I imagine one could easily recreate Bendy and the Ink Machine in real life, simply by dropping slightly too much acid and wandering around Disneyland. Or Disney World, I don’t know the difference. The game essentially asks the age-old question, “What if Walt Disney was a truly insane, ambitious, and evil person, who decided to turn Mickey Mouse into a real and true Demon and open up the studio and its employees to the black, inky realms beyond?” Taking cues from other survival horror games in the genre like Five Nights at Freddy’s and Alien: Isolation, with a huge (and often smash you in the face with obviousness) Bioshock vibe, Bendy and the Ink Machine is a unique, albeit flawed, short and sweet horror experience. Originally released episodically on the PC, this review will cover the recent Xbox One version.
Players are placed in the shoes of Henry Stein, a former animator at Disne…Joey Drew Studios, who receives a letter from the main man himself, Joey Drew, asking Henry to come back to the studio several decades after he left. Upon arriving at the studio, the situation is made abundantly clear that something is a little off, and things have certainly gone down (way down) hill in the last 30 years.
Two things immediately stand out about Bendy and the Ink Machine. The actual aesthetic of the game, where everything from the furniture to the doors looks hand-drawn the only colour is a sickly sepia, and the titular character and his various cohorts, which not only ape the cartoons of the 20s and 30s visually but musically and in the talents and sounds of the voice actors. I know I’m not the only one that finds those old cartoons to be super creepy; the constant bouncing and fluidity of the characters, the staccato framerates and scratchy frames, and the downright sinister vibe that attempts (and fails) to give off a fun and childish ambiance. Of course, this makes for an excellent setting for a horror game, playing off these ideas and taking them to the next level. The creepy mood of the game is fairly consistent throughout, and unravelling the supernatural plot while also digging into the audio-journals of Joey Drew Studios employees kept me pretty hooked throughout.
While I admire and enjoy the unique approach to the visuals, the colours (or lack thereof) and chuggy framerates made my eyes hurt after a while and I would need to take a break to look at something with more than one colour. I can’t really hand out negative points for this, because I respect any developer that commits to a style throughout the game and avoids mimicking that of other’s, but at the same time it did begin to grate on me after a while. The music, on the other hand, is thematically perfect and goes from “friendly but creepy” old-timey cartoon music to “here comes the monster” spikes at the right times. The splish-splash and dripping noises of the ink were fantastically atmospheric.
The gameplay itself is pretty barebones. Most of the game is spent exploring the studio and completing various fetch quests to unlock the next area. Go find these several items throughout the level, door opens. NPC needs five of this item, go find them and bring them back. There are puzzles, but they’re very basic and won’t stretch your brain muscles to breaking. On the plus side, this keeps the pace of the game flowing pretty well, and lets the player soak in the atmosphere without missing the forest while they scrounge for clues.
The weakest and most unnecessary aspect of the game is the combat. Not every game requires combat, despite what the top-selling games lead you to believe, and half-assedly throwing some in “just because” does more harm than good. Henry gets very few weapons during his time in Joey Drew Studios, and what weapons he does have (a pipe, mostly) are clunky, slow, unresponsive, and don’t even register half the time. A later-game quest requires the player to dispatch a wave of enemies, and the weakness of the combat mechanics was on full display here as I had to restart the quest multiple times due to the fact that as hard and varied as I swung my pipe, the hits simply didn’t register and I would die. The enemy designs are fantastic, sludge demons that rise from puddles of ink or hideously twisted and violent cartoon mascots, but fighting them was beyond a chore and became actively frustrating.
Two of the most important criteria that I look at when judging a game are a unique and original idea or approach, or solid gameplay mechanics. Bendy and the Ink Machine get big points for the former but fail to hit the mark in the latter. It’s a creepy, original, and interesting game world that is realized in a creative and aesthetically way. Unfortunately, that imaginative atmosphere is filled with boring puzzles and lacklustre combat. It’s certainly worth checking out for the experience but don’t expect much more than that.