Ikenfell May Be the Best RPG I’ve Played This Year

What does it mean to describe something as “magical?” How do we define magic itself? Magic is a force outside reality, something that makes the impossible possible. It is beautiful, with lights and sounds beyond our ken and the power to create visages beyond our imagination. Some magic is strange, incomprehensible to the human mind. It twists and writhes and shudders in ways that leave us shaken. Other magic is quirky, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary and sometimes into the downright silly. At its worst, magic is terrible, a dare to dabble into forbidden knowledge that exists only for destruction and torment. Magic is all these things – the same fire that comforts the freezing traveler can melt flesh from bone. With all of this in mind, Ikenfell can be described as a truly “magical” game, not just because its subject is magic but because its world and story explore magic in all its facets. The silly, the fearsome, the powerful, the weird; Ikenfell revels in it all.

Ikenfell (pronounced EEE-kenfell rather than EYE-kenfell, in case you’re making the same mistake I did for about half the game) tells the story of a girl named Maritte. Maritte is an Ordinary, a person who cannot use magic, but naturally things don’t remain that way for long. As she seeks out her missing sister Safina, Maritte obtains magic of her own and joins up with a number of Safina’s friends and rivals as they try to learn the source of a number of mysterious happenings at Ikenfell. You’ll spend your time exploring the magical school and its nearby environs while meeting a quirky cast of witches and battling monsters that vary from cute mystical critters to monstrosities ripped straight from the world of nightmares. I don’t use those words lightly – Ikenfell comes with an option to enable content warnings and they are likely going to be useful to you if blood and gore are problems for you, or if you need advanced notice about scenes that deal with anxiety, betrayal, and grief.

The game isn’t all eldritch horrors, though, and one of the most charming aspects of Ikenfell from early on is the cast of characters, both the heroes and villains of the game. Ikenfell is unabashedly queer with a number of gender identities and sexualities represented in the game. This is appealing not just from a representational perspective but also because the game is not explicitly about queerness. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t celebrate the identities or that the characters don’t really talk about them – but the capital M capital S Main StoryTM is focused on the way that pain and grief unmanaged can lead to disastrous consequences. Yet when that pain and grief is healed, it is by the powerful friendship and love that can exist between people of the same gender or people outside of the gender spectrum entirely.

Ah yes, the familiar panic of being in the presence of a hot person.

I could go on for ages about the cast and the story, but that’s not to say that the mechanics aren’t a big part of what make Ikenfell appealing. Ikenfell is an RPG in the tradition of classic JRPGs but with some twists to the combat that help to make it stand out. In the overworld you’ll explore the school and its nearby environments, talking to monsters and witches as well as solving puzzles and poking around for secrets. There are a number of “dungeons” in Ikenfell but they are quite brief – a few puzzles and a handful of battles will generally find you at the boss, giving the game a streamlined feel compared to RPGs of a much grander scale. This is reflected in the game’s total playtime; it took me less than 30 hours which is a breeze compared to something like a Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Persona game. The game does include extra content outside of the critical path though, so for those who really want to dive in and explore every inch of Ikenfell there’s at least a little bit extra to go digging for.

You can’t fully discuss an RPG without digging into its combat so let’s tackle the battles in Ikenfell. Combat takes places on a grid map roughly 12 squares long and 3 tall. At the beginning of the game when you have one playable character and maybe two or three enemies on the field, this feels like a lot of space to work with. As your party grows in size and more enemies litter the field, and as the game’s mechanics get more complicated with the additions of trapped tiles and enemies who can produce hazardous terrain like spikes, that space will start to feel more cramped. Battles are turn based with the turn order displayed in the upper right corner. On each unit’s turn they can take a single action, and move before that action if they wish to and are able to. The most common action is to cast a spell but player characters can also use items or try to escape from combat, or just end the turn without doing anything.

Each character in your party has a different list of spells that grows as you progress through the game and gain levels. A lot of spells are offensive in nature but there are plenty with support effects such as healing, providing buffs to power, defense, speed, or movement, and setting or removing traps from the battlefield. Offensive spells are differentiated from one another by their damage output and shape. Generally speaking the more targets a spell can hit or the easier it is to reach a target with a spell, the last damage output it has, but there are sometimes conditions on more powerful spells such as needing to cool down or requiring a certain amount of health to have been lost. The shapes of your spells and the number of targets they can reach mean positioning your characters well on the grid is important during combat; in this way Ikenfell can sometimes feel like a light tactics game, although I would still primary describe it as an RPG in terms of the overall gameplay style.

Some writer knew exactly what they were doing with this move title.

One of the most important elements of combat is that both casting spells and defending against them is based on timed button presses. There are three timings: “great” for pressing the confirm button (A on the Switch) at just the right time, “nice” for being a touch early with your input, and “oops” for being way off or not even trying to press the button. Missing the timings in Ikenfell is a lot more punishing than in other games with a similar mechanic like Paper Mario. For example, one time I got poor Maritte knocked out because I missed the timing on an enemy attack that hit three times – with great timing the attack did a total of 6 damage, while with “oops” timing it did a total of 21 damage. The need to time attacks and blocks carefully challenges you to fully focus on the battles and to pick up on every clue you can in terms of getting a “great.” I want to give a shoutout here to the sound designers for the game who did an amazing job making useful sound cues for these move timings – often when a visual cue is intentionally misleading, you can memorize the rhythm of the sound effect and time your press with that instead.

