V and I were two of the original kickstarters of this game way back in 2016. Since then, it’s been on my mind from time to time. I really liked getting the updates from the developer, even as I actively avoided learning anything about the story.
To me, it was just fun to be involved in the process, though I was only a spectator.
Now that the game is finally out and I’ve had a chance to play it, I’m blown away with what Happy Ray Games has accomplished. I’d seen all the updates, but they did not prepare me for the end result. It was especially great because Ikenfell was released on console, which is my primary method for digesting games. This does mean that I essentially bought two copies of the game. It was worth it, not only to have it on console and computer, but also to support what I now perceive to be an up-and-coming developer.
A Tale of Two Sisters
The story of Ikenfell is simple enough.
You play as Maritte, a young girl who is Ordinary with a capital O, meaning she has no magic. She is searching for her sister, Safina, who was supposed to return home from Ikenfell School for Witches & Wizards for summer break, but has since gone missing.
On her way through the forest that surrounds the titular school of magic, Maritte suddenly awakens to a magic of her own: the ability to conjure and control fire. With her new ability she forges her way into Ikenfell, only to find that the magics in and around the school have gone completely haywire.
So, in order to survive her ordeal, find Safina, and solve the mystery surrounding Ikenfell, Maritte enlists the help of several of her sister’s friends (and enemies).
While the story is strong on its own, it is also held up with a strong cast of characters and a heap of humor.
My personal favorite aspect of the story is that it feels like you’re happening upon Hogwarts in the middle of one of their crises. You can tell that Safina was the Harry Potter of the group, causing untold problems for everyone else, but also being the one who mops up those problems. But what’s interesting is seeing those exploits from the different points of view offered in the game. This is especially true because you knew nothing about Safina from the outset, so all you have to go on is what other people tell you.
It certainly elevates the missing sister storyline by adding the question, “Who is my sister?”
As a straight white male, I have enjoyed the benefit of seeing thousands upon thousands of characters all aimed at representing me, or others like me. I could literally throw a rock from where I’m sitting and hit at least three gruff white protagonists from any given video game franchise.
Ikenfell is a breath of fresh air.
Chevy Ray Johnston went above and beyond in creating a game that is almost entirely inclusive. Not only are there characters from many different walks of life, but there are characters from different races, sexual orientations, and genders as well, often all at once.
Petronella, or Nel, the first character to join your team, is exclusively referred to with “they” when pronouns are used. Ima, an older student uses the Ze/Zir pronouns, and Gilda your energetic rival, is incredibly gay.
They are all magnificent.
What makes all the representation even better is that it isn’t even a talking point in the game. Everyone refers to Nel and Ima by the appropriate pronouns and no one questions it; it’s just normal.
This is heartening in a way I didn’t know I needed. Seeing these characters as the main characters in a video game helps me see the world differently. Knowing that somewhere out there someone could, for the first time, see themselves represented in a medium that is often woefully small-minded puts a genuine smile on my face.
I will admit that when talking about the characters, I often slip and say she when I meant zir or they, but I’ll keep trying, damn it.
I Shoot Magic Into the Darkness
Combat is another area where Ikenfell shines. It’s simple and easy to learn, but difficult to master. It’s essentially a turn-based combat system that incorporates a tactics style map. Though the map is small, at 12×3 squares–so it’s more like hallway tactics–it provides a streamlined version of it’s larger counterparts.
Basically, you and two party members start off on one end of the hallway, and enemies come from the other. You move toward each other until someone is in range to attack.
What makes Ikenfell unique in this regard is that positioning is everything… I mean, it always is with tactics games, but even more so with Ikenfell.
As an example, Maritte, the main character, has a myriad of moves that have different templates. Her Ignite can hit one target in a 2×2 square in front of her, her fireball can hit all enemies standing within its cross pattern, and her meteorite can hit enemies standing in a line, as long as that line is one space over on either side of her and approximately three spaces ahead of her.
The point is to have everyone vying for a position of strength. It keeps you engaged the whole time and constantly strategizing. Do you pull your team back for some healing, or push ahead and hope that the weird hedgehogs with umbrellas move into a formation that allows you to hit them with a flask of acid.
The absolute best part of combat is the timed element. Each and every attack, or ability, in the game comes with a QTE (quick time event), even if the attack is aimed at you. If you can get your button press right, you have the potential to increase your attack damage several fold, or reduce the amount of incoming damage. This adds an element of complexity to combat that other games in the genre often lack.
Now, if you just read that and thought, “I’ll pass, ’cause my timing sucks,” well, not to worry. If you look in the game’s settings, you will find an option to assist with timing, or ignore it altogether. I played on full manual (meaning I was totally at fault for any whiffing), but if you just want to enjoy the story, or the already immersive combat, without the distraction of missing every single shot, then this option is an amazing addition to the game.
Something that I originally found contentious about the combat, but eventually realized that I didn’t care about, was the lack of elemental opposition. Maritte is a fire mage, but she deals the same amount of damage to ice enemies and fire enemies. There is no earth-beats-wind mentality at work. It’s merely your attacks vs. their attacks, and whomever can position themselves better wins.
Again, this was weird at first, especially considering the first two bosses could be considered fire based, but the more I played the more I enjoyed not having to worry about opposing elements. Would it have made the game better? Maybe? But it’s just as good without, and I’m cool with it.
The music in Ikenfell is beautiful.
Most of it is in the style of traditional midi music from old school RPGs, but from the very moment the game starts you can feel that the music was lovingly crafted for this game. A large portion of the successful execution of the soundtrack goes to Aivi & Shurasshu, the musical duo responsible for the Steven Universe Soundtrack.
Each new track brings life to the game in subtle ways. It helps you feel pumped when you enter battle, but also allows you to sit back and take a breath as you walk the grounds of Ikenfell. It even manages to capture bittersweet moments–or even just the bitter ones–in ways that even AAA games often fail to capture.
One of the best musical moments is when you first find yourself facing off against Gilda. Her battle music is not only amazing, but it also breaks the midi formula halfway through and starts dropping some lyrics on you. It was both incredibly jarring and the absolute best thing that could have happened.
It was like I was suddenly playing Persona 5… so damn stylish.
Everything considered, Ikenfell is greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are amazing. The characters are dynamic (and inclusive), the story is funny and poignant, and the combat is smooth and fulfilling.
I can honestly say that it’s been a while since I played an old school RPG that wasn’t trying to play on my nostalgia. I mean, Ikenfell definitely did that, it did it constantly, but I’m also sure that it wasn’t really trying to. It was trying to be itself, which is actually what the game is about, so double kudos to Happy Ray Games.
I’m giving Ikenfell a magically explosive 8.5/10.