Going into Bendy and the Ink Machine, I’m not afraid to admit I harbored some preconceptions. It’s hard not to when your first exposure to an IP is the merchandise wall at a GameStop. I went in expecting a cynical attempt to chase the likes of Five Nights at Freddy’s, fully prepared to sit through a few hours of YouTube-friendly, ironic jump scares. Luckily, what I ended up with was a much more substantial, intriguing experience. While quite rough around the edges, Bendy and the Ink Machine is a memorable horror romp fueled by distinct characters, imaginative mythology, and respect for animation as both a brilliant art form and space where creative people are vulnerable to emotional and physical abuse from those higher up on the capital food chain.
Opening Old Wounds
In Bendy and the Ink Machine, players take on the role of Henry Stein, who was an animator at Joey Drew Studios 30 years ago, the legendary studio responsible for the titular Bendy. Bendy is a cartoon demon who serves as an obvious parallel to cartoon protagonists on the 1930s, such as Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop. Henry left the studio in a bad way, heavily implied to be due to an all too familiar ownership dispute over the character. The game starts with a letter from Joey Drew himself, asking Henry to come to the studio after a 30-year absence. Henry arrives to find the studio, bathed in the same mild, yellow light as the Bendy cartoons themselves, unrecognizable. From there, well, that’s where the other half of the title comes in.
Bendy and the Ink Machine is a first-person horror game that sees the player exploring the damned studio, solving puzzles, finding clues, and avoiding dangerous horrors. While combat can and will be a factor, the bulk of the experience is exploratory, as the game prefers to focus on atmosphere and narrative over action. This is likely necessitated by the game’s scope and scale, which is largely masked with its surreal aesthetic. Unfortunately, it is often betrayed by signs of bursting seams, from glitches to frustrating design choices that serve to needlessly pad the experience out. None of these moments ruined the game for me overall, but they did stand out in their respective moments.
At its best moments, Bendy and the Ink Machine haunts the player with its dreadful music, and pulls them through the fear with intriguing bread crumbs towards either unraveling the mysteries of the scenario, or simply offering hope for Henry’s escape. This atmosphere is naturally punctuated by exciting cliffhangers between episodes that raise more questions, or moments that yank those hopes right out of grasp just before the finish line. These are the moments when Bendy stands out among its peers, and these are the moments that stuck with me after I was done. It also reveals a sense of heart and humanity at the end that I wasn’t expecting, which really puts a nice bow on top of the games themes and how they relate to their real life inspirations.
Obviously, I’m not going to dive into spoiler territory here, but if you’re someone who is into animation, particularly its history and all the not-so-shiny parts that go with that, there’s a lot to tackle here. Everything you’d expect to uncover as you explore the stages and find audio tapes makes an appearance: ownership disputes, disgruntled employees, abuse, theme park ambitions, failed merchandise, and more are all part of the story in both the background and the foreground. A lot of what you get out of Bendy comes from what you do with the information you find, and leaving so much up to player interpretation is important for getting that extra metatextual mileage you want from a horror work with its own, unique mythology.
The Devil’s in the Details
The pain points, however, are pretty glaring. Bendy is a sluggish game, one that obviously doesn’t want or need to be combative. But, it sometimes tries anyway, and these moments often involve the player strafing around monsters and hammering the attack button until the bad thing goes away. These moments are more frustrating than exciting, due to how simple fighting is, how weak Henry is, and how glitchy Bendy can get under duress. So many times I found myself frustrated because hits would constantly cease to register, making combat last longer than it should have, or resulting in cheap deaths against even weak enemies.
Aside from the wacky combat sections, Bendy also relies a lot on fetch quests, sending the player in search of either x number of trinkets or x number of switches. Sometimes these are fine and flow well or lead into thrilling cat and mouse scenarios with powerful enemies, but one section of the game in particular drags things down to a crawl as you must constantly go back and forth to bang on some baddies with a wrench until you get enough MacGuffins to move to the next objective. This part of the game feels like a brief identity crisis, where it also seems to struggle between wanting to be a cute, little horror game and trying to be BioShock. Bendy does manage to get over itself by the end however, and concludes in a way that continues to have its fanbase frantically swapping theories. That’s the good stuff.
As much as it tried my patience at times, I definitely enjoyed my time with Bendy and the Ink Machine. What seemed to start as a side project is on the way to becoming a full-blown franchise, and there’s enough narrative juice here to sustain it for sure. A little more time in the oven for whatever comes next will go a long way, and with the backing of Rooster Teeth Games, perhaps that’s exactly what will happen. There’s a lot more here than cartoon demons popping out at you from behind corners to make you scream on your Twitch stream, and it’s that ambition that makes Bendy a worthwhile game for horror junkies.
Bendy and the Ink Machine review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.