Bendy and the Ink Machine
By Jack Allistar
Bendy and the Ink Machine is Five Nights at Freddy’s reborn, play Cuphead instead.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to get away with leaving it at that. And I dragged my feet on this one. I made the excuse that I would wait for Cuphead’s release to show how 1930s cartoons are emulated, but really it was just to pad the time between having to play another chapter of this mess. But I can’t wait any longer, I’ve beaten the Devil at his own game, so let’s rifle through his feces.
In the first chapter of five in this horror survival game, you play as a former animator with a far too contemporary speech pattern who is returning to the studio to see Sammy, your old colleague. Quickly, you learn that he isn’t meeting you like he claimed he would. You play Look-&-Find: Obvious Satan Worshipper edition and fall through the floor. Too bad it isn’t high enough to kill you, because there’s a second one.
Before we move on to the ever-so-enchanting gameplay, let me get the comparison out of the way quickly: Chinese does this infinitely better, and it’s not even a horror game. The presentation of Bender’s Inky Metal Asscheeks is all wrong. It obviously pulls from the conceit that it can be the next low-effort niche horror game, and it sadly has the fanbase to back it up as a masterpiece and clog my notifications with mentions of it in the last week leading up to Cuphead’s release. And before I continue remaining it on the hot, stiff rod that is my boner for good games, let me make one thing clear to these people: Disney didn’t start shit. Fleischer Studios is responsible for the classic black and white cartoon aesthetic. Ever heard of Betty Boop, Bimbo, Felix the Cat? Okay, that last one isnt Fleischer, but it ain’t Disney, either. Fleischer Studios was founded in 1921, two full years before Walt Disney Studios started up, and Disney wasn’t even seen as a solid competitor until the 1930s. Now I know it’s hard for these people to imagine a world where Moana/Elsa gifsets aren’t the most important thing, but forget about Disney. This ain’t that.
I’ll give the dunce his due, however, in that the conceit of classic cartoon characters being a horror centerpiece is actually a genuinely decent idea. Almost original, even. The ink makes a suitable substitute for blood, the most overused substance in horror since old Alfie Hitchcock squeezed screams out of chocolate syrup. The haze, dust motes, and the overall sepia tone of the old wooden studio really does have a good atmosphere. Stills of the game scenery don’t look half bad.
And then the game puts you in control and you see the shitty cel shading.
Okay, there’s still some positive. The first few moments as you walk through the studio are very nicely set up. The projector is still on, still playing “Bendy the Little Devil” cartoons, the studio’s flagship IP. The music plays on in perpetuity, and stands featuring the little imp are everywhere, as are the constant puddles and drops of, you guessed it, ink.
And Bendy isn’t a bad design, they actually made him very reminiscent of very early cartoon characters. The all-black body and simple smile are very good touches, even if the pie eyes are a little too clean in that “I used the oval tool in Adobe” way.
So the trappings are fine. But they don’t stick to any of the aesthetic that would make a horror game about vintage cartoons not only interesting, but unique to the horror genre.
They fuck it up so bad.
Before cartoons went to color, and even for a short period afterward, we got to see some shit. Smoking, drinking, crimes and violence, perversion, showgirls, vice, the undead singing about how doomed you are, and so on. The American approach to horror has often made the protagonists at some crossroads of some moral dilemma. In fact, Japan made a whole series about it and America loves it. Silent Hill isn’t always a stellar series, but it has more than enough hits in the franchise to be revered by horror gamers. And you don’t have to make Silent Hill, you just have to try a little harder than “oh, Bendy is a demon, so your friend Sammy drew pentagons out of ink and went insane”. When I got to the finale of chapter one, I swear I yawned. You have all the thematic trappings of human deprivation in a dying art medium, and you reach for the easiest horror trope to write after “was bullied and fond of hockey”.
The game is just sloppy to play as it is. The search for various items to power the eponymous ink machine have clumsy clickboxes, and when you eventually have to swing a weapon, it’s not so much counterintuitive as it feels like the game is improvising on the spot how to even hold a weapon, let alone use it. The monsters can be tricked into a corner until they get stuck, and did I mention they’re ugly as fuck? Basic, and not even using something that could vaguely pass for the cartoon characters they already designed well enough in 3D. I’m not always against CGI, I understand how it can be practical, especially for games, but I really think a more judicial use of hand drawn assets in motion would make this game a more creative and unsettling experience.
And that’s what word I like to use these days: creative. Originality is hard to find, and every person producing content out there is influenced by piles of other media, whether they’re conscious of it or not. And when I put this game versus Cuphead, it’s true; neither are original. Both derive a lot of their concept from a very long standing medium, but one is clearly more creative with the idea, and that’s Cuphead. It took the “gambling with the Devil” storyline and married it to the classic 80s arcade shooter as well as the lascivious, provocative days of the cartoons it literally mimics, in a meticulous animation process many deemed impossible for a game half its scale. And the game I was supposed to be talking about has models that look as much like their character portrait as the original Resident Evil did. And I would rather giggle at Jill Sandwich and other adventures in 90s voice acting than sit through the chapters of Bendy that I would have to pay for. And you know I would certainly replay my new favorite game in all its porcelain pulchritude.
Did I make my point clear enough yet? Forget Bendy, go buy Cuphead. Jesus Christ, it’s not even that hard.