Skyshine’s Bedlam is a post-apocalyptic roguelite with turn-based, tactical, combat, and a strong Moebius-meets-Borderlands aesthetic. It’s along the same vein as FTL and The Oregon Trail in that you’re simply trying to survive getting from point A to point B. Upon first glance, there’s a lot here for a strategy buff and sci-fi fan to love, but like many cases of love-at-first-sight, hindsight is only too happy to reveal with the candor of a career curmudgeon that you may not be in love with Skyshine’s Bedlam so much as you are with the idea of it.
For me, it only took a handful of hours for the honeymoon to sour. The optimism and wanderlust that I set out with on this journey quickly receded to listlessness and an overwhelming sensation to find a door, any door, to exit the relationship. Where did things go wrong? How could so many things that I like culminate into such a lukewarm experience? Read on, intrepid voyeur, and witness the dismantling of a picture perfect marriage.
You’re The Mechanic. It’s a weighty, ominous, title that unfortunately doesn’t get a lot explaining and qualifies you to be the Captain of a massive vehicle of legend known as a Dozer, which looks like the offspring of a Winnebago and a battleship. There are five to choose from, one for each major faction, but you only have access to the human-built Boneshaker to start. Each one has ratings in four categories: crude, meat, energy cells, and crew. These ratings, which can be upgraded by expending energy cells, determine how efficiently your Dozer consumes resources and heals crew members.
As far as crew members go, you start off with sixteen soldiers assigned to your Dozer—four of each of the classes: Deadeye, Frontliner, Gunslinger, and Trencher. Deadeyes are your snipers. They’re deadly at range, have crappy movement and HP, and can occasionally insta-gib an enemy with a headshot. Frontliners are tanks that have high HP and mobility but terrible damage. Gunslingers are a happy balance of stats with the ability to retaliate. Trenchers wield a shotgun and have moderate movement and a close-range knock back shot. As Skyshine’s Bedlam progresses, you get the opportunity to add unique boss versions of these classes to your roster, and they’re absolutely vital to completing the game. All deaths are permanent, wounds can shelf your fighters for as long as 25 days, and there is no reliable way to replenish your flagging manpower.
You, your Dozer, and the sixteen pieces of fodder that serve as your bodyguards are tasked with escorting 1,000 miserable souls from the last bastion of humanity, a putrescent boil of a mega-city named Bysantine, to a rumored utopia known as “Aztec City”. The vast no-man’s land that lays between is a hellish wasteland home to mutants, rogue artificial intelligence, cyborgs, and the dreaded Lord Viscera and his marauders—the Immortan Joe and War Boyz of Skyshine’s Bedlam.
The map is fairly large given the meandering nature of travel and it’s pock-marked with waypoints, points of interest, resource caches, bosses, and faction badges that indicate who’s in control of a given territory. Each territory has a bit of flavor, and events that trigger within their borders seem to be drawn from a pool based on what faction holds dominion. Each time you explore a new spot you consume crude and meat, as well as advance the time and a forbidding meter at the bottom that indicates the danger level.
Exploration also generally triggers a random event that presents you with a situation and often a decision to made. You could run across refugees who want to join you and decide to integrate them or rob them, stumble upon a merchant who will trade crude for other resources, explore an ancient tech lab, or more often than not, chance upon any one of the hostile tribes that run rampant in Skyshine’s Bedlam. You’re sometimes given an opportunity to avoid combat, but don’t let the illusion of choice fool you: you’re generally going to need every bit of supplies that you can get your hands on.
Invariably you’ll find yourself in the game’s turn-based, strategic combat and it’s here that so much of an otherwise promising game goes wrong for those who may be spoiled on X-COM.
You’ll be ushered off to a deployment screen where you’ll be able to pick up to six warriors to field. Here you’re confronted with your first major risk vs. reward decision: do you field a full squad to increase your chances of everyone coming home alive, or do you send a smaller force to earn a bonus to recover resources? You’re given no information as to the size or composition of the enemy’s forces, so you’ll have to go with your gut. It’s one of many gambles, and the first of many sources of frustration.
