’ll most likely be fixed, but I can’t pretend that these problems haven’t soured the experience as a whole.

So you’ll have to view my closing comments through the lens of that confession, but: I dig the way Bedlam looks and I enjoy the Chess-like restrictions of its combat, but I feel like it hasn’t quite got the soul it needs. I don’t feel like I’m visiting a place (or riding through it in a giant, iron-clad deathtank), but rather that I’m looking a collection of art and words created to meet a brief. Bedlam borrows so much from FTL, but doesn’t manage to capture the lonely vulnerability. The character-led chattiness of The Banner Saga is absent too, with the story propelled instead by what I can only describe as flavour text.

I enjoyed Bedlam, without a doubt: it looks great, it motors along and the fights are thoughtful as well as punishing. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m going to go back to it though. While it looks lovelier than FTL, it doesn’t have the drama and tension which keeps me committed to that game of endless space danger. It’s the best alterna-FTL we’ve had so far, but I question whether simply being an alternative is enough. Perhaps I’ll be back to see what fresh secrets and OTT characters I can dig up from the desert once the bugs are fixed, however.

53 Comments

  1. Shadow says:

    Question is, how is it an FTL-like if the vessel you travel on is largely absent from the action? I can see a strong Banner Saga influence: it’s a survival journey game which has you take a bunch of people across a dangerous landscape, and those people (or at least the fighters) are the protagonists.

    But FTL? Not really. FTL is also a dangerous A-to-B, but the fundamental concept is the ship as protagonist. If said vessel is an ancillary afterthought, then there’s no parallel to be drawn, any more than with most any other group-based roguelike out there.

    Anyway, might give it a shot sometime. I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic settings, but I might need a discount for this one.

    Bonus nitpick: the game’s primary font is poorly chosen. It’s a clean, futuristic sans-serif font which is completely at odds with the dirty, savage, brutal setting.

    • EhexT says:

      FTL is fundamentally a simplistic combat system (though fun, no doubt) bolted onto an RNG navigated by clicking on nodes on a map, while juggling 2-3 resource bars. This seems to be a fairly simplistic combat system bolted onto an RNG navigated by clicking on nodes on a map while juggling 2-3 resource bars.

      • Ginsoakedboy21 says:

        I’d argue that FTL’s combat system is far from simple.

        But it does seem to have a bottled lightning quality that a while generation of games are going to shoot for and ultimately fall short, it really is a minor masterpiece.

    • dontnormally says:

      > FTL in the desert

      It’s really not. In this game, you lose people. Things die. In FTL, with perfect play, you don’t lose crew very often.

      In Bedlam, your favorite dude will absolutely get obliterated. And your second favorite. And every rookie.

      It’s an important distinction.

  2. sdfv says:

    I hated the Banner Saga’s combat system, but the writing was good enough to partially redeem it. Penalizing the player for having more people or killing weak enemies can make it an interesting abstract challenge in principle, but in practice it was just annoying.

    • sweetjer says:

      I get that you’re expressing your opinion, so I’m not going to say you’re wrong. But I personally think the combat in Banner Saga was interesting, dynamic, unique, etc. Definitely not annoying. It inherently promotes counter-intuitive strategies by design, but that’s why it’s interesting, dynamic, unique, etc. Also, chess with vikings.

    • dontnormally says:

      The combat here feels better than Banner Saga, I think.

  3. slerbal says:

    Hmmm… sounds like I feared: that combat just isn’t fun like it is in FTL. When games are compared to chess I end up sighing. Chess itself is great, but chess-like games tend to be super annoying.

    The look of Bedlam is awesome though. Very reminiscent of the best 2000AD strips. Shame you couldn’t comment on the music, Alec — my favourite bit — because as you said a few weeks back you are a barbarian who turns off all game music.

    Sounds like I will like the look and the style and possibly the music, but not the game :(

    • Bernardo says:

      I am feeling a strong Moebius vibe from the visuals. It really is a shame about the music though, Alec, because that is a part of game design that I feel is undervalued. Similar in Film – I remember hearing a film professor at a student-organised workshop about audio remarking that before the invitation to the conference, she never thought about the soundscape of a film – which is just baffling.

      • dontnormally says:

        Moebius is a stated influence in their early blogs / etc.

