Conjure thoughts of the animation’s early years in the 20th century – the black and white era of the 1920s and ’30s that gave us everything from Steamboat Mickey to Felix the Cat – and it’s unlikely you’ll feel particularly unsettled as a result. Enchanted perhaps, maybe even a little nonplussed, but scared? It’s simply a connection very few of us would ever make. And yet, here comes theMeatly Games with a survival horror experience set within a twisted and corrupted animation studio that takes a childhood form of entertainment and makes it nightmarish.
Originally released on PC as an episodic series, Bendy and the Ink Machine places you in the shoes of one Henry Stein, a retired animator who received an unusual letter from his old employer. It’s been 30 years since you last spoke to Joey Drew - back when the studio was at the top of its influence, producing a string of popular shows including the titular Bendy - but as Henry soon learns upon his return, it’s now fallen into considerable disrepair. Where are all the animators? Why is there is ink seeping through the walls and what on earth is the Ink Machine, anyway?
Over its five chapters, the answers to these questions are slowly revealed as you push further into the studio’s labyrinthine depths. As with most horror games of recent years, Bendy And The Ink Machine flits between environmental puzzles, exploration and evasion. There’s a small amount of combat, but mostly you’re tentatively searching new corners of the studio and running for your life as you encounter the products of Joey Drew’s mad attempts to revive his fortunes. It’s unsettling in a similar fashion to Layers of Fear: Legacy but with a greater emphasis on jump scares.
From the way wooden cutouts of Bendy will suddenly slide into view around a corner, or how doors will eerily open themselves to reveal the scares within, Bendy And The Ink Machine is constantly trying to keep your adrenaline pumping, especially in the middle and later chapters. It’s an experience that’s always at odds with the visual style, which gives everything its own lived-in cartoon feel that perfectly captures the charm and whimsy of black and white animation. The fact that many of its enemies draw on this era means you’re consistently unsettled by this corruption of something seemingly innocent and safe.
There’s a real BioShock vibe to the entire game, from the revelations that are made about Henry’s past to the retro aesthetic that clings to every corner of the game’s dilapidated setting. You’ll battle monsters made of ink one moment, then be faced with ones you can’t possibly face – including the titular Bendy – the next. In these sequences, you’ll be employing that overly familiar need to run and hide in order to reach the next area in one piece. However, it’s these well-known elements that start to chip away at the game’s own unique personality.
The fact Bendy And The Ink Machine is trying to cover so many horror bases makes it a real hodge-podge of great and poor design decisions. Jump scares come thick and fast, but they’re used so often that even the scarediest of cats is going to grow accustomed to the telegraphed setup each time. Enemy AI is also frustratingly dumb, with some of the inky horrors you encounter effectively watching you hide behind a door, only to walk off, seemingly nonplussed as to your location. It’s a game that wants to be part BioShock, part Outlast: Bundle of Terror and part Resident Evil, but beyond capturing a consistent sense of dread throughout, it never comes close to those aforementioned classics.
Performance on Nintendo Switch can be very patchy at times, too. The framerate is meant to sit around 30fps, but we encountered consistent chugging, especially when outrunning foes or in puzzle rooms with a few too many moving parts. The issue doesn’t break the game, but it can take you out of the moment when playing something that requires you to be utterly invested in its unsettling experience. If you’ve already played Bendy And The Ink Machine elsewhere, this technical problem will probably be a bigger issue than if you’re picking this up for the first time on Switch. There’s also a little more blurring and rough textures in this version of the game as well, but its cartoon-ish aesthetic helps negate this somewhat.
We'll also address the elephant in the room while we're here; Bendy And The Ink Machine's '20s and '30s aesthetic draws obvious comparisons with another recent game that uses this art style, Cuphead. While it's easy to claim that the developers have 'copied' this approach, Bendy has enough of its own visual personality to stand on its own two legs – and this is such a vibrant and engaging period of animation that we don't mind more than one game using it for inspiration.
Bendy and the Ink Machine has plenty going for it as a new horror instalment on Nintendo Switch – such as the way it builds a growing sense of dread and despair throughout its five chapters while using an animation style that’s meant to evoke the safety and joy of childhood memories – but it’s let down by some irritating design decisions and frustrating performance issues. Still, if you really do love your horror and want something that ticks all the boxes of a modern scarefest, Bendy and the Ink Machine is still a worthy descent into madness.