Regardless of what you choose, you’ll be taken to the combat map itself. It’s about this time you’ll notice you weren’t given the option of deploying your men in any semblance of a formation. You’ll be lucky if you’re not completely surrounded and outnumbered. The second thing you’ll notice is you’re on a map that’s ultimately a square with a few pieces of cover. Aesthetics will vary, and some of them do look very cool, but it honestly feels like you’re fighting in an arena every single time.
The third thing you’ll notice is that you only have two actions per turn. Moving or attacking consumes one action point. This does not change no matter how many troops you ultimately bring to the fight. For veterans of X-COM or practically any other turn-based strategy that exists, this is going to be a bit uncomfortable. In theory, it lends itself to the idea that combat should be approached from a chess perspective, where you have to make the most of your limited moves. In practice, it feels like you’re commanding a bunch of mannequins that watch on in a stupor as only one or two of your dudes actually do anything. You’ll be pleased to know that the enemy is under the same restriction, save for one little detail: the Blitzometer.
The Blitzometer is an ill-explained gauge that fills up as the combat drags on. When it reaches critical mass, the AI is given three actions rather than two, and all of their units are buffed by a shield that mitigates damage by half. There is no attempt made to explain why the AI is given this advantage thematically or mechanically, so it can only be assumed that it’s there to make your life miserable. Which it will, because you’re now playing a game where it only takes two or three attacks tops to kill one of your units, with the exception of the Deadeye who will initially be one-shot by ANY attack in Skyshine Bedlam.
You will lose men. Constantly. In some ways it’s better, albeit callous, to think of them as currency to be spent in the acquisition of resources. Never is this more apparent than in boss battles, which with the exception of the final boss, are opportunities to recruit unique units through trial by combat. Mechwarrior fans might be able to reconcile this as a trial of possession, but to me it’s a little offputting that you would welcome the mutant who just killed four of your men into your Dozer with open arms. These bosses are powerful and are very likely going to one hit practically any character that comes in range. In many ways, recruiting these adversaries is paramount to your success in Skyshine’s Bedlam.
Did I mention that while your characters are out in the open they have a 100% chance of being hit? Don’t worry, Skyshine’s Bedlam employs a cover system that it urges you during loading screens to use. Unfortunately for you, cover isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While it may impart a small miss chance, it also acts as a line-of-sight obstruction despite being waist-high, which sort of defeats the purpose of shooting from cover. There’s a small consolation in that it functions exactly the same way for the AI, but for some reason it just feels like the mechanic is at odds with itself in terms of practicality and can only be explained as one of many trade-offs where you sacrifice one advantage for another.
As if this wasn’t enough to worry about and frustrate, the tactical map is littered with resource drops that you have to collect, especially if you want to get the most of taking a small group for the bonus multipliers. It’s very similar to X-COM’s meld in that it tries to entice the player to make tactically unsound decisions in order to potentially net a gain. Unlike X-COM’s meld, it isn’t time sensitive, which would be great if it weren’t for the fact that no matter how quickly you clear a map any resources that you didn’t personally pick up are forfeit. So you have to spend precious action points in order to retrieve these supplies, which are often placed skirting the border of the map like roach motels. Often the best you can hope for is to clean up all but one of the enemies and then try to pick them up while kiting him around the map, which is still fairly dangerous given how easily a non-unique character can be killed.
Further reflection on the system reveals that if you’re trying to get the maximum out of on-map resources and deployment multipliers, you’re putting yourself at a huge tactical disadvantage. You have less men, which makes the battle all the more dangerous, but are heavily incentivized to make poor decisions to make the most of your bonus because otherwise there was no point in bringing a short-staffed response group. This creates an interesting dichotomy that translates directly into what I’m going to tentatively term a “multiplicative F@#$ you,” wherein an already crappy situation snowballs into a SNAFU of disarming proportions.
