Friday eXcursion: Skyshine’s BEDLAM

We are living in a post-apocalyptic renaissance (as opposed to a renaissance post-apocalypse, that would be entirely different). Our culture is completely and totally obsessed with its own demise. The last time we had this much content created about the end of civilization was the late 1970’s – when we got zombie movies, tales of post-nuclear society, and a pervasive sense of maudlin resignation all because of a little fuel shortage and a tiny bit of urban decay.

Nowadays, we’ve moved past that to zombie television shows, post-nuclear video games and… Yeah, not much has changed. Welcome to Skyshine’s BEDLAM. Right purty, ain’t it?


BEDLAM (apparently it’s intended to be shouted like that, at all times) looks like Mad Max, plays a lot like Fire Emblem, and thinks it’s the bastard child of Borderlands and FTL. It’s the first release from Skyshine games, a small studio made up of programmers and designers with a fairly eclectic background that includes both Darksiders games and the NFL Blitz series.

The setting is nothing new: our heroes are most recently residents of the last human city of Bysantine (misspelling is intentional. I think.) But, being the last city and all, Bysantine kinda sucks. So they’re gonna fire up the party wagon, grab a 1000 “innocents” and try to take them to the promised land: a mythical city of peace and harmony known as Aztec City. Only problem is what lies between the departure point and the destination: the long, winding desert of hopelessness and violence known as Bedlam.

Like FTL, the player is given an upgradeable vehicle, in this case the world’s greatest Honda Odyssey, and sent off into the endless nowhere. You eventually unlock other vehicles, which in turn unlocks new character classes as well. There are four resources: fuel (crude), food (meat), power cells, and people. Fuel keeps the car going, food keeps people alive, power cells help upgrade the home base or can be spent to use powers in battle. People are… people. Occasionally, they can be traded for the other three resources. Mostly they’re just there to be kept alive since that’s the point of the game.

But what happens if you run out of crude? You stop in your tracks and die. What about running out of meat? Well, the population starts dropping like a New Year’s Eve countdown clock, and it’s back to being dead again. Speaking of clocks, there is a game timer that tracks your progress. The longer you play, the tougher it gets – with valuables comes violence. That means each mission’s haul needs to be weighed against the growing difficulty. People don’t like you driving around and taking their stuff. Not even after the apocalypse.

Again, like its adopted step-cousin FTL, BEDLAM (BEDLAM!!!) is what’s called a roguelike. The point of the game isn’t necessarily to do well so much as do less bad than the last playthrough. There’s no saving halfway in, then going back for a better result. No multiplayer, either. You’re on your own out there, partner. Each session takes about 15-20 minutes, so players can start the journey into Bedlam, die, and then be right back in there fairly quickly. Unlike more recent roguelikes, like my beloved Galak-Z for instance, nothing carries over to the next game. You get what you get and you don’t get upset.

The aesthetic is all Mad Max, at least on the surface. There’s an endless desert, a search for fuel, and a lot of crazed mutants and desperate souls. In reality, though, the game is a much slower affair. Mad Max, for all it’s post-gas economy, is a series about speed. Players will not be flooring the gas, leaping from dune to dune with the joie de vivre of a crazed maniac. BEDLAM (BEDLAM!?!?!?!) plods. It drags. The player’s vehicle drives like that big trapezoid thing the Jawas used for transporting recovered droids on Tatooine. It rolls across the landscape like a 69-year-old grandfather on I-95, blissfully unaware that his turn signal has been flashing for miles.

This post-apoc-SUV comes fully loaded with space for soldiers, advanced weaponry, and twelve cupholders. Players can spend acquired power cells to upgrade their vehicle: improved crude/meat consumption, faster healing, or cheaper global powers – they can all be yours if the price is… acceptable. This is a nice balance and one of the better inflection points in the game. Do I blow it all now to improve my vehicle’s crude consumption, or do I save my “money” and use it on a big ol’ alcohol bomb during battle?

