If you saw Ikenfell on a storefront and dug a bit deeper to see a description, a features list, and a few screenshots, you may have the same reaction I did: “Is this another indie, RPG, narrative-heavy game with a bright, pixelated style and a surprisingly heavy and deep thematic substance, and a cool twist on the tactical RPG experience?” Not quite! Ikenfell is certainly that description, but also it is a lot more surprising than that in many ways; for a game about a school of magic, it certainly delivers on the magic part, but not necessarily through any one of its core parts, but from the sum of all its parts. It has a fairly engaging combat system, simple yet satisfying loot and RPG mechanics, and a deep/emotional narrative experience, all capped off with flawless presentation; besides the audiovisual experience, nothing truly sticks out on its own, yet Ikenfell would have fitted right into my favorite 10 of 2020 list, had I played it last year. That’s because the way the game mixes and paces all of its aspects together is brilliant and, even though it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, feels fresh and impactful.
Ikenfell refers to the magic school of this universe – kind of like Hogwarts – and it starts with Maritte, an ordinary girl coming to look for her sister who didn’t show up for summer holiday. Ordinary is not a description of Maritte’s appearance or personality, it is how people without magic are referred to in this world, however Maritte will not be ordinary for that long; not only does she begin to have magical abilities, they are also unique and unheard of, and they also coincide with some ‘disturbing’ changes in Ikenfell. After a brief introduction to combat, which is for the entirety of the game all about using abilities and nailing the timing of their associated QTEs for attacking and finding the right timing and nailing it each time for defending, and some exposition, the player is given the basic blueprint for the rest of the game; you get to an area with a hub space for saving and shops, you explore and fight your way through some story and boss fights, until you figure out a way to move on to the next area. I don’t mind that repetition, especially since the game is pacing a lot of the variety surrounding its combat and RPG mechanics to always have something new until the very end; new characters joining the party, new enemies appearing, a new area to explore, a new building of the school to visit (which serve as dungeons, complete with puzzle mechanics, boss fights, and tons of secrets), new loot to compare, new items to get.
Besides the narrative reasons to keep going, I was surprised by how long the combat kept me going; by the end, and especially when finding and defeating two optional bosses, I was pretty done with the combat, but that is 20 hours of QTEs that I really enjoyed so I consider that a success. Timing is everything, but the systems do have enough depth to keep them going for as long as they did; positioning your characters is vital, prioritizing and strategizing according to the enemies and their placement, using items to heal or damage other enemies, these are all factors that need to be taken into account. The combat’s real success is the synergies it allows; this is a combat system where I chose characters based on how well I could nail their timing, but also on how well their abilities mixed together. For example, some combinations are defensive and can be used to shield a dedicated glass cannon, while other combinations (like the one I settled on) need to be very versatile and tactile to keep all members alive, due to how everyone is a damage dealer. Loot also helps tremendously here, and despite how simple it is, it also avoids a lot pitfalls that other games don’t; there are smart design decisions, like weapons being character specific and better versions upping the damage only and other stats being altered by armor and trinket slots, which allows each character to be updated power-wise easily enough or avoided and caught up to later on with a one-time purchase. Beyond that, stats can vary dramatically for each member of the party; some have more defensive move sets or more support, but I turned a support character into a damage dealer for a large part of the game, because I could nail the timing of her abilities more consistently and the game allowed me to do that. Alongside every member getting experience (so everyone was roughly the same level) and leveling up being simplified to getting better stats and sometimes new moves for reaching specific levels, Ikenfell created a surprisingly diverse and deep RPG and combat systems that I thoroughly enjoyed much more than I was expecting.
As far as the narrative goes, it is excellent for the most part. It has some cool twists to the genre – my favorite being the fact that everyone is gay or non-binary, which leads to some great character beats and sparks some moments of levity as well – and it does fill the 22 hours of game time I needed to complete it with some excellent and memorable characters, alongside some good storytelling. The characters, in particular, have some of the best arcs and writing. They all have a dark side to them that relates back to the story’s themes and overall plotline, but they are also funny and enjoyable to be part of the group. The story, without getting into spoilers, is a lot more interesting and bolder than I expected, not only in exploring themes of friendship, love, mental health, and trust, but also in how dark it can get and how playful it can be with certain tropes of the genre. In the end, it is a light-hearted and funny game above all and that’s fine, but I was a little disappointed by how in some of the most interesting choices it backtracks them and reverts to a more conventional beat.
Presenting all of these features is where Ikenfell truly shines. The audiovisual experience is fantastic and I have no complaints whatsoever; the pixel art is something that you’re either into or not, and I am into it and this is an excellent example of why. Music-wise the score is a banger with lots of cutesy tracks with electro-vibes and more classical tracks that fit well with what the game is going for. All in all, the game is practically as much as I could have asked for…but there is always room for improvement! Besides the aforementioned story and combat issues, I think the game’s biggest problem is missing a few QoL features that should have been mandatory for this type of game. It needed a training mode for getting used to new characters or be reminded of old ones (I rarely switched out characters if I was not made to by the story and when I did, I rarely reverted back), an easier way to change party members, and a consistent animation for nailing timing QTEs for defending (sometimes it’s when the attack touches your character, sometimes it’s a bit later or earlier). Other than that, just when the game had me a bit tired and fed up with the repeating patterns of its end bosses mechanics, it delivered a surprisingly impactful and well done epilogue that made me forget all the tiredness of previous encounters, and that is a really great way to sum up Ikenfell: I went in expecting to find another indie game with cute presentation and basic mechanics alongside a decent story, but on every feature and on every corner, the game as a whole turned out to be so much more than that.