Bendy and the Ink Machine (PC) Review

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Review by tankMage

Score: B+

Retired Animators have Never Been So Scary

   Bendy and the Ink Machine first started life on a site known as Game Jolt (a personal favorite of mine for offbeat indie games in years past) and quickly garnered a following, so much so that the developer was able to raise funds to complete the project as well as get the greenlight from Steam. The end product is remarkably well polished and entertaining, thanks to the retro-cartoon theme used for both the artwork and the story. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to explore a Disney style animation studio from the 1930s gone mad, Bendy and the Ink Machine has your answer as it follows the misadventures of a retired animator named Henry who has been summoned back to his old workplace only to find that things have gone awry. In fact, the player is immersed in Bendy’s strange cartoon world where animated characters have come to life as twisted parodies of themselves the moment Henry steps into the building and things only get more bizarre from there.

Well…you don’t see that everyday.

   While the premise and presentation of this title is excellent, the actual gameplay is another matter. Movement speed is slow, even when running, though this makes sense as Henry is probably geriatric. That said, the action suffers for the sake of realism. The gameplay also sags at points and feels more like a walking simulator with go-fer quests than a horror title. Some players may find this game too short, since it only clocks in at about six hours. Fortunately, Bendy redeems itself in the final two chapters as the studio becomes increasingly aberrant and the player begins to encounter the horrors lurking inside. Bendy may have its problems (hence the B+), but it also has a lot of strengths and is worth playing just for its unusual concepts. After starting the game as a skeptic, I came to understand why it has something of a cult following in the end.

Story

   The story and setting are by far the most interesting things about this game. I’ll even go as far to say the the game is essentially a vehicle for the story, which is something of a reversal in a medium where the plot is often just a backdrop for the game. In my opinion, your story better be pretty damn good if you are going to make it the primary feature of your game. Needless to say, Bendy’s story is so good that even the boredom I experienced in Chapter 3 (which is where the gameplay really sags before rebounding in the final two chapters) was easy to overlook, because I was driven forward by my desire to see what was going to happen next.

   Things start out innocently enough as the player assumes the role of an animator named Henry who comments on being summoned back to the studio where he worked by his old boss, Joey Drew in the opening scene. But, right from the start the player will notice that there is something very wrong with the studio as it lays silent and seemingly abandoned. The situation only escalates as the player discovers the Ink Machine and the Demon, Bendy, who will stalk Henry through the twisting corridors of the studio. A cast of eccentric (and often insane) characters delivers the tale of Bendy and the Ink Machine with well crafted dialogue and subtle clues. The game rarely gives players direct information and instead expects them to figure out what is going on, which is part of its beauty, because the mystery behind the unusual events at Joey Drew Studios captures the imagination from beginning to end.

   Usually I have criticisms reserved for the plot of whatever game I happen to be reviewing. Often they boil down to the dialogue being weak, a trite plot, and poor character development, but Bendy doesn’t have these problems. The concept behind this game is original and creative. The dialogue is interesting and the cast is just as intriguing as everything else the story has to offer. Even the game’s replay value can be greatly attributed to the story, which will make more sense when experienced a second time. The only real flaw I can think of is that some players may find Bendy’s purposely vague story unsatisfying, but as the old saying goes “You can’t please everybody.” and the story is more for people who enjoy a good mystery.

Graphics

   Bendy’s gameworld looks like something from a bygone era that was hand drawn on yellowing paper, which is perhaps one of its greatest assets. The dank musty looking studio and its denizens demand the player’s attention, making the experience immersive from the very start. Then there’s the macabre sights players will see on their adventures. It’s one thing to stumble onto a three dimensional cartoon wolf, but coming across such a creature that has been strung up and vivisected is another thing entirely. Usually I’d say this type of game isn’t for the faint of heart, but these creatures only bleed ink, so maybe not?

   Then there’s the rather small, yet original lineup of creatures that can be found lurking about in the maze-like halls of the studio. Not only are many of them strange ink monsters or 1930s style cartoon characters, they are often grotesquely deformed in some way adding to both the game’s originality and surreal setting. Players will encounter all sorts of unexpected things in this game, which helps offset the fact that there are only a few different characters and monsters. Many of the creatures in Bendy leave a lasting impression and are almost iconic in their own right.

   As much as I appreciate the graphics, they get very repetitive. The first three chapters are in areas that look the same and they get dull after a while, despite their initial novelty. The colors also started messing with my eyes after a while, since everything in the game is black, white or a brownish yellow color….well maybe that’s due to the fact that I’m an old fart. The environments do become more interesting as the game progresses and, much like Henry’s ambling pace, there are reasons for the repetitive terrain. There’s also something to be said for getting a chance to  wander around a virtual reproduction of a 1930s studio, even if it is a trippy horror backdrop and not a historically accurate representation of a world long since past.