You can’t see it in this picture, but we’re actually about five miles north of a Waffle House.

You can’t see it in this picture, but we’re actually about five miles north of a Waffle House.

As fits the genre, the player will pick a location on the map and then make their way there. The map gives an idea of what might be found at each location, but there’s little guarantee of what will actually be seen once your people arrive. Geography is procedurally generated each time, and the encounters the player will… ummmm, encounter are random as well. Somewhat. There just isn’t a large enough bank of events to draw from, so once you’ve seen a few, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Sometimes there’s nothing there, so you’ll get nothing but a paragraph of flavor text. Othertimes there will be something, so you’ll luck into some much needed resources. Most times you’ll end up in a battle. The longer the expedition is out there, the more deadly the fight.

That’s a shame. This is the meat of the game: eXploring an unknown, often deadly world, and if it feels like you’ve seen it all after a few playthroughs there’s very little reason to come back. The optional side quests, which are marked on the map with a “!”, promise to be little adventures where the player is given a choice and then some sort of result. The idea is that your foolhardy explorers are going off the beaten path to hopefully luck into something that will help them on their journey. That’s not how it works in practice, however. It usually ends with a tantalizing but useless quest MacGuffin (a cyborg arm or a strange, maybe magical trinket) the player will never see the end of and a frustratingly small reward – or maybe no reward at all.

Each event pretty much goes like this: the group encounters an abandoned building, cave, etc. The game asks, do you want to push forward, yes or no? No normal human being answers “no,” so it’s like, “why did you even ask the question?” Depending on the scenario, the player will then either be rebuffed or rewarded. The side quests should be a tease, a test, a piece of cheese dangling just out of reach. Instead, the cheese is usually so rotted out, the player is better off just letting it hang there for a less-eXperienced mouse because each quest further advances the game clock and consumes resources.

Really? Is this even a question?

Really? Is this even a question?

So, the combat – the meat of the game. Here’s where it feels like XCOM or, my personal fave, Fire Emblem. Players are told they’ll be fighting one of four factions: mutants, cyborgs, rogue A.I. (robots), or marauders. Then they can choose their party members. Like XCOM, there are different classes with pre-generated, named characters to be chosen for an early, bloody death. This is actually the cruelest part of the game. You should feel like you’re picking through your best and brightest warriors. Instead, it’s more like you’re the executioner – who wants to die today?

There are the standard options of low damage/high health tanks, low health/high damage glass cannons, and a couple of middle of the road classes. Each adventure begins with four soldiers per class, and you can rename them if you like watching your friends and loved ones die. They will all die, eventually, and that’s yet another way to lose the game, but let’s not dwell on that too much.

The player sends out teams of up to six, but mostly will want to stick to four, at most, due to the limited number of actions available in battle. I’ll explain below. Plus, leaving slots open grants an extra bonus: double the rewards in terms of power cells, crude, or meat if at least one soldier survives. Finding the combination of classes that works for you will be a matter of trial and error, but you’ll definitely find some builds better suited to your playstyle than others.

After you pick your squad, they’re dropped onto the battlefield. As mentioned, the maps are randomly generated. The enemies and player units are randomly placed. The sniper (called a deadeye) could be lined up to kill everyone in sight without so much as moving. On the other hand, the squad might find itself on the far side of nowhere except for one, soon-to-be-dead sucker surrounded by enemies.

Grey armor is the new Redshirt.

Grey armor is the new Redshirt.

Each side gets two actions per turn. This is very limiting, which also makes it the most interesting part of the game. We’re used to each character getting a turn or even a series of turns. Here, not so much. This removes a lot of the benefit in quantity over quality. There’s never enough points to move/attack with everyone. You can’t just “blow” a move either. Actions are the game’s most precious resource, and the game rewards careful thinking. Players should be looking at the range of their enemies. They should be racing for cover to greatly increases the chance that enemies will miss. Correct play involves considering what kinds of baddies are on the battlefield and how to counter them appropriately.

