Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.
-Arthur Conan Doyle
“The following is a contributor post by the Blue Moon Mage.”
I’m exhausted. I just played through Bendy and the Ink Machine, start to finish, in a single five-hour sitting. My nerves are shot, my stomach hurts, and my adrenal glands are begging for mercy. I’m going to be seeing that smiling face in my nightmares for weeks to come – though not for the reasons you might expect.
I was raised on old cartoons stretching back to the 1920s. There was Disney, of course, but also Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, Woody Woodpecker, and many more. They weren’t all in black-and-white, but many were, yet it didn’t matter one bit to me. I loved them all. They had such a different flavor when compared to the modern cartoons of the day. This bit of personal history is why I took one look at Bendy and the Ink Machine and absolutely knew I had to play it.
Perhaps rather fittingly, Bendy and the Ink Machine owes its success to its rabid cult following. Published by Joey Drew Studios, this first-person survival horror game was released as a series of five chapters over a year and a half (the first in February 2017 and the fifth in October 2018). Thanks to its unique visuals and twisted world-building, the game gained major traction on Twitch and YouTube during this time–so much so that Bendy’s Complete Edition was ported to all three current gen consoles in November 2018.
Set in 1966, Bendy and the Ink Machine centers on Henry Stein, a retired animator who receives a note from Joey Drew, his former business partner, inviting him to come visit their old studio. They’ve been apart for 30 years, and now Joey has something he’d like Henry to see. But instead of nostalgia, Henry discovers a bizarre, hellish world of living ink creatures, and he must fight to escape with his life.
I always say I love horror games, but there are caveats. If you arm me with a gun and ask me to mow down the zombie horde to rescue the President’s daughter, I’ll do that all day. But if you arm me with an empty soup can and ask me to sneak through the demon horde without being seen… yeah, no. That’s less my thing. But I promise to always keep an open mind.
Being a survival horror game, Bendy and the Ink Machine is decidedly the latter rather than the former. Throughout your ordeal, you’ll be armed with a variety of melee weapons of varying effectiveness, all the way down to that empty soup can (no, I wasn’t joking about that). But just as often, you’ll be armed with nothing at all as you explore the labyrinthine animation studio, completing search quests and dodging demons in your bid to escape.
Bendy and the Ink Machine draws (heh!) you in with its wonderfully vintage aesthetic. The character designs are instantly familiar to anyone who has watched old black-and-white cartoons, yet the game’s primary color palette is actually yellow and black, as if the designs have aged and faded with time. Then there’s the horrible shock of wrongness when these nostalgia-twinged visuals descend into madness and violence. I wouldn’t exactly call any of the designs unique, but I believe that’s a purposeful choice on the part of the developers. You need that easy familiarity to bait the trap for what’s to come.
My main gripe with the vintage, rather monotone aesthetic is that it makes certain aspects of the gameplay hair-pullingly frustrating. Everything looks the same: every room, every hallway, every item. I was always lost, which is extremely detrimental when you’re being chased by ink demons and desperately need to get back to that stupid elevator.
The other downside of this is that at least half of the game (and probably more) consists of search quests, and these are far more annoying than they need to be when everything looks the same. The developers tried to mitigate this by having items of importance light up when your target moves over them, but you still have to find them (or at least get close) for this to be of any help.
Still, this is a beautiful game with a lot of attention to detail, and it was clearly made by people who understand the subtleties of horror. I’m obviously not the only one who feels this way because when you beat the game, you’re treated to a credits sequence featuring a stream of fan art, and all of it is excellent.
Hit play on the above video, and let’s discuss the soundtrack of Bendy and the Ink Machine. The OST feels like two sides of the same coin. On one side, it’s got the peppy, happy music you’d expect from cartoons of this era–the finger snapping, the whistling, the tight harmonies, all layered under a scratchy vinyl recording effect. On the other side, the music is sinister and dark, meant to enhance the mood whether you’re sneaking through the shadows or running for your life from unspeakable horrors. It’s far more effective in the game than when listening to it out of context, but this is enough for you to get a taste.
In fact, more than once as I was being bludgeoned to death, I randomly thought that certain parts of the music had the distinct flavor of Resident Evil 4 or the 2017 movie adaptation of IT (a favorite score of mine).
As for the game’s SFX, it is fairly standard horror game fare. You’ll hear things whispering behind the walls and roars when creatures appear for jump scares. The voice acting is fine, but the characters aren’t particularly given a great deal to do (although Lauren Synger as Alice Angel is the game’s standout). Most of the talking you’ll hear is via diary-type entries on cassette recorders placed throughout the studio (play these to gradually uncover backstory).
While I loved exploring the studio of Bendy and the Ink Machine, the game kept insisting on getting in the way. For all its clever world-building, when it comes down to it, the actual gameplay is simply an extended series of search quests punctuated by the occasional jump scare. Find three gears to fix the ink pump. Find four power switches to open the door. Etc, etc. Standard stuff in survival horror, perhaps, but the quests don’t particularly feel like the natural courses of action in the game. Instead it’s more like an endless to-do list, and I was hoping for more.
The game’s five chapters all have a slightly unique feel to them, and this brings much-needed variety. The first chapter, “Moving Pictures,” is short, which makes sense as it’s essentially the game’s demo. On the other hand, the third chapter, “Rise and Fall” (the game’s longest or does it only feel that way?), is a nightmarish slog of never-ending fetch quests. After the fourth or fifth one in a row, I was screaming at my TV, “Again?! I’m not a golden retriever!!”