Music and Sound

   Bendy and the Ink Machine has a more or less standard horror soundtrack, which is quite utilitarian. In fact just an hour after playing it, I have trouble recalling any of the music aside from the end theme which was really good. That’s ok though, because the ambient effects are great, especially considering the fact that this is an indie game. Clanking machinery, plopping globs of ink, and the deranged growls of the monsters help bring the studio to life and keep the tension going. The voice acting is also good by video game standards.

User Interface

   Aside from being painfully slow, the controls are very simplistic and streamlined. You’ll only need to push a single button to interact with objects and while this game has objects for puzzles, there’s no inventory to fiddle with. Unfortunately, the character is a slow beast and players are going to have to learn to deal with his lumbering pace. Even when running, Henry feels slow and I often had to double check to make sure I was holding the run button, because the difference in speed between jogging and walking is almost negligible. There’s also a delay between weapon attacks that took a lot of getting used to. While I respect the attention to detail (it’s not realistic to expect an aged cartoonist to run around and fight like a ninja), it wouldn’t have hurt for the dev to put some pep in Henry’s step.

Gameplay

   If you look past the art style, setting, and story, you’ll find that the core game is merely OK. Both the puzzles and combat are highly simplistic, though the small amount of health Henry has keeps the action from getting too dull, since the player cannot blindly swing at enemies and win. That said, the gameplay almost feels like a stripped down FPS title. Even the Call of Duty style heal over time mechanic is present and a big reticle occupies the center of the screen. However, Bendy owes more of its existence to survival horror titles and players will find its jump scares and object oriented puzzle solving reminiscent of old-school Resident Evil.

  Exploration and puzzle solving are the primary features of this game. Sure, there’s combat, but it takes the back seat. Henry doesn’t even fight anything until the second chapter and even then it’s only a few enemies here and there, so don’t expect to go around smacking things with wrenches all day like in Bioshock. All of the puzzles are quite simple and do not require the player to solve riddles or figure out what to do from a trail of clues. What you have to do is always quite obvious, so much so that I found myself getting bored at some points. However, this puzzle solving mentality was imported to the boss fights, with much greater success. Many of the bosses in this game require the player to look for some sort of weakness or to use the boss’s power against it in some way, which made the battles more fun than the simplistic melees I expected.

   Combat, like Henry, is pretty slow and rather uninteresting. Hostile creatures often just run up to Henry, then attempt punch him. There are no projectiles, ammo, special abilities, life bar, and there isn’t much room for strategy aside from hit and run tactics. Henry will also get his health back over time, which further reduces the challenge, since you can just run in circles to stay alive. Bendy himself (along with other creatures and situations) comes in to save the day, because he is an almost constant threat that cannot be killed and requires some effort to escape. One moment the player is doing some relatively mundane task involving flipping switches, the next he is running for his life, looking for a hiding place as Bendy emerges from a nearby wall. Needless to say, the prospect of instant death at the hands of a cartoon demon gives this game some much needed excitement and planning escape routes added a welcome layer of complexity.

   Another problem this game suffers from is that it’s short, being only about six hours long. Joey Drew Studios made up for this by adding some unlockables and an alternate path that gives the game replay value. Personally, I’m not bothered by the six hour play length. Many of the titles I cover are older and can be beaten in even less time, but they are still great games. Bendy is not long by today’s standards, but it’s still fun, so it’s something I can overlook. Devs often use things like RPG mechanics, empty hallways, and backtracking to pad out play time, but Bendy either completely lacks some of these things or has very few instances of them, so it’s nice to see a game that doesn’t have a ton of bloat. That said, I was left wanting more in the end, though maybe that was the point…

Later in the game you get to read super secret messages written in invisible ink.

Final Thoughts

   In the end, Bendy and the Ink Machine is a rather mediocre survival horror game with an excellent story and style that carries the experience. As someone who has played a lot of games that are highly similar to one another, I’m always happy to see something that is different. In fact, I was tempted to give this one a higher score, but I didn’t find the gameplay compelling or challenging enough to merit an A. On the other hand, Bendy was truly entertaining and it’s a good game to save for a rainy fall day, since it can be beaten in one or two sittings. As a horror fan, I also enjoyed the mutated cartoon characters and gloomy setting which were unique in a genre that’s pretty much dominated by zombies.

Recommendations

Bendy and the Ink Machine is a good choice if you are looking for an interesting story and casual gameplay.

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