Except the game doesn’t exactly reward thinking either. Hang around too long and the “blitz-o-meter” will fill, giving the opposition a “blitz” bonus: a chance to use three actions instead of two and also cover a key unit with a damage-reducing shield for one turn. Each enemy type also gets a special action. A.I.’s can teleport anywhere on the field. Mutants get tougher each turn. Marauders can throw grenades. It sounds all tactical and fun, but the reality is that all of this is there to cover for one glaring issue: the AI doesn’t know how to play its own game. Time and again, the enemy will make poor, almost inexplicable decisions that can only be disguised by using its special powers to cheat. A mutie will just casually wander right into a soldier’s line of sight for reasons unknown, but not to worry! It’ll just take its three-turn round and kill ‘em all anyway. Instead of feeling like you’re beating an unstoppable enemy or a tactical mastermind, each encounter is like playing a six-year-old in checkers. If he doesn’t like the result, he just flips the board over and marches out. Even when you win, you lose.

Player characters get powers as well: +2 to health, shields that reduce damage, and bombs that won’t clear the field, exactly, but will make enemies confused and aggressive. Just like grandma. These abilities cost power cells, but so long as there are resources, they can be spent. These special abilities are usually underpowered and overpriced. Players may find a more powerful weapon on one of those aforementioned sidequests – stuff that allows teleportation or makes the crew invisible for a round. However, it’s rarely something that will turn the tide of battle and, again, will cost more power cells than the player could ever collect.

Hey, no one said that crossing the great sunburnt desert would be easy. No one said it would be fair, either. Fun? Oh, sometimes it’s fun.

When a gunslinger gets up to veteran status and starts grinding enemies into so much hamburger, that’s fun. When you defeat a boss in combat and he joins the squad, vomiting yellow, flesh eating bile onto enemies, that’s fun. When you watch the game almost unintentionally tell a story of hope and heartbreak… that’s what makes these games great. A loss is almost better than a win, y’know, once the player calms down and make sure their mouse still works after it bounced off the wall.

Sure I’ll join your team, once I’m done killing all of ‘em!

Sure I’ll join your team, once I’m done killing all of ‘em!

A lot of times, though, BEDLAM (BED… LAM!!!!) is not fun. It feels like something that aimed for fun, but missed. Players aren’t making tough decisions, weighing options, and patting themselves on the back for a clever solution. Instead, they’re sort of following the meandering path, clicking where the game says to. Sometimes, the game doesn’t even bother to pretend to be messing with you. Click a choice to attack someone and it responds, “Nope, pick another option.” Really? If you didn’t like my choice, game, why’d you bother to ask?

The tactical battles, rather than rewarding intelligent, well thought-out decisions, seem to be best accepted as a random, Russian roulette-style minigame. Sometimes the heroes will win. Most times they won’t. The best-laid plans will almost always just get you laid out.

Oh crap…

Oh crap…

So is it worth the toll to enter BEDLAM (BE… oh, you get the point)? Right now, probably not. Still, it’s early in the game’s lifecycle, and this is the sort of game we’ve seen transform over time. It’s possible that Skyshine intends to lavish the game with upgrades, add more variety in quest results, improve the AI, etc., though as a new company, they have no track record for us to follow. The good news is, the game is remarkably clean. Not a bug or crash was encountered in all my hours of play.

Perhaps – if this is your kind of genre or your kind of game – you’ll want to travel with these fellows and hope for the best. There are the pieces of a great experience here, it’s just far too short on resources to be a sure thing for the finish at this juncture.

Sadly, as the long days of travel through Bedlam (and BEDLAM) have taught me, those kinds of relief are often too far and few between.

Note: Skyshine has recently announced a patch for BEDLAM. It looks like they’re tweaking the battle system, making it harder in some ways and easier in others, though it’s impossible to say how much this will help or hurt things. It does not appear to address some of my larger concerns, but regardless, it’s a good sign that they’re invested in making their game better.

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