      • hungrycookpot says:

        I think some people just don’t engage with music. I’m one of them, I don’t listen to music at all for recreation, and I usually turn off music in PC games that I play in favour of watching TV or having a doc or something on the second monitor. I can appreciate music contributing to the background and atmosphere of a game experience, like the scores in Interstellar or Skyrim, but bad music doesn’t put me off of a video game especially since I usually have the option to turn it off and go without.

    • preshrunk_cyberpunk says:

      Have you played Warhammer 40k: Regicide? It too is a chess-like game that I’ve been wanting to purchase. They haven’t won me over quite yet though (if only they would add the Chaos faction).

  4. FFabian says:

    The bugs though … and I’m not speaking of the mutants roaming Bedlam.

    I have a game breaking bug – every time combat starts I just get a black screen – judging by the steam forum I’m not alone with this.

  5. TehK says:

    A list of games which have made me swear the most:

    5) Syndicate (original)
    4) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
    3) Mario Kart
    2) Quake III: Arena
    1) Bedlam

    Ah… sure sign of someone who doesn’t play Dota!

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      When I saw that list I thought “but those are all classics, so is this game a classic then?”. The answer was clear and therefore I didn’t need to read the review, but still read the ending paragraph just to make sure that I was correct. I was correct.

      • theslap says:

        You should probably read the entire article. RPS is not so great at actually conveying their summary in the summary paragraph.

        • gwathdring says:

          That’s because it’s not a “summary paragraph” but a concluding paragraph–sometimes that involves summarizing, but there’s no reason to assume.

  6. Riaktion says:

    What difficulty did you play on Alec? As a coward with no free time I’ll be playing this (as I do FTL) on Easy. Perhaps that will smooth out some frustrations if not the bugs?

    • Bernardo says:

      Seconded. I just bought the game and played the first fight. Very easy on easy, but got mowed down on normal. These are two of three options. Which difficulty do people recommend?

    • jadefalcon777 says:

      I did hear there are no unlocks on easy.

      • Bernardo says:

        Yes. No unlocks, no achievements. I don’t care about achievements, but as long as I don’t know what unlocks there are, that bugs me. I guess I’ll do half a run or so on easy to get a knack of the systems, then change to normal. The unit system seems complicated. There are four types of units that have very specific abilities (particularly concerning range/melee), so the combination in your away party upon encounter is important.

      • Riaktion says:

        Aw really? No unlocks on Easy? That’s a real shame, feels like being punished a bit there, but never mind!

        • qrter says:

          Looks like Cheat Engine works with the game, so there’s always that as a last resort.

        • RegisteredUser says:

          The savegame is a plain text .json file which you can easily edit with Notepad++ for lowering injury days, increasing kills, giving you resources, upgrade levels.
          It still won’t let you win hard battles, but at least you can buff your recovery time and maybe level your troops a bit better early on before getting completely obliterated.
          Even “cheated” its still a slaughterfest.

  7. JFS says:

    How come roguelikes recently only get defined by over-the-top artificial difficulty? What happened to elegant design? Besides Bedlam, I’m thinking of Darkest Dungeon. Being Nintendo hard isn’t what makes roguelikes fun! It’s just an easy design move to pull off.

    • Xzi says:

      How is it a recent thing? Difficulty is and always has been one of several things that makes a roguelike a roguelike. I don’t remember anyone complaining about dying repeatedly in Dungeons of Dredmor. I think the issue is that the genre has gotten too popular for its own good. Complaining about the difficulty of a roguelike is like complaining that an FPS is in first-person view.

      • qrter says:

        Dredmor gives you the option to save (and keep the saves when you die, more importantly), if you want – that’s a huge difference with most roguelikes.

        • Underwhelmed says:

          Dredmor is unfortunately tedious and boring for this very reason. You are in no danger at all 99% of the time, but instead get killed by a sudden ramp up in difficulty. At that point it becomes interesting, but the 5 or 6 levels you have to plow through to get to the actual meat are sleep inducing. Dredmor looks good, but outside of looks and a cool class/skill system, it isn’t all that great.

          I personally am fine with meatgrinder lots of death rogue-likes/lites as long as the time investment per run is low. FTL and Spelunky are perfect examples of length/challenge balance.

