A lot has happened since I first reviewed Bendy and the Ink Machine here on What’cha Reading. The game was re-released on Steam, with Chapter One being free. At the end of April, Chapter Two was released for $5.99; then at the end of September, Chapter Three followed for the same. At this rate we’re looking at having the full five chapter game for about $24, which I’m pretty excited for… even if Chapter Three let me down.
Hello everyone and welcome back to Boter Reviews Something, where I come to grips with the fact that even the best things can have a bad time. Today: the peculiarities of episodic game release as it relates to Bendy and the Ink Machine: Chapter Three.
SPOILER WARNING: This review discusses some of the puzzles needed to get through the three chapters released at the time of publishing.
Let’s rewind a bit and recap our way through the game. In Chapter One: Moving Pictures, you’re Henry, an old colleague of Joey Drew, who runs an animation studio whose mascot is the little demon character Bendy. He invites you back to the studio and it’s… spooky. With a heavy dose of atmosphere, you wend your way through the small studio in a masterfully constrained level. The Steam edition adds some more ways to go, and I think that more get added with every chapter update as well. The new places don’t have a use (yet?) aside from places to hide the six items you must collect to turn on the Ink Machine. It spooked me when I opened a door that was previously stuck shut; I had played Chapter One numerous times by this point, and anything that broke off of that was a jump in and of itself.
After turning on the Ink Machine, a humanoid golem of ink with the face of Bendy rises and tries to smash through boards to get to you; in a panic, you rush back to the studio entrance (other ways conveniently walled off by cascading ink) faster than Wally Franks can say, “I’m outta here.” Falling through the floorboards, you enter Chapter Two, again in a well-constrained level consisting of the music department of the studio. The stairwell to get out of the music department is filled with ink, and you need to activate an ink pump to drain it. This level’s puzzles are just as satisfying as the first; find some buttons in one small area, then a great puzzle in the recording studio that I’d really rather not spoil.
Chapter Two: The Old Song also introduces actual enemies. While One was pure atmosphere, Two introduces an actual element of danger, just sprinkled in a bit to keep things going, as some of the blobs of ink rise from the floor and attack you. Fortunately, the axe that you pick up at the beginning of the level can somehow fend them off, so it’s more just a shock when one appears, but the atmosphere of a lone man exploring the depravity that the animation studio has undergone remains intact.
At the end of Chapter Two, you run into someone. And something happens. (Trying to keep this light on spoilers, folks, Chapters One and Two are a half hour each and well worth the time so get at it.) So you run, you run and don’t dare look back and finally you shut a door and you’re safe. Then a can rolls out… “Is someone there?”
And Boris walks out.
Boris the Wolf, you you’ve already seen dissected (or worse, perhaps vivisected, hard to tell) on a slab in Chapter One (with graphics updated since the original release, guy’s wearing overalls now). You wake up in Chapter Three: Rise and Fall in his safe house, make him some soup, and leave… and he comes with you.
Boris never talks; I wondered for a while if he was simply a figment of Henry’s imagination rather than an actual entity in the world, as might fit the idea of a lone man losing his mind in a madhouse. Nonetheless, he does help you out; he cowers when there’s danger and a couple of puzzles require his assistance. The first part of the chapter still sort of works – there’s a toy factory, you need to solve some small puzzles to get it going in such a way that lets you progress, and so on… and then you meet the second antagonist of the game, Alice Angel.
She’s meant to be creepy, and sure, she is. But the biggest horror she inflicts is to the gameplay mechanics, when she sends you on fetch quests.
Now, collecting items has been a part of Bendy and the Ink Machine since the original Game Jolt release, wherein you need to find the six items scattered around the studio to turn the Ink Machine on. But this is different. After going down multiple levels of a warehouse in a cargo lift, she sends you back to different levels with a new objective each time. “Here’s a syringe, collect five Extra Thick Ink blobs.” “Here’s a pipe wrench, get me five gears.” “Here’s an axe, destroy all fifteen Bendy standees on this level… oh yeah, he doesn’t like it when I do that! Teehee~” It’s long and it’s frustrating and it totally ground the game to a halt. This chapter took me longer than the previous two combined to finish and halfway through I was just done with it. Towards the end there’s a return to something spooky and atmospheric as you wander a maze with the Projectionist. Apparently he’s someone who worked at the studio, his head has now been replaced by a film projector with a searching beam of light, and if he sees you… well, the one time he did, I managed to hide in one of the many little stalls scattered around the place, but it was still tense, and the sort of gameplay I was looking for.
I’m not a fan of fetch quests, especially four of them in a row. And this section of the game overloads you with enemies – more ink blobs and The Butcher Gang, three characters from one Bendy short who are tanky as heck and ready to wallop you. So, I died… and came back to life at the giant Bendy statues, not set back any in my progress of collection.
There’s no way to feel tension when you keep your progress; you can almost die on purpose just to get through things, and in fact one time I did die by accident and ended up in a better position than I’d been in previously. That is, well, bad. No tension, no suspense, just frustration that I’d died again by getting ambushed by ink blobs and just coming away from it knowing that there would be one right there like some sort of level memorization bullet hell scrolling game.
Finally, the chapter doesn’t even feel like an animation studio anymore. The toy factory… fine, it’s a stretch that a small studio would manufacture its own toys on premises but sure let’s roll with it. But after that it’s downhill. Five non-sequentially numbered/lettered floors in a warehouse. A cargo lift. This doesn’t feel like a small animation studio anymore and it contributes to what feels like a sloppy attempt to draw out the gameplay. I was more than happy with the time-to-completion of the first two chapters and this one feels… insecure about it. Why else send you on five separate fetch quests, only one of which has a proper unique gameplay cycle?
Bendy and the Ink Machine is released game, in episodes. It makes it easy to break it down into, “Chapters One and Two were great, Chapter Three sucked.” It means that when I come back to it, I’ll play through Chapter Three… eh, one more time, perhaps, when Chapter Four releases, because if you don’t die at all then you get something to help you a bit against the Butcher Gang. (It’s telling that I’m using press shots for images here instead of getting my own screenshots. Also it’s been busy this holiday season!) But when Chapter Five comes out, I’ll probably just start the game at Four. This is something unique to episodic releases – if the game came out all at once, it might besmirch the entire game if the middle part is awful, but here I can try to partition it in my mind to keep it from ruining the rest.
Chapter Three is titled Rise and Fall and I think it perfectly encapsulates the experience of Bendy and the Ink Machine for me, from a great start on Game Jolt, some fantastic quality of life changes coming to Steam and a beautiful second chapter, then a dizzying descent into mediocrity with Chapter Three. (Literally, considering how the chapter ends.) I hope that Chapter Four can rise back up again and return to the masterpiece of puzzles, story and atmosphere that I fell in love with the first time around.
It continues the story and there’s some good stuff, but it gets far too bogged down by an insecure attempt to draw out the play time. Still, just as this gets a one out of three, this is only one episode out of three, and the others are still well worth playing.
Bendy and the Ink Machine
Episodic release (Episode Three reviewed)
Platform: PC (tested), Mac, Linux; Steam
Price: Free (Chapter One; subsequent chapters $5.99)
Developer: TheMeatly Games
Publisher: Game Jolt / Steam
Release Date: February 2017 (Episode Three released September 2017)
Bendy will return… when all five episodes are released and I give the full game a final score!