Spoiler Warning: Oh yes, there are spoilers for ‘Bendy and the Ink Machine’ here!… erm… be warned?
‘Bendy and the Ink Machine’ (BatIM?… does that work?) isn’t a game that was really on my radar. I guess I recognised the box art, but really couldn’t have told you anything about it, so it was an unexpected surprise when I was given it as a birthday present last week for Switch. Turning the box over in my hands a quick glance at the back suggested that it was totally my thing; 1930’s cartoon inspired, distinctive art style, slightly steampunk horror… sign me up! At that point I was also unaware that BatIM is actually the fever-dream product of TheMeatly, not that I’m a regular follower, but I’m certainly aware of their existence. After a few evenings of play I’ve now completed it and I’m left with mixed feelings about the experience.
BatIM is a first-person exploration/puzzle/horror game which drops the player into the shoes of former cartoon artist Henry Stein. The game opens with Henry entering his formed place of work, Joey Drew Studios, after being invited back there to ‘see something’ by his former boss; Joey Drew himself. As Henry walks the halls he stumbles upon a huge ink-machine, apparently installed by Joey after he left the company. For ‘some reason’ he decides to power it up and as the ink spews forth the ink demon, styled as a deformed version of the studio’s mascot character, Bendy, pursues Henry through the studio, he escapes and everyone goes on with their lives… nah, the floor falls away and he ends up roaming the ink stained underground halls of the former studio. From here the player encounters various inky enemies as well as benevolent characters lifted from the studio’s cartoons. The story unfolds through recordings (oh, hello Bioshock) and conversations to reveal that the scamp Joey had been dabbling in trying to bring the characters to life (in some kind of unsettling Disneyland scenario) using the ink and souls of his employees. Ultimately the player has to face the ink demon himself to end the nightmare… sort of…
Visually the game has a dank sepia-soaked appearance and the creepy cartoon style of the characters and posters that decorate the walls appeal to my own taste in things that have a warped-retro vibe. At various point the player encounters a flickery projection of one of the studio’s productions, or the scratchy playback of a distinctly ‘Merry Melodies’ inspired soundtrack that adds to the unsettling ambience by working the well worn juxtaposition of the seemingly innocent against the dark and foreboding. There’s also a strong sense of coherency (if that’s the right way to put it) in the world with distinctive characters represented in both their natural and also their grotesque forms; these include the grinning Bendy himself, Boris the Wolf, Alice Angel, and the lurking Butcher Boys. Arguably it is in this world creation where BatIM shines the brightest, and whilst playing I found myself getting pretty absorbed, bracing for the next jump scare or feeling my heart rate increase as I ran away from some dripping twisted entity down a corridor.
Structurally there’s nothing too unexpected happening; it’s advertised using the words puzzle and survival… but really it’s just a first person horror game. I guess ‘survival’ could refer to the sneaky-sneaky sections of gameplay were the player must avoid being seen by some of the terrible entities (Sidenote here: despite being frustrating, the ‘Projectionist’ enemy with projector for a head and streaming film draped down his back is some great enemy design) as they try and accomplish some ingame task. In reality those tasks could barely be called puzzles and generally boil down to flick-switch, pick-up item, or find thing. There is some backtracking within chapters, but overall it’s a pretty linear affair so anyone expecting vast exploration or puzzle gameplay is likely to be disappointed. Likewise, combat is a limited element being both melee only and sporadic as Henry seems to be unable to hold on to a weapon for more than a few minutes.
There’s really nothing wrong with ‘by the numbers’ gameplay, particularly as the themeing more than makes up for it in this case. Regular readers will know that I’m often willing to overlook gameplay shortfalls if I enjoy the plot or if the world that’s being created is detailed and rich…. and I kind of wish I could just finish things there… sadly there is one more gloopy, hulking, demon lurking here, and it’s the controls. I can of course only speak for the Switch port, but the control is horribly woolly. All the character movements feel ‘imprecise’, almost as though there’s a fractional time delay on everything. Running, a key part of escaping and some of the boss encounters, is painfully slow and only marginally faster than walking. Items that the player can pick-up or interact with glow slightly, which is great, but in order to interact with them the reticule needs to be centred on them perfectly. The confusing thing is that in many games the item that you are about to interact with will glow to show that it’s ‘selected’; I found myself often walking up to an item, notice that it was glowing and then keep mashing the ‘use’ button, unable to pick it up until I’d centred it perfectly. Swinging a weapon is just as cumbersome and has an awkward cooldown which makes getting mobbed by inky enemies a real danger. These issues all stack at a few key sequences in the game where the player needs to do a few things rapidly in succession.
The worst I encountered was one sequence where Henry is driving a paddle-wheel boat along an underground river being chased by an “INSERT CONSEQUENCE HERE”. In order to propel the raft the player needs to keep their finger on the action button to interact with a lever, however periodically the paddle wheel jams so they have to turn around …slowly… precisely hit three blobs of ink from the wheel, turn back … slowly… then use the lever again to move forward. Even a single mistake in this was often enough to send me back to the start of the sequence.
I don’t want to sound like I’m moaning because the game put pressure on me – I’ve no problem with a game making me work at a challenge. What I don’t like is that challenge just being down to poor control, and unfortunately it just felt like this was the case too often.
I guess the upside is that it is a short game… and I know that doesn’t feel like the best note to finish on, but hear me out. Being a brief experience does at least mean that I got to the end and managed to appreciate the story it was telling and the world that it had created. I got to enjoy (and I did enjoy it) those aspects of the game that appealed to me before the frustration of the control scheme made me give up. BatIM is genuinely creepy and tense in places but sadly the clumsy controls hold it back from actually getting a recommendation.
…or am I wrong? Has anyone played this on a different system? Is this all just Switch problem?