Ikenfell’s Combat Gets Better With Age

The first time I heard of Ikenfell was from a YouTube personality I follow on Twitter. He had just finished the game and was recommending it to his followers. In his tweet describing the game, he explained that it felt like a blend of Earthbound, Paper Mario, and Mega Man Battle Network. To say that my ears (er, eyes) perked up would be an understatement. I’ve never played Earthbound but have positive views of other games inspired by it. Paper Mario and Mega Man Battle Network were some of my favorite RPGs growing up. I couldn’t imagine how those mechanics might work together but I was excited about the prospect, so I added Ikenfell to my list of games to be on the lookout for.

It would be quite some time before I finally got my hands on Ikenfell, but once I did I was eager to jump in and to see how the game captured so much of what I’ve enjoyed in RPGs past. So how does the combat work? When you enter battle, your party of one to three heroes stands on the right side of a grid battlefield while your enemies (generally a group of two to five) stand on the left. The grid is three squares tall and twelve wide, and with a base movement of three for player characters it doesn’t feel like a large space. A turn timeline in the upper right corner shows which units will act in what order. On a unit’s turn, they can move to a square within range and take an action. Taking an action ends the turn, even if you haven’t moved. When attacking or defending against an enemy attack, the player uses a timed A-button press to boost their own damage or reduce the enemy’s, respectively. Once all the enemies on the grid are defeated, you win the battle and gain some experience points, money, and maybe an item or two. It’s a system that I personally would describe as a turn-based RPG with mild tactical elements, like if Paper Mario took some very limited cues from Into the Breach.

The game’s tutorial immediately had me worried. While battles are short and quick due to their small scale, it felt like there were a lot of them. Mechanically there wasn’t a lot going on in terms of options. Your two starting moves are a strong attack against one enemy or a weaker attack against multiple enemies adjacent to a single point, both pretty easy to time in terms of the needed button press. Enemy types were few, their attacks weren’t dangerous or varied, and because the battlefield never seemed to have any obstacles to maneuver around or points of interest to protect they were blending together quickly. Even when I got my first new character things weren’t looking promising; their attacks had new timings but were otherwise the same kinds of options that the protagonist brought to the fray: the choice between a single target attack or a multi-target attack.

At this point an hour or more in, I was worried that Ikenfell’s combat was going to be too simple for my personal preferences. In reality, the game was simply taking its time during the onboarding process, and once Ikenfell feels confident that you get the basic concepts, it begins to ramp up the complexity in meaningful ways. The first thing I noticed was how much more important action commands are in this game versus something like Paper Mario. I haven’t done proper calculations but I can say that there’s roughly a 4x difference between the worst timing input versus the best in terms of your offense or defense. In other words, flubbing an attack timing is the difference between dealing 8 damage or dealing 2 damage, and flubbing a defense timing is the difference between taking 4 damage or taking 1 damage. There’s a middle point too on that scale for a so-so timing but the point here is that the game is pretty punishing if you don’t learn your attack timings. And while they start simple to get you familiar with the concept, the timings do get more complicated as enemies move faster, have fakeouts, or use attacks that can hit multiple characters in your party. And your own attacks get more complicated as the indicators of when a button press should happen become more subtle and tricky.

As you move from area to area, new mechanics are layered onto the existing ones, or mechanics you’ve already learned are changed in meaningful ways. The tutorial boss spawns minions who explode, teaching you to avoid attacking them from an adjacent position while trying to get them to damage the boss for you. Other enemies have this explosion mechanic as you move through the game, but at least one enemy type has an “explosion” that actually gives a buff to adjacent units. So when fighting that enemy, you don’t want the explosion to hit foes but you do want it to hit you. In another area, enemies gain the ability to lay traps on tiles that then fade from view. Stepping on a trapped tile deals damage to you and prevents you from taking your action that turn, so you’ll want to remember where they are, but with two or three characters in your party you own movements begin to work against you. I had more than one occasion where two of my units occupying the same column kept a third from being able to move into a position where they could attack, or where the combination of my other units’ positions and a trap did the same. Each new type of attack, new status condition, or new movement pattern adds a layer of consideration to combat, and as these layers come together they make the battles a lot more challenging.