Fetch quests are (often rightly) criticized as offering little more than content padding in RPGs. The same applies here. They add scant else to the game but time and busy work.
Additionally, I sadly ran into a few instances of lag, as well as a glitch where the music from the end of chapter one seemed to get stuck and carried over into chapter two. I had to relaunch the game to stop it. But my biggest complaint is regarding a big battle in chapter five (pictured above).
In this battle, Henry and his two allies must fend off several waves of ink monsters. While your allies do help a little, the game will not allow them to kill the final monster of each wave (that’s your job, not that it stops your allies from trying). Nor will it allow you to hit the monster while they are in the way. The result of these two things means that at the end of every single wave, my allies would be uselessly but tirelessly attacking the final monster (and it would be trying to return the favor) while I was rendered a mere spectator. I could literally do nothing. The only way out was to kill myself, which usually triggered the game to restart me at the next wave. After this happened six times in a row, I could come to no other conclusion except that this fight sequence simply does not work.
Bendy and the Ink Machine does a much better job in the narrative department. While the story is not complicated, pieces of it are dispersed gradually and at frequent enough intervals to keep you interested while still maintaining the mystery. Likewise the tone of the game does a good job in balancing the vaguely sinister with the outright horrifying so that things never grow stale nor become too much, and the scares change and adapt as the game progresses to continually keep you on your toes.
Side note: I definitely need somebody to discuss the ending with, because WHOA.
Despite its disturbing imagery and above-average success with jump scares, the main terror in Bendy and the Ink Machine does not come from the demons. It comes from the fact that the slow, clunky controls make you feel extremely vulnerable.
Henry has three basic actions (walking, running, and swinging a melee weapon) and all three of these things happen at a glacial pace. His walk is more of a crawl, and his run is more of a… slightly faster crawl. This is truly unfortunate, especially because several of the boss fights require you to lure the big bad over to something and then run away right before it gets there.
Likewise, swinging the melee weapon (by pressing ZR) is an exercise in patience.
My trigger finger: ZR ZR ZR ZR ZR ZR
Henry: *swing*…………. *swing*…………… *swing*
You get the idea. But this regrettable reality makes it easy to get in over your head when facing enemies. Since the game takes place 30 years after Henry leaves the animation studio, my only explanation for this sloth-like pace is that Henry must be in his sixties (though his voice makes him sound young).
Why is this slowness a big deal? Because I don’t truly fear the monsters nor blame them for my deaths. Instead, I blame myself. If Henry moved in a way that felt more natural, or at least was not noticeably snail-like, then the faster monsters would seem more superhuman, more other-worldly. As it stands now, they seem to move at human speeds while Henry is the one appearing more like a lumbering zombie. I couldn’t help but think, “If it was me in there instead of Henry, I’d be doing just fine!”
To my knowledge, there’s nothing out there quite like Bendy and the Ink Machine. That’s what first drew me to playing it. True, this is not the world’s first survival horror game, nor is it the first to combine horror elements with children’s entertainment, but no one else has done it in such a memorable, visually exciting way.
Additionally, the unique method of its release, its grassroots popularity and cult following, and the fact that the company (in a very cool move) decided to release chapter five for free as a thank you to the fans, all make Bendy and the Ink Machine a true one-of-a-kind.
If you’re a fan of survival horror, you owe it to yourself to experience this world.
Even when you’re lucky enough to not be in the middle of a search quest, Bendy and Ink Machine is absolutely ruthless when it comes to figuring out when you’re meant to do next. The game expects you to connect A + B + C to get D without having ever been briefed on A. Therefore, solving most of the puzzles becomes less about using logic to figure your way through and more about getting lucky and highlighting the right item at the right time.
For example, one sequence requires you to steal a glob of ink from a monster (which you’ve never done before and didn’t even realize is possible), then carry it to another room and put in it a machine (which you’ve never seen before). Turn one knob of the machine to select the item you’re searching for, then turn the other knob to activate it. The selected item will pop out of the machine, and you then carry it to the bridge you are trying to repair. The only clues to any of this are that the items for each step glow when your target is over them. Beyond that, you’re on your own.
I enjoy puzzles in games and I don’t mind trial-and-error challenges, but these problems are not structured in such a way as to lead you to the solution. You’re basically just running around randomly, wasting time and getting frustrated as you desperately look for something to glow yellow and let you know it’s important. This makes the game feel extremely challenging, but in a way that seems almost rather unfair.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Bendy and the Ink Machine is a case where I enjoy the concept more than the execution. The world-building is so fun and unique, yet the game acts as if it resents you for playing it. However, its strengths (in particular, visuals and music) are fantastic enough that this is still well worth a playthrough, even if you don’t normally go for games in this genre.
P.S. Thank you so much to Rooster Teeth Games for providing a free copy of the game in exchange for an honest review!
Aggregated Score: 7.1
The Blue Moon Mage, aka Blue Williams, is a nerd of many layers: games/anime/film/books/dogs/coffee/seriously so much coffee. You can find her on Twitter at @wrytersview or at her other writing locales: The Loot Gaming, GamerheadsPodcast, The Gamer, Hot Cars, and wrytersview.com.
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Categories: Game Review