Padded quest design, Bad Combat and bland presentation. Nothing shines in Ikenfell
On paper, Ikenfell sounds amazing. It’s a 16-bit RPG with gameplay inspired by the Paper Mario series and a setting reminiscent of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books. I wanted to find something to like in this game, but there are numerous elements to the game that didn’t work for me. The story is a wild goose chase. The gameplay is punishingly difficult. The presentation is bland. There are some really odd-ball soundtracks that I found unfitting, grating and annoying. And the queer moments are too forceful and off-putting.
The game centers around Ikenfell. Ikenfell is a school for young and gifted witches. Due to unusual circumstances, the entire campus has gone under lockdown. You play as Maritte, a girl looking for her sister Safina, who is a student at Ikenfell. Unlike her sister, Maritte doesn’t attend Ikenfell because she is an “ordinary”, someone who can’t use magic. Maritte makes camp one night and suddenly discovers she can cast fire. You learn soon after that no one in Ikenfell has ever had the power to cast fire and suddenly it seems that magic itself has gone haywire.
The opening premise loses its momentum once Maritte reaches Ikenfell. The majority of the game becomes a wild goose chase to find Safina. As an early game example, Maritte and her new friend Petronella discover that Safina’s dorm room is locked with a magic spell. Petronella suggests to find Rook who is an avid researcher. Rook says he needs to go to the Library to do more research on the magic lock. Unfortunately the door to the Library is haunted by a wall spirit and has locked the door shut. So now Maritte and friends have to go to the Alchemy Lab to find something that will scare away the wall spirit. Once you enter the Library, they discover they have to do yet another thing to unlock the door to Safina’s room. I abhor this kind of quest design because it artificially pads the game length. I don’t see how it is any fun to find keys to unlock chests that contain keys to unlock doors where there is another locked chest. While this kind of padding is common in other RPGs, I found Ikenfell’s padding especially insulting and egregious.
Unfortunately the fun doesn’t get any better as the gameplay combat is problematic. There are no random encounters. You fight enemies by bumping into them, but there is no way to gain or lose initiative. The combat takes place on a 12x3 grid with your characters to the right and your enemies to the left. Each turn, you or the enemy can move and use an attack. Attacks have specific ranges so positioning is key. All attacks can be timed to deal extra damage or to lessen damage from enemy attacks. And lastly there is no mana in the game so spells can be cast as often as possible with some that have mandatory cooldowns. On paper, the combat doesn’t sound that bad and strongly reminiscent of the game South Park: Fractured But Whole. In reality, the combat in Ikenfell is a mess.
The biggest problem with Ikenfell’s combat is the timing system. You can completely whiff the timing, get a Nice timing or get a Great timing. Mistime an attack and it barely does any damage. Mistime an enemy attack and it takes off almost a third of a character’s health. Even if you can consistently complete Nice timings, it is barely enough to survive most boss battles. The timing system does not communicate itself in a consistent manner. Every spell has a different timing window and every enemy has a unique attack. Don’t let this kiddy, cartoony RPG fool you, this game is TOUGH even for RPG veterans. Fortunately, if you dig in the options, you can completely bypass the timing system by always granting Nice timings (Semi-Auto) or Great timings (Auto). I felt using the Semi-Auto option was what the game should have set as default, while using the Auto option completely trivializes the timing system.
Looking past the timing system, the combat is incredibly sluggish often taking minutes to complete each battle. The first turn is often wasted because your characters are too far away to land any attacks. Enemies have ridiculous speeds and often land multiple attacks before you get a chance to even control a character. And this game LOVES to have bosses with multiple forms that can summon minions. Maybe it’s a sign that something is too difficult with the game’s combat when there is a setting in the options to bypass them entirely.
There are some glimmers of brilliance in the combat system. Some characters have the ability to lay traps and summon dummies. I was able to smartly place traps to cause an enemy to lose their turn and use dummies to act as projectiles with Maritte’s fire punch ability. I also had a late-game character who can teleport and equipped her with an accessory that can damage nearby enemies to create a kamikaze-like archetype. Unfortunately for every goodwill that the game earns, there are also situations that extinguish that goodwill. Large enemies, especially bosses in the foreground can obscure what’s happening in the background (mind you this is not a deliberate gameplay mechanic) making it difficult to land timings and easy to accidentally walk into traps. There was also this one boss that I trapped into a corner, making it easy to lay spells on it. Rather than rewarding me with a brilliant tactical move, the game instead grants the boss an unlimited amount of turns to attack my characters that were pinning it, until one character was KO’ed.
It is hard to appreciate any element in this game when I found the story meandering and the combat punishing. It also didn’t help that Ikenfell is fairly plain in its presentation. There’s nothing offensively wrong with its’ 16-bit graphics, but there is also nothing stylistically unique or eye-catching either. The music on the other hand, ranges from okayish JRPG sounding music to completely oddball soundtracks that don’t fit the game at all. There is this one particular rap song that plays from out of nowhere with references to Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Ross. The presentation altogether feels disjointed and plain, especially when compared to hit indie games like Undertale and Stardew Valley.
One thing that I can somewhat appreciate about Ikenfell, is the incredibly diverse roster. Most of the party members and characters you meet are women (I mean you are going to a school for witches). There are also several dark skinned, gay and trans characters. Outside of Final Fantasy X-2, I have never played an RPG with such a strong women roster. It is honestly refreshing to play an RPG that doesn’t immediately relegate women to their typical roles of healer or archer. Unfortunately the game is not subtle at all with the diverse cast. There is a female character that is heavily implied to be attracted to other women, but the game has the need to have her blurt out “I’m so gay!” if it wasn’t obvious enough. There is a trans character who is asked if he is into men. Instead of simply saying “no”, he has to explain that he is “non-binary”. And minor spoiler alert, the ending sequences heavily imply that most of our characters form same-sex couples. My problem with the game is that it tries too hard to normalize queer relationships to the point where I found it incredibly repulsive.
It’s hard for me to trash an indie game that was developed with a lot of heart and care. I simply couldn’t look past the wild goose chase quest design and the excruciatingly difficult and sluggish combat. My rating for the game isn’t a depiction of the game’s overall quality. This game ran bug-free, told a charmingly queer story and is fairly beatable after adjusting the options. There are simply other good games I’ve played and enjoyed my time with and unfortunately Ikenfell is not one of them.