The other thing that adds complexity as you move forward through the chapters are your new characters and their abilities. While your first new character has a lot of overlap with the protagonist in the beginning, as they gain new moves they become meaningfully different. As newer characters join with a variety of moves already learned, they’ll be more immediately differentiated. The second character fills a support role with healing abilities as well as being able to inflict poison; your third character can set traps and steal items from opponents. If you’re playing the game through at the “expected” levels, you’ll find your team getting new moves right around the time when they’re becoming most relevant. For example, after learning about traps and how tricky they are to avoid, the protagonist learns a move for burning up trapped squares to make them safe again. Another example: around the time your fourth character joins, you start facing enemies with much stronger attacks than what you’ve been dealing with up to that point. The new character comes with a defense-boosting spell and can learn one that affects the whole party by leveling up a bit.

Ikenfell teaches you about its mechanics in the way real-life school should work – it spends one lesson area teaching you about a mechanic and uses the boss to verify that you get it. In the next area, a new mechanic is added or the ones you are already familiar with are changed up to challenge you in new ways. The game shows you how frustrating an enemy type or attack pattern can be and then shares the solution with you in the form of a new character or a new spell, never pushing you unfairly but always expecting you to be experimenting with your moves and paying attention to how they interact with the new rules in play. I wouldn’t describe Ikenfell as difficult, per se, but I know now that my initial estimation of the game’s combat as overly simple doesn’t last. It starts slow but gains steam at a healthy pace that makes the game more interesting with each new chapter you explore. And the use of a timing microgame rather than randomness to determine power makes this mini tactics experience feel more skill-based than something like Fire Emblem or XCOM.

“Hey Ian,” some might say, “I’ve been interested in Ikenfell but everything you just described about the combat adding more and more layers doesn’t sound great to me. I don’t really want to deal with figuring out attack timings and all that.” That’s fair! Not everyone plays games the same or gets enjoyment from the same parts of the experience, and Ikenfell recognizes that. The main menu has a number of accessibility options, and a couple deal directly with the battle mechanics. The one with the most nuance is the “timing mode” setting. The rules I have described in the earlier parts of the article are based on the manual timing mode – missing a timing completely gives you an “oops” rating with a big penalty, and you have to have precise timing to push a “nice” up to “great” and get the best damage output or protection. Semi-auto mode gets rid of the risk of “oops” timing and guarantees you at least a nice. You can still try to use the timed button presses to get a great, but there’s a safety net. Auto timing mode is for those who don’t want to or physically cannot engage with the timing at all – all your moves are “great” by default, with no need for input from the player. Regarding the game’s mechanical complexity in terms of all the traps and using the right moves and watching your positioning and all the other considerations that combat might involve, the “victory option” setting can be used to add a button to the battle menu that you can press to instantly win a battle. If you’re stuck, frustrated, confounded, or just want to move on with the story, pressing the instant victory button allows you to push past a battle so you can keep experiencing the characters and story of the game.

I’ll have more to say about Ikenfell in the next week or so regarding these aspects of the game, but for today I wanted to focus on my experience with the combat. If you’re thinking of picking up Ikenfell and like me you’re an RPG veteran, I’d encourage you not to put the game down if the combat feels a bit slow to you at first. While it may never reach truly intimidating levels of difficulty, new characters and enemy types keep fights fresh as you move forward. The combination of managing unit placement, understanding the best spells for countering the patterns of the enemy, and correctly timing all of your inputs makes combat an entertaining challenge to overcome (IF that’s what you want, of course). Ikenfell may start slow but it only gets better with age, and I’m happy that I made the choice to push through to where I am now.

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