Bendy and the Ink Machine
Joey Drew Studios / theMeatly Games
Genre: Survival Horror
I was never a fan of black and white cartoons. I’ve read plenty about them as I’ve grown up, though. From the likes of Betty Boop and Felix the Cat and some of the outliers around them, the cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s have always been interesting to me from afar. Like films from the same era, though, it’s been tough for me to sit down and try to watch them. Maybe it’s the lack of colored animation and film. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re relics now.
Maybe it’s the fact that they feel a little too smooth and- dare I say it- creepy.
It didn’t strike me until now, but there’s something both intriguing and unnerving about cartoons from the early era. Some of them toyed with fire and brimstone, and the voices are just a little too pristine and emotive. I can’t really put my finger on why the more historical offerings from the animated era of that time aren’t of interest to me, but I grew up on cartoons from my parents’ era around the 1970s and 1980s. I know a person or two who study the beginnings of animation, though, and while it’s interesting to hear them talk about it, it’s still not something I’ve taken a step back into myself.
The first time I saw Bendy and the Ink Machine, though, I knew that its visual style, dependent on the style of animation from the early days of its inception, was something that might hook me. When it first came out, I wasn’t completely sure what its angle was. It seemed sort of action-oriented. Then again, it could have just been some game angling at folks who enjoyed that old style of art, whatever it might have been. Then I heard it was creepy.
I dig creepy games.
As soon as I had it in my possession, I decided I needed to play through it and check it out for myself. Not only was I trying to play more indie games, but Bendy had been gaining popularity in merchandising and on my social networks. Even if I didn’t enjoy it, I knew when I was booting it up that I would get to know what was so special about it that it had gained such immense popularity in such a short time.
Back in the days of black-and-white televisions and cartoons, one animation studio had found their own brand of success with a character they developed by the name of Bendy. With titles like “Hell’s Kitchen”, “Little Devil Darlin’” and “Demonic Tonic”, Bendy and his pals lit up the entertainment world with their hijinks for over thirty years. If it weren’t for the troubles and rumors starting to turn up for the studio in the 1950s, Joey Drew Studios would most likely still be producing Bendy cartoons today.
In August of 1963, Henry Stein, a former animator for the Bendy cartoons, receives a letter from his old friend and business partner, Joey Drew. In his letter, Joey invites Henry to come back to the old studio because he has something special he wants to share with him. With the studio having been abandoned for nearly ten years- not to mention his employment with the company ending nearly 30 years before- Henry’s concern for his friend and what he may have in store drives him to check into the old workshop.
As soon as Henry arrives, it’s apparent that there is something wrong. Thick black ink permeates the planks of the dilapidated studio and a sense of dread hangs in the air. Projection machines run in dark corners and Bendy cutouts and paintings litter the walls in strange ways. As he steps further into Joey Drew Studios, Henry also finds a large machine- labeled as the Ink Machine- and his concern grows deeper. It won’t be long before he realizes that there has been much more to Joey Drew and his work with Bendy than meets the eye, and it may be a long road for Henry to tell the tale himself- if he can survive the secrets of the building himself.
As described, Bendy puts the player in the shoes of Henry Stein as he roams through the strange and cartoon flavored hallways of Joey Drew Studios. There are plenty of puzzles and rooms to explore as events start to unfold and he realizes his primary goal is to escape as he finds himself stuck in the studios with whatever might be roaming around in there. Most of the exploration includes finding particular items that are needed to proceed and bringing them where they need to go, though there are plenty of other goals to achieve.
Through his travels in the studio, Henry will run into adversaries who will attack. Thankfully, Henry has ways to defend himself, usually with a melee weapon like an axe or a plunger. These weapons are also used to progress so while each chapter tends to start with Henry unarmed, he ends up equipped before he runs into these obstacles. Enemies usually only take a couple of hits. Unfortunately, Henry also only takes a few hits so if he finds himself too damaged, it’s back to the nearest autosave checkpoint.