          • qrter says:

            Thoroughly disagree – Dredmor is lovely. A game with actual funny writing, who knew it was possible!

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      I had to Google to find anyone who even claims to have beat Nethack completely unspoiled. He said it took him 1700 games over more than four years. I’ve let to hear of any modern game that approaches that level of difficulty.

      • Xzi says:

        Exactly. Modern roguelikes are actually relatively tame in difficulty comparatively, whereas one random event goes wrong in an older roguelike and you’re starting from scratch.

      • Premium User Badge

        Harlander says:

        Hell, it took me thirteen years to beat Nethack with spoilers.

      • RegisteredUser says:

        It almost sounds like you find that to be a good thing?
        I’m sure there’s a niche audience for that kind of thing, just like some people enjoy initially NOT progressing and constantly dying in Dark Souls, but I for one would never bother with a game past an afternoon if every attempt of using actual patience, wit and strategy just led to me becoming slave to random circumstance and RNGs.
        That’s not how I feel a game should be: random. It should reward my efforts, not make me feel like playing a 99% lottery, 1% influence crapshoot.

    • fucrate says:

      Since a lot of these games are low-budget indie titles, the artificial difficulty and RNG instakills force you to replay the same game over. So even though Invisible Inc. is only about 8 missions long, you have to play about 50 before you’ve developed the skill and foreknowledge to beat it, and if you complain the diehard fans just tell you to “get gud” which saves the devs the trouble of having any PR.

  8. Easy says:

    I backed it (huge Banner Saga fan and love the art on Bedlam) and I almost regret it – the absolute brutality even on Easy and crappy targeting and range that Alec points out has made my first hour with Bedlam nothing but absolute frustration. It does looks absolutely stunning though, if you’re into that kind of art (I am, in a big way)… I will press on, and I hope overcome my initial frustration… or wait for the inevitable patching and rebalancing.

    • Riaktion says:

      I wasn’t a backer but I feel exactly as you do, I ended up deciding I’ll wait for the patches and rebalancing just like you, and then see. I know some will say it is supposed to be hard, even on easy but that doesn’t change how I feel. Not asking them to change anything on my behalf, but it is a shame for me as I was really looking forward to this. Not a bad game,just too hard for me :)

    • qrter says:

      I’ve only done one run on normal, and that felt like a sharp, stinging slap in the face.

      Whenever I had a combat encounter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the only-one-character-gets-two-actions a turn thing felt like being difficult for difficulty’s sake.

    • dontnormally says:

      You need to lose your attachment to your dudes. Assume at least two will die in every battle, then pick the two you want to die.

      It feels difficult because your dudes are constantly getting ripped to shreds. Just let it happen (and protect your better dudes, so they can get ripped to shreds later)

      • Riaktion says:

        I totally haven’t played it enough but how do you replenish your losses?

      • qrter says:

        I’m sorry to say I’ve asked for a refund. I do find the combat underwhelming, but on top of that, I also think the random encounters tend to be blandly written and most of the times nothing actually seems to happen in them. The whole world never really comes alive, all the parts of the game don’t cohere into an enjoyable game, for me.

  9. Henas says:

    Disappointing to hear it has many faults that directly impact how it plays as I was quite looking forward to this one.

    Guess I’ll insert the old cliche: “I’ll wait for a Steam sale”.

  10. theslap says:

    I did a single run this morning when it released. The targeting is annoying especially on the sniper class considering the character can only move like 2 spaces. Sniper seems rather useless unless someone happens to walk directly into your firing zone. Combats feels unbalanced to say the least. I had matches against 8 or 9 enemies where I lost literally no life and I had matches against a single boss that wiped my entire 4-man squad… twice.

    I did make it to the gates of Bedlam on a single run in normal mode and lost to that boss so I don’t know what happens or if it gets harder. I didn’t find it particularly hard (not yet) just very RNG based. The Points of Interest do not seem like it is worth the resources to scope them out.

    My overall impression of the game is mediocre. I fell in love with the art style and was hoping badly for something that drew me in like FTL. But the author is right. The writing is weak (I had the same random event happen 3 or 4 times) and the lack of the vehicle playing a role sort of kills the experience of it for me.

