Thursday, March 7, 2019

Bendy and the Ink Machine (PS4)

Back in early 2017, Chapter 1 of Bendy and the Ink Machine was released and became quite a sleeper hit due in part to exposure from YouTube. A large following built up and eagerly awaited each new installment, with the inevitable merch and a tie-in mobile game to follow. The game’s creator, theMeatly, would also get involved with the fanbase and feature fan art and fan songs within the game as future Chapters were released. Once the game finished development and release in late 2018, a console port followed, which was the version I bought and later played for this review. While it was satisfying to actually experience it for myself, I ran into a number of annoyances which hindered my overall enjoyment, including two specific bugs that severely hindered my progress.

Henry is asked by his friend Joey Drew to visit their old workplace, an abandoned animation studio. While there, Henry discovers the mysterious ink machine, which seems to power the studio, and turns it on. Doing so, however, summons an ink demon that resembles the studio’s mascot, Bendy, setting up the horror that is to come.

The site of all of Henry's troubles to come.

While the premise of evil cartoon characters isn’t necessarily original, Bendy and the Ink Machine is still intriguing with the added wrinkle of the implication of a cult-like atmosphere around the ink machine and, more specifically, treating Bendy like some kind of god. In a similar vein to BioShock, the player can find cassette tapes scattered throughout the animation studio, with various employees giving posthumous accounts of the hellish conditions of working for a greedy and unforgiving boss. Later, the game also implies some connection between the dead employees and some of the horrors faced by Henry, a concept with exciting possibilities.

Unfortunately, the execution of these ideas is rather lackluster. The game periodically introduces new mysteries to keep players interested throughout the original episodic release schedule, but when playing through all five Chapters in a row, it feels as though the developers had no idea where to go with all of their ideas. This is made worse by the actual ending, which felt like a total copout that avoids a lot of the necessary follow-through required to answer a number of lingering mysteries. Instead, the game warps the ending around the ability to use a specific unlockable item and then raises additional questions that might be addressed in a potential sequel, if at all.

I’ll admit here that during the original episodic release, I had watched the YouTubers Markiplier and Jacksepticeye play through the game, since both of them had their own insights into the game (the latter even received a “Jacksepticeye Edition” of Chapter 5 so he could record it before a convention). Through the two of them, I became familiar with the story and already knew what to expect during my playthrough. However, as new Chapters were released, previous Chapters were updated at the same time in order to bring them in line with later ones. The PS4 release included all of the most recent updates to the game, so I appreciated that my experience was a bit different, but due to my familiarity with the story, I was still mainly left with the actual gameplay. At that point, I discovered that playing through all of the Chapters in a row only served to highlight just how flawed that aspect is.

I had previously watched Markiplier and Jackspeticeye play through
Bendy and the Ink Machine, so I already knew the story.

For one thing, the gameplay style isn’t consistent between Chapters. Chapter 1 is more atmospheric, with no chance to die as the game builds up toward the initial encounter with Bendy. Beyond this point, I would describe the gameplay of the following chapters as tedious. The combat, puzzles, stealth and quests are all tedious in their own unique way.

Starting from Chapter 2, the player can wield a handful of items, mostly an axe or a pipe, as weapons against ink blobs called Searchers, though an axe can also be used to break certain objects in the environment. When attacking with a melee weapon, it’s often not only difficult to judge the distance from an enemy, but you also need to be fairly precise, which creates a greater risk of taking damage even when you think you’re at a safe enough distance. There is only one ranged weapon, a Tommy Gun, but it’s exclusive to Chapter 3 and requires jumping through a couple hoops to get it. While combat sections are spaced out fairly decently, there’s one section during Chapter 5 which features a seemingly nonstop wave of enemies, a move which only serves to highlight how clunky the controls are.

The axe is a powerful weapon, but combat is very shallow and clunky.

Quests are present from Chapter 1, but Chapter 3 puts a greater emphasis on them, which results in very repetitive tasks that get grating when combined with the amount of backtracking you have to do. To explain, you’re given the quests from a single quest giver, but every single time you complete one, you have to go back to them to receive the next one and so on, a loop the player has to go through five times before actually completing the Chapter. This same Chapter also introduces a stealth mechanic where you can avoid enemies, including a roaming Bendy, by hiding in a Little Miracles station until they leave. Bendy’s appearances are usually telegraphed, which helps with learning when to hide, but the stations aren’t always placed in the best locations and actually become nearly useless in later Chapters, as they are scattered about for almost no reason, unless this was intended for flavor or as an attempt to keep players on edge.

The puzzles throughout the Chapters aren’t the worst, but do get more noticeably tedious the longer the game goes on. During a quest in Chapter 3, for instance, the player needs to retrieve three Valve Cores by opening three panels, which each require the player to turn three valves on the panels until the ink inside three tubes is level with a marking. While this doesn’t sound bad, the amount of turning required for one valve, let alone three, is monotonous and time-consuming, seemingly designed solely to buy time for Bendy to show up and potentially attack the player. Chapter 4 also features three carnival games the player has to beat in order to unlock a series of doors, but the games, while varied, all have their own quirks, most notably one where you have to knock over milk bottles. When actually throwing a ball, the power of that throw is determined in such an unintuitive fashion that it feels inconsistent until you figure it out.

The carnival games are a bit clunky.

This leads me to a more general complaint about interacting with objects. Doing so requires the aiming reticle to be more or less perfectly centered on the object, which doesn’t seem so bad at first, but feels like an especially poor design choice during a boss fight at the end of Chapter 4. Here, the player has to run around a small arena to pick up ink and turn it into objects to deal damage to the boss. However, the precision required to interact with objects makes the fight more difficult than it should, since you’ll very likely need to run and interact with the environment at the same time.

