In the vein of popular rogue-like games like FTL, Skyshine’s Bedlam is a brutally difficult journey through a heavily stylized post-apocalyptic wasteland. It was made available via Steam on September 16 after receiving widespread acclaim amongst the indie titles promoted at E3 earlier this year. It also takes design cues from the turn-based genre, sharing an engine with The Banner Saga.
From the get-go, Skyshine’s Bedlam sets a tense scene, establishing the player as the fabled “Mechanic,” destined to bring change to the wasteland of Bedlam. The journey begins in the city of Bysantine, one of the few remaining bastions of humanity in the remnants of nuclear warfare. Gifted with a hulking, formidable vehicle known as a Dozer, the player is tasked with transporting a small group of civilians to the mysterious utopia known only as Aztec City. To do so means crossing Bedlam, an enormous wasteland that is home to several warring factions and unending conflict. It’s an interesting spin on a well-worn genre staple, with cyborgs and rogue AI bringing a neat sci-fi twist to the post-apocalyptic background. It adds a great deal of character, and the design and art style complement this thematic harmony.
As you journey throughout Bedlam, you consume three available resources: crude, meat and energy. Depleting your supply of crude or meat can mean a swift and abrupt end to your journey, while insufficient energy can put you on the back foot in combat. For the most part, this is a game of resource management and decision making. Each leg of your journey costs resources, and presents you with a short, randomized event. These events range from encountering a group of nomads to interrupting a cyborg ritual and stumbling upon some kind of temporal displacement device. How you choose to react to these situations will determine the outcome of your adventure, for better or for worse.
However, the range of events on display is rather limited, both in quantity and scope. I encountered repeat events on my very first play-through, and a lot of the events are simply different variations on the same concept. In this genre, variation is key to maintaining exciting gameplay. Seeing each journey take a similar course is somewhat disheartening, but the quality of writing on display is generally of a high standard. There are some imaginative ideas on display, and the detailed background of each of the factions is a very nice touch, but the truly interesting events are unfortunately in the minority. Repeat play-throughs are encouraged through a basic unlock system, with certain events tied to each faction unlocking new vehicles for the player to choose from. These different vehicles affect the starting stats of your vehicle, but little else, so the effect is rather underwhelming.
Your journey through Bedlam’s wasteland is charted through a detailed map, with a range of marked territories allocated to each of the factions. Your interactions with each of these factions are predominantly of a hostile nature, with little room for diplomacy in the wasteland. Combat is the other major component of the game, taking a turn-based strategy format in which you deploy and manage a small squad of combatants consisting of four different classes. It’s your standard fare of classes, with a melee-focused tank, a swift gunslinger, a shotgun wielder for rush-down, and a sniper for long range. In an interesting touch, each of the soldiers at your disposal receives a short piece of backstory and a unique portrait, but unfortunately, these are the same every run, so the charm is quickly lost. For each turn, you are allocated two actions, which you can use to either move or shoot with any of your available combatants.
There was a rather disproportionate power balance when it came to the combat classes. The shotgun class features comparatively high health, mobility, and damage, proving capable of handling most situations when utilized appropriately. No other class can compete with the damage output or mobility without significant preparation and investment, which is an unfortunate outcome for such a party-focused system as this. Adding further woes is the straightforward yet underwhelming cover system. Moving a soldier to tile adjacent to a wall places them into a cover stance automatically, which purportedly increases their defense and evasion. I found no such result, with the majority of combatants dying in one hit anyway, and the evasion chance seemingly too insignificant to factor in. The mechanic does not in any way complement the surrounding game design, so it feels like an oversight. The difficulty otherwise is appropriately tough, so expect to lose a few combatants on your journey.
Nitpicking aside, the mechanics and visuals work well and are generally pleasing to engage with. Combat is snappy and over quickly, emphasizing blitz tactics rather than camping it out or stalling. Prolonging combat bestows benefits on the enemy depending on their faction, and protracted inactivity activates the ‘Blitz’ system, granting the opposition extra turns. Battlefields have a randomized layout, and often house additional resources for those willing to take the time to grab them. Certain faction ‘elites’ can be recruited and later deployed by your Dozer, providing a nice bonus if you can take them down. It’s a challenging balance between all-out assault and well-paced strategy, but the former will get you through most encounters with little trouble. Visual indicators are well designed, with clear indications of movement distance and attack range. Each faction and class has unique attack animations, and the vibrant art style lends a great deal of aesthetic appeal to the fluid movement. Sound design is fairly minimal, with a simple acoustic theme undercutting most of the action, occasionally punctuated by guttural battle cries and punchy explosions.
As a rogue-like, Skyshine’s Bedlam does a lot right. It’s clean and accessible, with an interesting world to explore and a suitably fleshed-out combat system. It’s fun and engaging for those first few runs, trying to unlock the hidden additional vehicles, but beyond that, it falls a bit flat. The majority of the creativity seems to be brushed away into the background, with the focus instead placed on the core gameplay. While this approach will certainly work for those looking to get into the action as quickly as possible, those looking for something more probably won’t find it in Bedlam. Questionable design decisions and shortcomings undercut the more positive aspects on display and hurt replayability quite considerably, but if you’re looking for a challenging romp through the wasteland, Skyshine’s Bedlam may just scratch that itch.