Developer: Happy Ray Games
We're almost a month into 2021, so here I am still trying to catch up on the big 2020 games I missed! Ikenfell was one of those games I caught wind of towards the end of last year, so I didn't get around to picking it up until just a few weeks ago. I'd already heard good things about it on Twitter, but I was absolutely convinced to get it when I learned that Ikenfell's soundtrack was done by aivi & surasshu, the duo who also worked on the Steven Universe soundtrack. It'd been a little while since I've been able to dive into a little longer game for a review, and Ikenfell kept me busy for some time. Ikenfell is a fantasy turn-based tactical RPG about a young woman looking for her sister, set in wizarding school where magic is on the fritz. Ikenfell has an incredibly heartwarming story, a loveable cast of characters, and a mostly successful turn-based strategic battles that keep you on your toes.
You start the game as Maritte, a young woman traveling through the forest to a magical school named Ikenfell. She's worried because her witch sister Safina, who studies at Ikenfell, never came home and she hasn't heard anything from her. Maritte doesn't have magical powers like Safina does, and for that she's called an "Ordinary" (which I took to be this world's equivalent of being called a "muggle"). On her way there, some strange looking (ghost?) guards stop her and tell her to leave, at which time Maritte suddenly gains magical powers for the first time. Now able to magically control fire, she continues her journey, her party growing when she encounters some of Safina's schoolmates who want to help find her. They tell Maritte that unusual things have been happening at the school lately and no one has seen Safina in quite a while. Instead of finding answers, Maritte only finds more questions as she investigates more into what's happening at Ikenfell. However, she also finds strange crystals that, when touched, play out a memory of something that happened there before. Through these memories, she sees in pieces what Safina was up to right before she disappeared, and what kind of trouble she got herself - and possible the whole school - into.
I can attest that this is true. I both can fit into small places and get damn tipsy on one drink.
Ikenfell is a turn-based RPG, it's also a tactical RPG. You not only have turn-based attacks, but also tile movements across a board. I've mentioned before I don't play turn-based RPGs all that much, but this was more similar to my experience playing Wintermoor Tactics Club rather than other turn-based RPGs. On top of that, the strength of your attacks and of your defense depends on precise timing. Each move has its own specific timing in which fractions of a second make the difference between "Great", "Nice", and "Poor". This seemed to me even from the beginning to be pretty challenging, but I told myself, "if it gets too tough I can always turn this off in the settings", which is actually an option you have at any point in the game. However, it was satisfying to hit moves just right and I ended up leaving it the way it was. I do wish that the game allowed for you to "practice" the timing of certain moves outside of a real battle - often times you get a new move that has a confusing animation and it's not clear when you're supposed to smash the button. I wasted a lot of turns doing no damage with certain new moves and took some serious damage when I faced new enemy moves, so I would've gladly taken the time to learn to use those moves properly if I had a way to. Although you can only have 3 players battle at a time, by the end you've got 6 total characters in your party. Through the later half of the game I mostly used the same 3 characters, occasionally rotating 1, as I was more confident in their move sets and power. It would've been cool occasionally face situations where I needed to switch characters around due to advantages in battle, though.
The characters and relationships in Ikenfell are among my favorite things about the game. Every character, including those in the party and those not, was really unique in their personality, had their own powers, interests, and strengths. Many (most?) of the main characters are also queer - some are nonbinary as well. Ikenfell did an excellent job of introducing characters alongside their gender and pronouns in a way that was well woven into the story. One little thing I thought could have improved this game's connection its characters would have been including the party members' pronouns in their profile. You can see their name, stats, and moves all on the party page - why not include the pronouns in there as well? There was a point where I forgot Rook's pronouns since it'd been a good bit since anyone referred to him, so I would've liked to have had a quick reference. It's hard to say who's my favorite character. I think I'd have to say Ima, but then again, Gilda really grew on me towards the end too. The strong relationships and conflicts that develop during Ikenfell feel authentic to how a gang of teenagers would act, even in a we-need-to-save-the-world situation. There's romance, fights, broken friendships, new friendships, and everything in between.
Ikenfell's pixel art style is excellent. Every environment and "dungeon" area is very different than the last, and the adorable sprites do a great job of expressing character emotion and personality. The character art used during dialogue is especially good, even for side characters who get little exposition. As I said before, the soundtrack was a big reason I was attracted to this game, and it did not disappoint. Actually, sometimes the music was so good that it distracted me during a battle. When I fought Gilda and "It's Showtime" played, I was so in awe of the explosive lyrical piece that I missed all my first moves. I'm an absolute sucker for good vocal tracks in games and was so pleased to discover there were multiple ones in Ikenfell. Ima's theme "Paint the Future" is absolutely amazing as well, especially in its lyrics. Both the art style and the music in Ikenfell are carry an air of retro and nostalgia, but with an incredibly fresh, fun, inspiring twist. The chiptune sound that aivi & surasshu's are known for fits perfectly into Ikenfell's style.
It's a shame I didn't get around to playing Ikenfell a month ago because it would've likely made my list of top 2020 games. Seeing the score this game was given on Metacritic, I'm a little confused as to why critics didn't love it as much as many players did, and I do think it deserved better. It made me happy to find the subreddit for this game full of excited fans and their fan works, though. I highly recommend Ikenfell to both RPG-lovers and more casual players looking for a fun, fresh story and lovely characters. RPG's aren't typically my genre either, but there's settings you can adjust to make the game work for you. It's a compelling story of friendship with a magical world - a newer, more relatable, more queer and diverse version of the "wizarding world" we may know from a popular book series.
Ikenfell is available on PC, Switch, Xbox One, and PS4.
Played on: Switch
Playtime: 25 hrs
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR IKENFELL BELOW THIS LINE
Please don’t read this if you haven’t played Ikenfell, unless you truly intend to never play it! It's been a long long time since I added a spoiler section, but I wanted to give my thoughts about Ikenfell's ending to anyone who's already played the game.
Despite how cool the build-up was, I thought Ikenfell's ending was a little bit disappointing. The entire game focused on finding Safina and teased you with being able to see Safina's chain of events slowly play out, while never meeting her. I thought the crucial final moment of the game would be finally having Safina not only tell her side of the story, but make amends for those she hurt. Yes, we got to see her and Maritte have a good talk about why Safina had never told her friends about having a sister, and how much that hurt Maritte. It was good to see this play out, but we didn't get to see anything about what conversations she had with Perty, Nel, Rook, or even Aeldra. It wasn't as satisfying a conclusion to her storyline as I'd expected. Safina turned out to be less important to the plot than they made her out to be, despite her weighty effect on all of the characters. I wanted to see some sort of resolution between Aeldra and Safina, preferably with a big apology from Aeldra.
Fighting Ibn as the final boss also felt out of place. I have mixed feelings about it because I did really like Ibn and Bax and their ending was really beautiful, it just didn't feel like that should've been the big conclusion to the whole quest. They weren't really primary characters for most of the game, so I didn't really feel invested enough. It seemed like the reason was to add another big fight after Aeldra, who I expected would for sure be the final boss.
All in all, I was pretty happy with the epilogue and getting to see the characters one last time. Again, I would've liked to have seen a little more of Safina but I do really like that the bond the party characters made is what really stuck in the end and how they stayed close despite their separate paths.