Fear not, for you have tools at your disposal to try to swing the odds in your favor. Your Dozer is armed with weapons and equalizers, abilities that can be activated by expending energy cells to either unleash a devastating attack on the AI or buff and heal your troops. Your starting weapon is basically a booze bomb that turns any routine engagement into a strip club kegger complete with confused flunkies that dogpile one another at the slightest provocation. There are other weapons in Skyshine’s Bedlam as well, some less spectacular than others, such as a nuke, poison spores, or a catapult that launches dead cyborgs and leaves areas covered in swaths of flames.
The only problem is energy cells often come in short supply and you need them to upgrade your Dozer’s systems. This would be a case of another trade-off were it not so crucial for you to invest in your Dozer early to get the maximum out of your resources. Running out of meat and crude is a very real threat, on top of the ever present possibility of being murdered by the natives.
Trust me, you’re going to want all the energy cells you can get for King Viscera. You fight no less than four iterations of him almost back-to-back at one point in the game with each form growing stronger. It will take all your equalizers, weapons, and troops to somehow survive the gauntlet. In five runs I’ve managed to beat three of the four forms only through abusing an equalizer that nullifies all damage dealt and converts it to a small amount of health for two turns. By the fourth fight, most of my men were dead and my energy cells depleted, forcing me to launch a feeble defense that ends predictably in favor of the guy who has a long range, twelve damage attack, and 80 hit points. Plus his friends. Hilariously, I did manage to one-shot his second form with a Deadeye who got a headshot, but that’s the only memorable instance of RNG that seemed to work out in my favor.
Assuming any of your troops survive long enough to reach veterancy (3 kills), they’ll be treated to an upgrade that basically doubles their combat efficacy and gives them a nice visual overhaul as well as heals them to full. After this transformation every four kills will bestow a new level, which usually means they get a bonus to damage and some hit points.
The very nature of veterancy creates a pitfall that’s usually unique to Fire Emblem games in that you’ll often be tempted to lean on a unique or high-vetted character to do all your dirty work. The strategist in you will be yelling for you to divvy up the experience as evenly as you can, but in a game where death is only a turn away, it’s a tall order to surgically dispense XP among your party. It creates a sort of lose-lose situation where you may have to soften them up and go through the trouble of finishing them off with the right trooper or succumbing to your baser instincts and just plowing through map after map with Biv or Abe or some other heavy-hitter. Even still, these critical members of your team can still succumb to a boss, leaving a gigantic power vacuum in your roster that you likely won’t be able to fill.
If there’s anything to like about Skyshine’s Bedlam’s combat system, it’s that it’s fast and fluid. There won’t be missions like X-COM where you’re hunting for the last outcropping xenos. Occasionally it can become a bit durdling when you’re, oh say, trying to pick up resources while kiting an enemy around, but for the most part it feels very arcadey. Unfortunately, it means you’re generally trading fidgettiness for a lack of depth, and I’m largely unsatisfied by the combat that feels difficult for the sake of difficulty.
Purists will say that there’s nothing wrong with difficulty. I agree. The success of games like Dark Souls and FTL demonstrate that people like to be challenged. However, it’s much easier to accept a punishing difficulty if there’s some sense of reason behind it all. Or at the very least, a sense of progression.
Case in point, let’s take a look at Ironclad. It’s a mix of Bejeweled, Puzzle Quest, and FTL. It can be extremely difficult, but even in failure you unlock new interesting things. While there are certainly Dozers to be unlocked, I’ve ran through Skyshine’s Bedlam no less than five times (unsuccessfully, on normal difficulty), often only two movements away from beating the game and received absolutely bupkis for my exertions. It would be nice to maybe be able to swap out weapons or equalizers or receive unique crew members or something for the time spent navigating the punishing difficulty and dissonant design choices.
Lowering the difficulty doesn’t alleviate the problem either, as playing Skyshine’s Bedlam on Easy forfeits the chance of unlocking what little hidden content there is.
