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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Halfway Through 2021, Sill No Other Game Than Ikenfell I’d Rather Be Recommending

On some level, it was probably overdetermined that I would like Ikenfell. The basic pitch, a turn-based RPG about students at a magic university solving mysteries, is extremely my jam. I dug the art style and snippets of music I got from trailers. And there were some good indications that I would vibe with the approach, seeing as the game’s creator, Chevy Ray Johnston, is close friends and ex-roommates with Greg Lobanov and Maddie Thorson, both of whom made games that I loved and already wrote about (specifically, Wandersong and Celeste).*

*In fact, I think that one of them mentioning Ikenfell somewhere might have been where I first heard about it, while researching things for one of those earlier articles? Either way, Wandersong includes small cameos of characters from both of the other games as well, and Johnston recently announced they were working with Extremely OK Games on the team’s next game, the recently-announced Earthblade (source).

But I didn’t just like it, it more than surpassed my high expectations. Happy Ray Games’ Ikenfell is probably my favorite game of the year, at the halfway point.*

*Yes, it technically came out at the end of last year, but time is fake and I can’t always play things right away.

So let’s go back and take it from the top. Ikenfell begins with a girl named Maritte, who’s lost in the woods as she searches for the titular magic school. Her older sister, Safina, is a star pupil of the institution who has totally vanished off the face of the earth while doing off-semester research there, and Maritte is determined to figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately, Maritte is not magical, and clashes with the school’s various magical defenses to keep out Ordinaries… until she suddenly shoots a fireball, ancient magic that none of the school’s guardians even recognize. With this, she is allowed to pass with the warning that something major is afoot, and Maritte is certain that her sister’s disappearance is connected.
 

And with that intro, we reach the main story of the game, with Maritte exploring Ikenfell and the world around it, learning more about her sister and the world she inhabits away from home, while steadily recruiting Safina’s friends and rivals in a quest to unravel the larger mysteries that are afoot. It’s a straightforward mystery pitch to understand, but Ikenfell pulls it off perfectly. The writers have a solid grasp of what they’re doing, and do a great job of doling out answers to the questions and building to new questions that give you a deeper understanding of the world, but also keep you pushing forward.

I’ll take this time to mention: the game has a suite of accessibility options that means anyone can play it, my favorite being the unique “instant win” choice, which instantly ends any battle just like it sounds.* I seriously considered using it at several points just to skip to the next major story bit, which tells me that even if you are the type of person who struggles with RPG battles, Ikenfell still has a lot to offer thanks to its story.

*I should note that the “instant win” option is the most extreme, but there are a variety of other options, too. And even if you are a veteran who doesn’t necessarily need the instant win… it’s actually really nice to have. It keeps the game from being too much of a grind, which feels like a minor revelation for the genre. I enjoyed the fights enough to not use it most of the time, but later in the game, when I began backtracking through old areas looking for secrets to complete sidequests and running into fights I had already beaten, it made things so much smoother to use it.
In giving players the option to just skip battles if they aren’t interesting, the developers worked hard to make sure their battle system was actually compelling enough to engage with on its own merits (we’ll come back to this later), plus this decision made sure they couldn’t rely on just throwing in a huge number of battles in to pad the runtime; enemies are placed with careful intent. It’s a 20-ish hour game that earns every minute of it but never drags.



Of course, a big part of the reason these developments are so interesting is that the characters driving the events are fun to be around. There’s a compelling set of group dynamics that you get to watch build as you recruit each member of the eventual-sextet and see them bounce off of each other. And each one is fairly complex; each bit I learned about them through story bites felt like learning more about a new friend’s past from hanging out with them. They’ve all been through a lot, and their stories intertwine in different ways that forms who they are, in ways that a newcomer like Maritte (or you, the player) just won’t know until she spends more time with them.

And it’s not just writing; the art direction here is wonderful. I love the cartoon look of the world, and the in-game character portraits and animations do a wonderful job of fleshing everyone out more. Part of the reason the history and motivation reveals work is that you have a good sense of who these characters are right away through their appearances and voices and actions, even the small quirks. And the main six students are the primary focus, but there are a half-dozen or so other persons of interest, and even the minor side characters have some fun life to them.

I can’t say enough good things about all Ikenfell’s characters, and yet, they might not even be the thing that the game does the best, as the titular sorcery school is downright magical as a setting (I refuse to apologize for this pun). When I mentioned earlier that the game is set in “Ikenfell and the world around that”, I meant that to an extremely literal degree; I’d conservatively say that 80% of the game takes place just on the school grounds, with the remaining 20% being places within easy walking distance of the school.*

*Granted, some of those other nearby places are brief excursions into magical pocket dimensions that intersect with the school, since this is still a whimsical fantasy game. But you still walk to those dimensions, so the point stands!

It’s easy, when given a digital blank canvas, to go wide, to spiral off into creating entire wide worlds to explore, and wind up with something a mile wide and an inch deep. Ikenfell goes the opposite, plumbing the depths of a single location, and while it’s hardly the only game to make this type of decision, it also executes it better than so many other games that try this method. Despite the seemingly-limited scope, there’s no loss of things to explore, or world building to uncover; some of it even points to a world beyond the campus walls, and the school’s place within it. But the game largely remains on this one narrow focus to better flesh it out.

But more than that, it feels like the designers have approached building Ikenfell like it’s a real place. Again, I’ve encountered a ton of good levels or worlds in video games, but Ikenfell is the closest one I can think of to providing me what feels like a real space that’s just been transcribed into digital form. With its narrow focus, the world of the school can be bigger, so you get a school that feels appropriately sized given your characters (still a little empty given constraints, but again: it’s a campus over summer break, of course the population is sparse. You still run into a reasonable number of other students and faculty).