On a related note, the game often restricts you from picking up certain objects, even when you know exactly where they are, until you trigger an event that requires you to pick them up. A particularly egregious example is when you can pick up a door valve to advance outside of a hallway, but you still have to get near the door to gain the ability to pick up the valve wheel, even though you’re perfectly capable of finding the wheel beforehand.

Dying in Bendy and the Ink Machine doesn’t really have much of a penalty, since Henry will respawn at a nearby Bendy statue. In fact, dying can actually be beneficial at times since progress towards killing an enemy is, usually, carried over between respawns (ex. if an enemy takes five hits to kill and you already hit them twice, it will only take three more hits in the next encounter) and items, such as ink blobs, aren’t dropped. This can make a maze puzzle in Chapter 5 much easier to complete, as grabbing an ink blob and then forcing an enemy to kill you will actually teleport you out of the maze with the ink blob and away from any danger. These sorts of exploits, in turn, can make the game a bit easy at times, perhaps easier than the developers intended.

Henry will respawn in front of a Bendy statue upon death.

This brings me to a rather specific glitch I encountered which made my playthrough more annoying, perhaps infuriating, than it should’ve been. When respawning, Henry has to walk through an inky tunnel and touch the light at the end, after which he will appear directly facing a Bendy statue. During the end boss of Chapter 4, after dying multiple times, which in this case meant starting the boss again from the beginning, I walked through the tunnel and the game simply refused to respawn Henry. Since this popped up in tandem with another, more sinister, glitch, I ended up just skipping to Chapter 5 in order to avoid further annoyance (in the completed game, you can play the Chapters in any order).

Henry must travel through this to respawn, but I somehow got stuck at the end of it.

The other glitch that I specified involves the save system. To save your progress, you, rather fittingly, approach a time clock and punch in. When loading a save game, you would normally resume from whatever time clock you activated last. During Chapter 3, however, I punched in during a segment where a character was meant to follow me out of an elevator to the main quest giver. When I loaded my save, not only was that character not following me, but the elevator has reverted back to its original position. I called the elevator and the character showed up, but never moved, preventing me from advancing the game.

To try and get around this glitch, I started Chapter 3 again from the beginning and completed it, then punched in at the first time clock I could find in Chapter 4. When I resumed later, my save still placed me at the glitched time clock in Chapter 3, a state that carried over even after I beat Chapter 5. This also prevented me from entering the unlocked Archive chapter or exploring previous Chapters with an unlocked item. The only way around this glitch is to start the game over from scratch, since skipping Chapters also prevents the game from saving. If you want to view the Archive and use a special item, you have to play through the game in one sitting and exercise caution when saving.

If you do unlock the Archive chapter, however, you’ll be able to explore a scare-free environment that acts as a sort of museum housing different character models. You also get to see designs from previous versions of Chapters and read developer commentary on their design choices. It’s an interesting experience, especially for those who enjoy taking a look behind the scenes.

A notable element of the game is, of course, the visual style. Bendy and the Ink Machine does a remarkable job in its attempt to capture the feeling of a 30s cartoon and mostly succeeds. The sepia-toned visuals and heavy application of blacks, along with the rubber hose animation style applied to the character designs, is a sight to behold, though perhaps not quite a visual delight on par with, say, Cuphead. Even with two colors the environments are designed well enough that you can tell everything apart from one another, but after seeing the same sights for about two to three hours, it borders on the edge of sameness and doesn’t quite escape it. I must give props, however, to Joey Drew Studios for actually going through the effort to animate a handful of Bendy shorts to promote the game, as it shows a lot of dedication in exploring the game’s universe.

I will mention, however, one minor annoyance related to the game’s menus. While all of the menus are optimized to work on console, I did notice an oversight when the game asks if you want to quit your session. This screen in particular is still given a layout more suitable to a keyboard and mouse, with no alterations made to incorporate the console’s action buttons (in this case X and O). While “X” and “O” do what you’d expect them to, this decision still stood out to me and I felt it was worth mentioning.

Also, on a somewhat lesser note, I did notice an inconsistent frame rate, but it wasn't a persistent issue. To be more specific, the frame rate was very stable throughout the game, except for one particular room in Chapter 4 where it suddenly spiked. My guess is that at that moment the game wasn't rendering as much, but the jump only occurred once and was jarring enough to be noted here.

Why is this menu in particular the odd one out?

Then there’s the sound design. A lot of it is very fitting for what’s going on, though I couldn’t help misinterpreting a couple sounds as bodily function noises. In addition, destroying a cardboard cutout of Bendy produces a deep inky noise that seemed both fitting and not. Henry’s death sound also doesn’t carry much weight, even though you can hear choking noises. Outside of that, I was impressed by the voice acting, since even with only a handful of people, including a guest appearance of Jacksepticeye, they managed to make everyone sound distinct from one another.

I’m glad that I finally played Bendy and the Ink Machine, but I did find myself let down. For every good concept, there’s a lackluster execution that doesn’t go as far as it could. Likely due to the episodic model, the core gameplay is all over the place, like the developers couldn’t decide what kind of game it was. At that point, the game has major pluses for its aesthetic, which could’ve used more variety, and atmosphere, which it builds wonderfully in general. I hope that Kindly Beast has learned from their experiences on this game and that their next Bendy project is more refined. Until then, you should decide for yourself if this ride is worth the price of admission.

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