    • dontnormally says:

      > The Points of Interest do not seem like it is worth the resources to scope them out.

      They become increasingly worth it to check out the more you invest Energy into reducing your Meat/Crude consumption. It’s a balancing act of getting that research up in time to crest the peak where it becomes profitable to explore.

  11. Dare_Wreck says:

    That seems like a very brief brush-off of Convoy, which gets high marks on Steam and GOG. Has anyone else played both to compare them?

  12. Xzi says:

    This game is great. I’ve rarely disagreed with the writers on RPS to this extent. Alec’s biggest gripes were being unable to grasp the mechanics early on, and difficulty. The tutorial videos are maybe five minutes long all together, and equipped me with all of the knowledge I needed to get 80% of the way to the end game, where I imagine there’s a ridiculous boss waiting for me. I doubt I’ll be able to clear the game on the first run, but I feel confident enough that crew casualties are my fault, that’s there’s always something I can do better.

    I’m sure bugs have been common for some people, but I’ve run into none. I’m really enjoying this post-apocalyptic genre bender.

  13. Tommando says:

    I’ve done a couple of failed runs on normal but the second time I got pretty far. It’s tough but I honestly don’t feel it was any tougher than my first few stabs at FTL. You definitely need to be willing to sacrifice troops, and it seems a big key to success is building up combat momentum by cultivating veterans and recruiting elite enemies when you get the chance, and upgrading your medical capabilities so your best fighters are never sidelined for too long.I’m enjoying it so far. It’s difficult but not so much that I don’t wanna have another go at it and do better. I’m loving the visuals and the flavor of the setting, which seems to have borrowed bits from just about every dystopian urban sci-fi/post apocalyptic wasteland under the blazing carcinogenic sun.

  14. MikhailG says:

    “Nothing’s especially wrong with this, but there is a prevailing sense that this was a game assembled from parts of other games rather than having a strong spirit of its own.”

    I am sorry but in the current state of the industry where half the games are gta/asscreed clones and established reiterations of old games, I don’t mind if indie games take other indie games ideas and try to make something new out of it. I feel that we let the big boys get away with way too much.

  15. Machinations says:

    Counterpoint: Bedlam is not the roguelike you’re looking for

    Im sorry, but this game suffers from some very poor design decisions.

    Two actions a turn might have made sense in the design spec but it makes 0 sense in practice and is incredibly annoying.

    Instead of a fun little title you have an exercise in tedium.

    The above review manages to dance around this – the game is not very fun. Sorry.

    • anHorse says:

      I was enjoying it, then I got to the second half of the game.

      You can’t even call it a “roguelike” after that, utterly infuriating design in a permadeath game and even worse, it’s something you’ll encounter every run.

      Uninstalled the game after that and I never want to play it again

  16. Sacarathe says:

    Start of article: Adds bedlam to steam wishlist.
    End of article: Replaces bedlam with banner saga on steam wishlist. Plays FTL for rest of day.

  17. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Another example of jumping on the rougelike train. Devs need to realize that those games are a lot of work. I tried a lot of those steam releases and most of them are really bad despite reviews being decent.

  18. totem42 says:

    Backed it on the kickstarter due to the quality art and array of exciting keywords. i zipped through an easy run and am probably around the corner from getting stomped on a normal run, and i have to say that the difficulty ramp-up is fairly steep between the two. Alec’s review is pretty spot-on; i’ve been particularly disappointed with the writing, which is less than engaging. it’s the type of game that i think most folks would feel positively inclined towards for $5, but $20 feels a bit high, at least after my initial engagement. that said, there are additional dozers to unlock that do Things, various items that are picked up along the run that i assume will be useful for something one of these random encounters, and tweaks/patches to come given the response from the devs so far. affirmed once again: don’t pre-order (or apparently kickstart, unless you REALLY want something to exist) and (as stated above) wait for the steam sale.

  19. Discosauce says:

    I’ve been playing it for a bit, and enjoy it.

    The combat doesn’t measure up to The Banner Saga, but it is still fun. As for the difficulty, I watched the short tutorials, and in my first, two-hour play through on normal made it to the gates of Aztec. Where I put up a good fight! Sure some things could be improved, but I think it deserves a little more praise than it seems to be getting.