"Existential nightmares come true"
We've been here before, but in a way we haven't. Certainly not like this, anyway...
First-person horror games offer up a lot of the same song and dance. You enter an abandoned place, take note of the things that just aren't right, read some of the messages scrawled on the wall, then run like hell from whatever haunts the premises. Jump scares and cliches abound, and you either come out of the affair bored or thrilled, depending on how the game in question utilized its familiar devices. Bendy and the Ink Machine is no different, really. And yet, it kind of is different...
The usual dusty rooms and hallways take a vacation this time, giving way to sepia-tinted surroundings and Depression Era trappings. Rather than creeping through a haunted house, you're exploring a recently vacated animation studio that produced some old-timey cartoons not unlike Disney's "Steamboat Willie" and other Mickey Mouse classics. Stylistically, the premises lie somewhere between realistic and cartoony. You venture through grimy and dank corridors that bespeak of nightmarish material, but it's all looks hand drawn with a tinge of merriment. Imagine seeing the original Porky Pig standing before you, jolly as always save for a suspiciously crooked smile on his face, as if he's planning something insidious. You get that impression all throughout this adventure.
The usual junk happens all over the place, executed with slight differences. Ominous writing appears on the walls, telling you "dreams come true." Though it sounds like a heart-warming sentiment, you somehow know there's malice in those words. Now and then, ghostly things occur around you, as cardboard cutouts of the studio's mascot, Bendy, begin moving around. They sometimes peek around corners at you or mysteriously reconstitute when you could've sworn you chopped them to bits. Although he looks like a cute little guy, you know he's not going to be so adorable when you finally meet him...
You venture through the first areas, collecting event items and listening to tapes. Voice actors go all in on selling you the 1930s atmosphere, speaking with proper jargon and relevant vocal tones and inflections. With each new recording, you begin to piece together what happened here: this is your old workplace, and something awful happened to your former coworkers. You can feel the leanings of existential terror creeping up, as if death itself is not the worst thing that can befall you here. Some sort of occult ritual must've happened, and it's tied to the disappearance of the studio's staff and the peculiar ink you see everywhere: bleeding out of walls, pooling on the floors, spraying out of pipes...
Giving life to monstrous things that stalk the grounds...
It isn't long before faceless ink people attack you, coming at you like hunched-over zombies abiding no more than the instinctive drive to kill. But those guys are nothing compared to the others: a trio of malicious cartoon villains (the Butcher Gang), a humanoid creature with a projector for a head, and the star of the show--the Ink Demon. This guy crops up out of nowhere, giving you advanced warning as he arrives. An aura consisting of ink splotches follows him, lining the walls and floors with dark patches that resemble liver spots. If you linger in the corruption for too long, Bendy himself will emerge in full, horrific glory and tear you apart. Don't try to merely outrun him, because he's the fastest thing in this studio. Your only hope lies in getting to a safe place or avoiding him all together.
The trouble is you never know when he's going to pop up, and sometimes the things you need to do attract his attention. You can't run as you explore the campus because, as one character claims, he can hear every creak in every floorboard. You also have to avoid combat as much as possible because he might notice the commotion. Hell, sometimes you don't even need to draw attention to yourself. You simply round a corner and that splotchy aura will there, coming toward you. There isn't much you can do except finish your tasks and hope you're quiet about it, or make a lot of noise and be sure there's a hiding place nearby...
Thankfully, you can slip into a booth at any time to "de-aggro" a foe. Sadly, these convenient hiding places render most of your opponents toothless (the only exception being Bendy, who lingers outside the booth for ages to wear down your patience), and the standard mechanics only help further demean their scare factor. For instance, there's one scene where you have to sneak through some convoluted halls and nab some event items while avoiding the Butcher Gang. It's pretty tough to avoid getting spotted, but really, it doesn't matter if you do anyway. You can easily run past the dudes, maybe sustaining a hit or two that automatically heals over time. From there, you can run to one of the previously discussed booths and de-aggro the Butchers, even if they see you enter the booth. They instantly lose heart and go back to patrolling the area.
I'd love to say that the campaign provides ample distraction from your weak enemies, but that's not always true. Sure, you do run into some tense and creative segments, like one where you sail a small boat down a river of ink while a giant Bendy arm stalks you like a sea serpent. Blobs of ink occasionally clog your rudder, and you have to knock them loose quickly, lest the monstrous limb sink your rig. Another section has you listening to tapes so you can figure out how to get into a locked recording studio. You pick up several clues along the way, all while fighting off ink people who rise from the copious puddles found around the vicinity.
However, other segments off little more than busywork. The third chapter especially tosses mindless tasks your way, sending you off to collect vials of ink or special gears that are difficult to locate. Of course, these scenes remain somewhat lively thanks to Bendy's random appearances, but that doesn't entirely mask the notion that you're embarking on contrived fetch quests that have little bearing on the plot or campaign.
It's strange for me to be so conflicted with this game, because it presents us with a different kind of haunted location story that includes a terrific narrative and frightening implications. This piece's subtlety is more terrifying than its more prominently featured visceral scares that involve running away from creepy character models, given grislier strength by the game's copious tapes that offer up a lot of history and great subplots. However, the tissue that connects these plot beats is only sometimes enthralling, but mostly comes across as filler. Just the same, the game maintains strong enough pacing even through the padding that it still stands as an above average horror offering. More than any of that, though, it gives us a wonderful, stylish world to play in that shows us the fine line between "cute" and "horrifying," more effectively so than titles like Five Nights at Freddy's. Truly, the game suffers many of the same flaws as other horror titles, but at very least turns some of its well-worn elements on their heads enough to entertain.
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (October 31, 2020)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
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