Paper Mario meets Harry Potter
Platform: Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, macOS
Genre: Indie, RPG
Developer: Happy Ray Games
Publisher: Humble Bundle, Humble Games
Release date: 08-Oct-2020
Sometimes you need a breath of fresh air, and sometimes you need a gust of nostalgia. This quirky little indie game intends to give you both.
The graphics are old-school. There is no arguing that the gameplay graphics look like they have jumped almost directly from the screen of your childhood Game Boy, most specifically from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Thankfully the character portraits included for those talking are much more expressive than the overworld map, and keep the soul of the storyline alive.
Because it is the story and character development of this game that is this odd little find’s selling point.
Ikenfell starts in a pretty basic way.
The lead character Maritte is an Ordinary (think Muggle) whose sister Safina is a witch. Safina attends Ikenfell, a school for magic, but never came home for her Summer holidays. Maritte takes it upon herself to travel to Ikenfell to make sure her sister is alright, but unexpectedly develops unusual powers as she approaches Ikenfell. This does sort of undermine a later message that Ordinaries are as important as magic-users… but that wouldn’t make the game nearly as fun to play.
But Maritte’s newfound magical powers are not the only strange thing going on at Ikenfell. The main gates are locked tight, the students have been told not to leave their rooms, and the school overall just seems to have gone to hell in a handbasket. So… exactly as you’d expect a magical school to be.
Maritte gathers a new group of friends, most of whom were friends of Safina’s, and uncovers a lot more than she expected in her quest for her sister.
The plot has more than a few surprising twists that I didn’t expect, despite the script being a bit overly-emotional at times the characters themselves are extremely distinct from one another and well-fleshed out. Overall it was an innovative tale that I hadn’t experienced before, and did not take too many liberties from the world of Harry Potter except for the existence of a magical school. Which is usually all I want from a game.
Kind of turn-based, Kind of not
Let me start by saying that Ikenfell is advertised as a turn-based RPG. I think that definition does the battle system of this game a disservice, and possibly advertises the game to a far smaller cohort of potential buyers than would otherwise consider buying it.
Just because a game is not a hack-and-slash or first person shooter does not automatically make the end result a classic turn based RPG. It is close to one, but not quite.
As you can see from the GIF above, you do select your chosen spell from a selection screen similar to a classic turn-based game. These spells have very specific area patterns they follow, and these patterns change based on the character’s position on the field. Where the character above is positioned, the spell ‘Glass Shards’ can only hit an enemy standing in one of the highlighted diagonal squares. With 80 spells to choose from between all the characters near the end game, that is a lot of area patterns to choose from.
The second thing you might notice is the exclamation bubble above the enemy’s head on impact. This is the part of the game that I believe removes it from the label of ‘turn-based RPG’, and most likely draws on the Paper Mario games before it for inspiration.
The player has to time the impact of spells for greater damage with a button press. The result can leave you with an ‘Oops’ for a poorly timed attack, a ‘Nice’ for an average, and a ‘Great’ for the best attack you could have performed. This same timing is required for defending against enemy attacks. So none of the typical relaxing between turns for the player here, if you don’t pay attention during an opponents’ turn you are a few ‘Oops’ away from death.
Considering I was personally looking for a game that I could play with the TV on in the background, this was not quite the battle system that I was aiming for. But it was good. Despite some battles running a bit long, the novelty of the timing-based battle system kept me engaged.
Am I Stupid or do the Graphics Just not Lend Themselves to Puzzles?
Parts of this game do eventually come across as formulaic.
Every time you come across a hint regarding the location of Safina, or need to find someone that might know something, you need to get into a new building of the school. This involves getting through the main door, often blocked or barricaded, and figuring out how to get through a series of puzzles until you reach your goal.
Most of these puzzles are enjoyably challenging, similar to the one above. This example shows a series of slippery ice floors reminiscent of the Mahogany Gym in Pokemon Gold and Silver. They get more complicated than the GIF here within this building, complete with staggered levers and warp panels.
In other puzzles you are expected to see one tiny colour-based anomaly that honestly sometimes just looks like a stylistic choice with these retro graphics. Occasionally it takes a while to even figure out that there IS a puzzle. I spent way too long searching for a way to move past one room, convinced I was just missing a staircase, when there was one tiny white book in a bookcase that I needed to pull to open a secret passageway.
These puzzles that required a better eye for retro graphics were thankfully in the minority, and more relied on the critical thinking variety.
Steven Universe Composers
I have said it before and I will say it again, there is not a musical bone in my body. There is very little that can make me take notice of a game's 'background noise'.
But when I entered a battle where there was suddenly a rap, audible vocals and all, it clashed so unusually with the retro style graphics that I had to look into it.
For those who are fans of Steven Universe of Cartoon Network, rejoice. Aivi and Surasshu, known best as the composers for Steven Universe, were responsible for the music in Ikenfell. They gave an interesting interview on CBR if anyone wants to give it a read, where they describe musical choices far better than I can.
But for the average musically talentless player like me, these songs were amusing and often enlightening about the character you are up against. Even if it does occasionally get repetitive.
Other Interesting Features
There are a lot of cool features dotted around this game that break it that little bit further away from the cookie-cutter retro RPG stereotypes.
The first is a simple one that only adds flavour more so than acting as a game-changing mechanic. Witches like cats. So there are lots of cats in Ikenfell. You can interact with these cats and when you pet them you ‘relax’ and regain your HP, MP, and are allowed to save the game.
The next mechanic is one that I particularly enjoy the existence of, but have never seen before in a game. Ikenfell deals with a huge number of surprising issues including, but not limited to, LGBTQ+ relationships, deception, forgiveness, and certain traumatic character struggles that I feel would spoil the game so won't call out here. In short, mental health is a recurring theme throughout this game. This topic is not new to the gaming world, there have been a few games (mostly indie) that have broached this topic. But this is the first time that I have seen a game take the actual IRL player's mental health into account too.
Out of respect for people who may have gone through tough times and may not want to see their experience mirrored in game format, Ikenfell has an inbuilt trigger warning feature. This isn't automatically enabled, but can be toggled on from the main settings menu. It will pop up before entering a possibly triggering cutscene and allow the player to skip it if they wish. Let me say now, Ikenfell does not go for the gross-out or shock factor. These trigger warnings are not due to gore, or even visuals, but pure consideration for mental health of players.
It was refreshing to find in any game, even if you're a player that never needs to use it.
This game was a bit of throwback fun, with enough new bells and whistles to keep it from feeling like a nostalgia grab.
The story was fresh, and the characters are ones I personally haven't seen rehashed time and again which is a huge plus in the world of RPGs. I also enjoyed that there was the extra bit of concern for the player, whether it was needed or not, through the optional trigger warnings.
While the battle system is fun, at times even mini boss battles dragged on a bit too long to stay engaging. A lot of the puzzles were great, but some were nonsensical enough to make me begin walking into walls and clicking on everything until something happened which became irritating after a while.
Play this game if:
You can get past the retro style graphics
You want to try something quirky that will probably never quite make it mainstream
You want to play something with fully fledged out characters and story
You can look past a few minor gameplay flaws to appreciate a game
All images and GIFs are available on the Ikenfell press kit available here.
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