Rubber hose animation and the style of early 20th-Century cartoons is something that has come back into fashion in the world of video games, with the likes of Epic Mickey and - more recently and famously - with the ultra-hard Cuphead. It's now time to take that animation style and apply it to the world of horror though, which is exactly what theMeatly Games Ltd. has done with Bendy and the Ink Machine, having released a complete edition after progressively releasing each chapter since February of last year.
This old cartoon style forms the central pillar of the experience, as you enter Joey Drew Studios as an ex-colleague of Drew's, having been invited back to check out something that he's said you need to see. Upon entering you realise that everything is empty and you're the only one wandering the halls... or are you?
The title of the game refers to the character that the studio is famous for - Bendy, their own version of Mickey Mouse. That's why you'll see drawings, cardboard cutouts, videos, and more of Bendy everywhere you look, his cheeky unerring grin hiding something a little sinister behind the facade. In fact, the eery quiet of the studio plunges you into an ominous atmosphere right from the beginning, and it's only when the cutouts start moving that you really get a sense of fear.
Throughout the first chapter scares are used sparingly but to great effect, and for the most part the horror consists of moving around, solving light puzzles, and finding out how to move deeper into the studio. After a while though the devs give you tools and change the way the game plays, as the slow and quiet pace makes way for far more noise as you come into direct contact with enemies, having to fight them off with weapons. These are carefully curated though, and the game gives and takes them away from you where appropriate, meaning it never becomes a full fighting experience.
The monsters you'll face are varied. There is one overarching enemy that you can't kill and will be forced to hide from when he shows up - much like in Alien: Isolation - but for the most part, you'll be hacking at monstrous grunts made of ink. They die relatively quickly and don't get frustrating as an obstacle, but considering they can pop up at any time with a loud noise (especially The Projectionist), they provide a real jolt of terror as you wander the halls. That said, landing hits on some of them proved a little frustrating at times, as it's hard to get a hit despite aiming right for them.
By showing its hand a bit more and pushing you into an active role with weapons the game does sacrifice some of its original scares, but never loses its atmosphere. Things get more and more disturbing as you step further into the inky mess the studio has descended into, and there are still jumpscares aplenty due to excellent sound design. The tension never overstays its welcome though; in fact, nothing does as you'll never be stuck in an area, on a puzzle, or fighting an enemy for too long. Frustration can be a killer for horror, but the ball is always rolling with Bendy.
Due to this continued movement, you may find the game finishes quite quickly (we saw the credits roll after three and a half hours), but the puzzles you encounter are varied and fresh. Some might see you trying to win at fairground games, while others need you to mould pipes out of ink, all while treading carefully around the menaces that await. It's all very simple without being boring, and it doesn't suffer from that chronic case of "walking slow means more horror, right guys?".