There are no questions like “where do these students sleep, or eat, or live”, the gameplay takes you through the dorms and the dining hall and the quads. The buildings have history, both in the official “this was built here X years ago and this wing houses these classes” sense, but also in the less formal “students go on dates in this quad and vandalize that bathroom and avoid this wing of the library” sense. Again, it feels less like a conspicuously designed Video Game World, and more like a friend giving you a tour of where they went to school, and I love that vibe.

And some of it is a reflection of Ikenfell’s design philosophy. Other games might not keep, say, student art galleries, or bathrooms, or spare courtyards, because things that don’t immediately serve the game in some way are unnecessary. And it’s exactly why Ikenfell can include these things; they’re small, but the small stuff matters here. And that’s the sort of thinking that carries through to other things. Like the characters; they’re just a bunch of (magical) college students, struggling with self-doubts and anxieties about their place in the magical world and other seemingly mundane things, but those worries still matter, just like they do. And not to spoil the story, since this is still heavily a mystery tale, but to put it vaguely, that neglect for the small things in the face of big concerns is a major driving force in the central conflict at play.

But I’ll set that aside for now; you can find out those twists and fall in love with the characters yourself. I will note, again, that the art direction and sprites and music and everything else also contribute heavily to the vibe that makes Ikenfell feel like such a standout location. The game is as beautiful in its spritework of places as it is for characters, and the school’s look is a big part of why Ikenfell feels like a place. Different areas are distinct and pleasant to look at in their own ways, but overall cohesive. And it all looks very much like that ideal mental image you might build up of a college after you see their meticulously-staged brochure photos. You can see why the characters feel strongly about this place they’ve called home.

And the music really completes the image. The soundtrack, by Aivi and Surasshu, is filled with the requisite bangers for battle music (example), as is to be expected from turn-based RPGs (especially the few times they surprise you and break out vocals). But the overworld music is generally the perfect complement to the scenes as well. The general theme for the quads is just extremely comforting, the perfect music for just... existing outside in a familiar green space on a sunny day. But from there, the game goes to so many otherworldly places, and the music manages to convey so much subtlety in the different kind of weirdnesses you face, from the quirky but ultimately welcoming halls of the alchemy lab, to the ancient mysteries of the deep forest, to the dark and ominous depths of the library archives.*

*Special shout-out to the bathrooms, which get their own theme that’s brief yet hauntingly ethereal, and consequently now lives in my brain. I wish I could explain why this one is perfect, but I just can’t.

(I will also take this time to note that I worked really hard to make this article's title a reference to one of the lyrics from the vocal tracks, but once I finally managed it, I realized that said reference would be totally lost to anyone who hadn't played the game already. But I worked hard to make it fit, so it stays.)

That level of meticulous care in design carries through as levels as well. RPG overworlds have a little more wiggle room on how they work, since the main thing is usually just being able to navigate them, but Ikenfell succeeds at that; areas are recognizable but connect with and flow into each other in a good number of ways. The individual rooms have a solid quantity of puzzles to keep you on your toes and entertain you in between battles and story scenes. And there are also several secrets to find, all of which are pretty cleverly hidden but still should be findable for careful, attentive players.

But when it comes to JRPGs, the battles are usually the area with more experimentation in game design, and once again, Happy Ray Games knocks this one out of the park in this regard. The game uses a sort of hybrid style with strategy games, allowing you to move three party members around a gridded field to launch spells at enemies. I for some reason assumed that another game had tried something like this, since there are several JRPG subgenres that I’m less versed in and it seems like a natural connection for someone to have made in the past, but apparently not; this was just a really clever innovation on Ikenfell’s part!

Each of your spells usually has a trade off between damage and area covered or potential targets, and it requires you to develop good spatial strategies so that you can maximize your potential targets while not getting out of range of your teammates’ buffs or lining your characters up too neatly for opponents’ big attacks. For a game that has such a strong sense of space already in its world design, carrying this focus through to the battle system is a nice touch! And getting a working knowledge of the patterns that your spells can hit does feel at least a little like learning ancient runes to cast, another nice bit of design synchronization.

Meanwhile, the six-person party is the optimal size for mixing and matching into your three-person battle team. Each one of them has areas of specialization that lend themselves to certain fights, but there are generally also some overlaps. So you can approach fights at least a little according to your preferred play style even with just those three slots to work with, but also without any potential trio being outright “wrong” for an occasion if you play your cards right. It’s solid design all around, generally, plus it ties into their character approach well; if you think a character should be in a battle for story reasons, there’s generally a way to make it work (and like, you don’t have to do this, but again, usually I liked the story and characters enough to play along that way for at least the first two-thirds of the game or so).

So yeah, maybe my initial interest in Ikenfell was partly due to it overlapping with my interests so heavily, but there was just so much here to enjoy that I had no problem going all-in, savoring every moment and digging into every secret and sidequest to spend more time with it. I’ve played a number of games this year, and even other ones I’ve liked haven’t hit me that hard; I’m still humming the songs and thinking about the characters still, weeks later. If literally anything about this review piqued your interest at all, I can’t recommend it enough; there really isn’t a reason to check it out, in that case.

2 comments:

  1. Love the review, and currently enjoying playing this (still very early)! Regarding the battle system, wanted to note that kind of SRPG-inspired system has been done before (in Rhapsody a Musical Adventure and Popolocrois for two examples that come to mind). But Ikenfell's is still really original in that it combines the strategy grid with both a Final Fantasy X style turn system and Mario RPG style timing prompts, which is kind of insane and brilliant.

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    1. Ah, I figured there had to be something, but searching for that type of info can be difficult. I'll have to look into those later!

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