Perhaps all of this would be forgivable if there were something to be attached to: the story, a particular character, hell, anything. There’s such a lack of customization and characterization that it’s hard to find yourself invested in anything. Without an emotional component, the gameplay has to do double-duty and be entertaining enough to make up for the fact that you don’t particularly care what’s going on.
Take the Dozer for instance. It’s a colossal feat of engineering utilizing the technology of a bygone era, completely and totally outside of the scope of what can be produced in the dying age of man. It is your Ark; a symbol of hope to the huddled refugees crammed within its rusted gut. It is simultaneously a home and a monument to humanity’s implacable desire to push the boundaries of civilization and a beacon of order in a chaotic world. Cramped, hunted, and on the verge of starvation, these refugees set off on a voyage to a better life that may not even exist.
Yet it’s only within the confines of your imagination that any of this is iterated. Skyshine’s Bedlam does little to characterize your passengers. They are forever a fluctuating digit on a HUD, and likewise, the Dozer serves as little more than a glorified UI that lets you check your cargo, your units, and dump some energy cells into upgrades that fiddle with percentages. It rains death from off-screen, with nary an animated vignette in sight to show it preparing and firing its ordinance ala Advance Wars. There are no unique, willful, modifications to be made past equalizers and weapons, which are only earned through events. An opportunity to develop a sense of progression or, at the very least, an emotional connection was severely squandered.
What’s more, there’s no way you can customize your soldier. Apart from a unique, well-written, biography and a portrait, each soldier is functionally identical to another, with the exception of the bosses you can recruit who are generally just beefed up versions. Whereas in Banner Saga you could plot out a career or in X-COM you could make binary choices between abilities that specialized a unit, Skyshine’s Bedlam gives you nothing to differentiate one unit from the next aside veterancy. The only touch of individualization is that some characters can be used in certain events to get a better reward.
While we’re on the subject of events, it’s worth mentioning that most of the writing is competent. Mutants are especially well-written. Skyshine’s Bedlam relies heavily on lore to convey a sense of history and a loose-knit narrative. If you’re anything like me, however, you’ll read all the dialogue during your first playthrough and then skip through it on subsequent playthroughs, barring an event you haven’t seen yet.
The overarching plot has a lot of parallels with Mad Max: Fury Road and contains a number of dystopian tropes. Fans of the genre will find the tale largely predictable and notice quite a few references (such as Moebius Hawk) that remind the player that, yes, they are playing a post-apocalyptic game. It’s largely innocent and obviously out of love of the genre and doesn’t come off as nascent pandering like the memes in Borderlands.
Endemic to this particular genre is the problem where you run across an event that requires a specific item only to find it later and never stumble across the event again. RNG such as this is part of the DNA and culture of games like FTL, but Skyshine’s Bedlam had a chance to innovate here and didn’t pull the trigger. Even something as simple as a merchant to sell your cargo items to would have been welcome. It also would have created yet another trade-off where you could gamble and sell an item for a much-needed resource only to come upon the event it was required for later.
What makes watching your extremely finite supply of soldiers dwindle away to nothing a bit more bearable are the lovely animations and the art style in general. Thick, meaty, lines and a bunch of fiddly apparatuses, ubiquitous tubing, and sci-fi jumpsuits give the impression that any one of these characters jumped right off the pages of an old-school sci-fi pulp magazine. There’s a fondness of sickly hues and garish colors: toxic greens, plum purples, steel blues, and a mish-mash of noxious primaries like yellow and orange complete a perfectly nuclear palette. Skyshine’s Bedlam pays appropriate homage to Jean Giraud. All the characters look sour, bedraggled, and old before their time.
Skyshine’s Bedlam ran smooth and fast, with only one major hang-up that required a restart. My only real complaint is a lack of options. You’ll have to use the mixer in order to turn the sound up and down and there’s basically no graphical options whatsoever.
The animations are great. Watching Biv lean back and angle his Mini-Gun before releasing a withering spray of gunfire is satisfying. Even Abe, who slowly lifts his revolvers like a turret adjusting elevation, has a sort of finality and appropriately dramatic weight. Bullets tear skin clean off and reduce a skeleton to rubble, nuclear bombs fantastically explode and reduce enemies to ruin. It’s all over-the-top and fantastic.