There are plenty of other things to do as Henry explores, though. Recordings are strewn throughout the studio detailing exactly what is going on- and what has gone on before Henry’s arrival- and finding some of these is the only way to make your way further into the studio. It is possible to miss some of the secrets scattered around with no ability to go back and find them, as is the nature of an episodic game. While Bendy is available in a complete package now, it started as an episodic title, so each chapter feels like it is a self-contained area. Throughout five chapters, the story of Henry, Joey Drew, and everyone involved in the defunct studio plays out- and there are plenty of story elements to take in as the player forges ahead.
The Good, The Bad, And…
One of my favorite parts of the game is the front-end presentation. The animated surroundings seem like they would detract from the terror Bendy’s genre promises. This would be a sore underestimation of the atmosphere the game builds up in its first couple of chapters. While it shifts into a more action-packed game in the later episodes, the atmosphere is thick in the game’s set-up in ways that it doesn’t seem possible. To the game’s credit, it has a few jumpscare moments that it handles in a subtle way, making them feel like they are meant to throw the player off rather than be the primary delivery of fright. As someone who reacts to- and finds very little persistent value in- sharp jumpscares, I was impressed with the way Bendy dealt with these moments.
If the game fails in any way, it is in the combat. For the most part, combat could be considered optional (though heavily advised). In the couple of instances where combat is necessary, especially with anything involving the enemies outside of the basic fodder, it is easy to become overpowered and outmaneuvered due to the way it is designed and the way the enemies are also designed. This falls less under “bad” and more under “ugly” since the penalty for being beaten down is less daunting than in most games, usually only sending the player back to the beginning of the sequence they had been bested during.
What the game does best, though, is appeal to a wide range of audiences. Horror and action lovers will enjoy it because it’s creepy and tense. Older fans of the genres will appreciate that it feels fluid and fun to run around in, hiding when necessary and battling when they can. Younger fans can also enjoy it, though, as the level of gore is slim to none. There is one visual I can think of that may be “disturbing”, but no more than any of the older cartoons most people reading this grew up with. Any battle damage that does exist is ink, whether it’s dripping from the walls or splashing off of the enemies. If you’re coming to Bendy expecting a crimson bloodbath, you may be one of the few folks who won’t enjoy the game.
Of course, this leads to the presentation of the game. Visually, the game straddles the line of celluloid cartoon art style and horror very well. The art style already lends itself to be a bit unnerving as it is in sepia and ochre with thick black line work. Watching these pieces in motion, though, is entrancing. Everything looks fantastic, and the artwork in Bendy was probably my favorite part of the game. The character models are a perfect mix of nostalgia and creepy (and modern, when they need to be) and the environments are just as sharp.
The soundtrack and sound effects are almost just as good with a solid mix of 1920s themed tracks mixed in with ambient underlying tunes that have become utilized so often in games like this. The audio recordings are a fantastic touch with voice actors who are clearly in their element, both on offering up exposition on the background of the game and when characters appear in front of Henry in a number of ways. For an indie game from a lesser-known group of developers, Bendy is one of the tightest games I’ve witnessed in a while.
It took me a while to latch onto the idea of playing Bendy and the Ink Machine. I wasn’t sure what it was trying to accomplish or what tone it was going for, but I happened onto it and decided I should try it because someone started talking about how creepy it was. Launching into it, I still wasn’t totally sure if I would enjoy it.
Was it the horror title of the year? Nope. It definitely feels like it switches genres a bit midway through and once it scares you, it turns up the action. Does that make it a bad game? Absolutely not. The folks behind Bendy made a solid narrative with some fun gameplay and a unique atmosphere that is worth looking into for folks who want an equal amount of chills and combat. The game may not leave you with your eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling at night. If you’re a fan of horror games that try to bring some action to the table in a package you may not have seen before, Bendy and the Ink Machine is an absolute must.