Ever aware of a spot of nostalgia-tickling, playing Ikenfell constantly took me back to playing the Mario & Luigi RPG games. Ikenfell is it’s own game and its differences outweigh its similarities by far, but there are several elements that I found reminiscent of those Nintendo classics. In this 8-bit style tactical RPG, you play as a girl recruiting friends to go and adventure around a school of magic in the hope of finding your sister who has mysteriously disappeared.
The first comparison to those plumber RPGs comes in with the turn-based battle system. Battles take place on a small grid where up to three characters can traverse the board, but you’re able to avoid taking some incoming damage through some timed button presses.
Of course, there’s the possibility of you getting the timing wrong, and you sometimes have animations pop up to aid with your timing or might have to rely on sound cues. There was the odd moment where I felt cheated out of a button press but, for the most part, the timings were accurate. That said, there were also times where the patterns were too convoluted and just too much to even begin figuring out where the button press was. As you can imagine, that leads to a grumpy gamer.
In general, Ikenfell is a very user friendly game to dive into. The controls are easy to learn through the tutorial and the gameplay gets more interesting with the introduction of additional characters. Then it stops evolving. After getting used to to having three characters, the game settles into its groove and battles start to become a chore of moving chess pieces around a particularly long, thin board. You’ll find yourself starting to avoid combat, but when the story doesn’t progress particularly fast, you can start to run out of reasons to play this game. That leads me however to one of its best features.
It’s weird to say, but one of the best features of the game is the ability to skip battles, letting you focus instead on the story. You can also disable the timed button mechanic, and if you’re a fan of tactical RPGs that might be your preferred way to play. It deals with smaller numbers in its health, damage and things of that nature, which is great for numerically challenged like myself and doesn’t trail off in thousands of points of damage instantly. This is definitely a game made to be understood quickly and much like its story’s themes, invites people of all gaming abilities to play.
Personally, this freedom was great to have. As the game progressed I found myself questioning the battle system a lot and drifting off into thought while mindlessly getting through fights. Grinding is one thing, but the enjoyment you will have in this game really depends on what you want to get out of Ikenfell. Story? Battles? Artistic value? Maybe a combination of these elements?
The music is a winner no matter which of those you choose. A combination of acoustic instruments and 8-bit chiptune sounds, it sounds incredible and really suits the vibe of the game, but it doesn’t make for particularly exciting battle themes. Subjective opinions on music aside, the overall presentation of the game is stellar and perfectly suits the atmosphere of this grandiose adventure taking place on a small scale.
Happy Ray Games have absolutely nailed the visual style they were going for. Although mostly taking place in a Hogwarts-like school, the landscapes somehow manage to vary and seem different enough without going overboard. The characters are chibi-like and cute in the overworld, but gain a more distinct look to them when you transition into a battle. One slight bugbear is that the chibi characters don’t have faces, which instead are shown when text is on screen. It’s very hard to add personality onto small sprites without faces, and just leaves them feeling oddly blank.
Still, it’s the story that will be the tipping point for many people. The main character, Maritte, has come to the world of Ikenfell to look for her witch of a sister – no seriously, she is a witch. The game feels very progressive and Steven Universe-esque, which isn’t a complaint in the slightest, but won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s also cutesy as hell, and some of the monster types are very interesting but always have a bit of cuddliness to them for the most part.
The main cast of characters has to be commended for its inclusivity and stepping away from the norm, but while inclusive, it’s not really that diverse. It’s an atypical lineup with no cis-gendered males to play as, but of six playable characters four are white girls, and the remaining girl and non-binary person are both black. While a bit restrained, it’s still a great cast and feels progressive.
I personally found it hard to engage with these characters and what was happening in the story. Most parts were fetch quests in order to find clues to the missing sister’s whereabouts which isn’t a problem, but when there isn’t much fun to be had on the way, things can get a bit too serious and sometimes dull in places.
It’s difficult to express emotion and tell a story through an 8-bit, top down, retro game without voice acting. You’re constantly reading text from barely moving chunky sprites, and that can become tiresome. This is why games like the Mario & Luigi RPGs rely heavily on slapstick humour and over the top silliness to keep a smile on the players face and keep them interested. There’s a deep story that the developers want to tell in Ikenfell, but it could do with a bit more levity and fun along the way.