The UI itself is cumbersome, but the help button can give you a sense of direction. I’ve got two main complaints. One is that you have to select equalizers and weapons to see what they do rather than having a mouse-over, pop-up, tooltip. The other is the almost inexcusable range indicator that tells you whether an enemy can be attacked or not. The only visual queue is the little health dongle that pops up above an enemies head. It’s not game breaking, but it’s certainly a brow furrower considering how big a role combat plays in the game.
Skyshine’s Bedlam’s sound is top notch. The weaponry all sounds weighty, satisfying, and punchy. There wasn’t a single weapon in Skyshine’s Bedlam that sounded limp. The opening theme is exactly what you would expect. A single, tenuously held, cord keyed to a raspy, reverberating, tenor that warbles across a plodding bass line. It reminds you of a creaky general store sign rocking on rusted hinges, and you occasionally get these moments of doomsaying synthesizer that really do it for me. It’s like Ennio Morricone meets John Carpenter, and I love it. Regrettably, there’s not that many tracks and it left me wanting more. The only stray bullet here is when you collect a resource on the map you’ll get this gravelly announcer voice that gargles out “MEAT!” or “CRUDE!” It reminds me of the Quake announcer for some reason and just feels out of place. At the same point in time, without it the soundscape in battle would be decidedly sparse.
By now you must think that I hate Skyshine’s Bedlam and it might surprise you to find out that I don’t. It’s a competent game. The developers obviously cared about the material and wanted to deliver a great strategy game set in a cool setting. If anything, I’m just disappointed. I look at Skyshine’s Bedlam and I see a game brimming with promise. So often in reviewing games you have to make the difficult decision of whether you judge a game for what’s there or for what could have been. Ultimately, it’s only in the interest of fairness that you go with the former.
What’s here is a fast-paced, dastardly difficult, game with great art and sound, but a little lacking in what I think is the bread and butter of this genre: compelling gameplay that crafts a narrative through action. Skyshine tried very hard to pack Skyshine’s Bedlam with the trade-offs and risk vs. reward mechanics that are synonymous with roguelites, but somehow the concoction just didn’t settle, and it ended up something of a hot mess in terms of balance and pacing. Still, there are certainly those that the combat system will appeal to who won’t be bothered by these perceived shortcomings and will welcome the challenge and lack of mandatory micromanaging that denser titles require.
By no means is Skyshine’s Bedlam a bad game; it’s just something of a mirage. At a distance, it looks wonderful, but the closer you get to it the less defined it becomes. While it has all the makings of greatness, it lacks a soul. Despite trying to approach combat from a novel direction, the experimentation that Skyshine flirted with just falls short of satisfying and often feels counter-intuitive. Oddly enough, I think it would have been a very serviceable mobile game with some interface tweaks and, if rumor would have it, that’s precisely Skyshine’s Bedlam’s next destination. I would keep an eye on Skyshine as they obviously have a talented team, and it may just be as simple as taking inventory and regrouping before they release a hit. As it stands, Skyshine’s Bedlam is a game that I was very willing to love, but it failed to match its beauty and charm with substance, which as far as I’m concerned is grounds for a divorce.
Disclosure: The copy of Skyshine’s Bedlam used for this review was provided by Wonacott PR.
What do you think of my assessment of Skyshine’s Bedlam? Did you enjoy the game? If not, why? As always, feel free to leave comments, criticisms, and observations below and feel free to follow me on Twitter @theamurikan and TechRaptor @TechRaptr.
Skyshine's Bedlam is a competent game with a lot of surface polish, but somewhat unsatisfying gameplay. While it hits all the right notes for sci-lovers in terms of aesthetic and tone, it fails to satisfy for long with inexplicable mechanics that seem difficult for the sake of difficulty and a lack of opportunities to form an emotional investment.