Now I can imagine that for some folks reading this review, the idea of the charming cast of characters and the grippingly dark story might seem appealing but your excitement is offset somewhat by the punishing timing-based battles. Fortunately the game offers a broad selection of accessibility features regarding the battles. By default the timings work as I described above on a setting called “manual” but there are two other timing settings: semi-auto and auto. Semi-auto guarantees you at least a nice timing but you still have to try to get a great. Auto skips over the timings entirely and allows you to simply get great timing on every attack and block. And if figuring out the positioning and the best spells to use during a particular conflict is still giving you trouble, you can also enable an instant victory button that allows you to ignore the battles you don’t want to fight while still progressing the story. It makes the game really approachable and allows it appeal both to those who just want a cool story about queer witches as well as folks like me who enjoy the challenge of executing a battle optimally.

I rarely talk about the more technical aspects of a game unless they have a significant impact on my ability to play it, but while I’m signing the praises of the sound designers I definitely want to take a moment too to say that the music in Ikenfell is very strong. The game’s mood can swing wildly from silly to scary and the musical themes that capture these moments are highly effective at conveying the tone of a given scene or battle. Many of the game’s key battles feature vocalized pieces that are a lot of fun and which I quickly added to my game music playlist, but the somber, instrumental tunes which play over battles which are underscored with grief and pain are just as powerful in their own subtle way. It’s somewhat normal for me to listen to other things when playing games, especially RPGs, but needing to focus on the sound effects in battle had the delightful side effect of getting me to listen closely to all the great music Ikenfell had to offer.

Each character has a unique spell list and specialization, making each one ideal in different circumstances.

I mentioned earlier that the story and characters were a big part of what made this game for me, and I hesitate to talk in too much detail about them because I want to leave the joy of discovery alive. That said, I do want to give you a taste of what these elements bring to the game. Your full party of playable characters are made up of Maritte, her sister Safina’s two best friends, two of Safina’s rivals at the school, and a student professor. This creates an interesting set of social dynamics as those who have been hurt by your sister’s mischievous behaviors feel betrayed by anyone who would dare be friends with her, while her loyal companions won’t brook a word to be spoken against her. As romances bloom, secret pasts come to light, and conflicts come to a head, you’ll see each character both at a high point of power and confidence as well as a low point where only the support of their companions can get them through. This is the tool available to the heroes that the game’s major villains have not learned to tap in to: friendship, the most powerful magic of all.

That may sound saccharine but it’s a moral well-earned, as friendship comes to none of these kids easily. Heroes and villains alike are broken by their pasts, and the moments where these dark emotions rise to the surface can and do lead to catastrophic consequences. Yet these moments of intense sadness (often accompanied by a dose of forbidden magic) are only one half of the experience of Ikenfell. The setting is populated by magical oddities that get in your way not through hostility but simply because they are doing the incomprehensible things that they are naturally inclined to do. One of the strongest examples of this is the Snatcher, a being that scoops up random objects to horde in its lair only because of its fascination with “stuff” of all flavors. Or the miniboss Gilda, a fellow student witch who wants to prove herself by winning in a magical duel but is highly distracted by a wholly unmanageable crush on Maritte. When characters like these make their appearance, it adds much needed levity to break up the teen drama and the eldritch abominations created by foul magic.

Ikenfell is an excellent RPG that uses a blend of familiar mechanics from other games in the genre to create a system that is challenging without being overly complex. While the beginning is a bit slow until you start building up your party of heroes, the game gets stronger as it goes with the rate of new spells and new enemy types setting a steady and pleasant pace for the game. Quick dungeons with short but engaging puzzles keep you in the action more than more sprawling entries in the genre, but the game’s brevity doesn’t mean that value is lost in terms of storytelling and characterization. With a lovable cast and a tone that skillfully moves from lighthearted fun to the frightening consequences of shoving down our most difficult emotions, the game conveys a compelling narrative that establishes a believable magical world. It’s a delightful game that I would enthusiastically recommend to anyone looking for a strong RPG experience.

5 thoughts on “Ikenfell May Be the Best RPG I’ve Played This Year

Add yours

    1. That’s a great question, haha. I think it takes some steps to address a lot of your common problems with RPGs but I don’t know if you would feel like those steps are strong enough, necessarily? Outside of including some mild tactics elements Ikenfell isn’t necessarily doing things to shake up the idea of the RPG, but it is executing those genre conventions very well. I could maybe answer better if I had any idea of a time you played an RPG and actually liked it, but without that context I have a hard time imagining that this would be your jam.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It does to a degree, although it would help more if half of those games weren’t on my “to play” list rather than my “have played” list, haha. Still I think that’s definitely enough to be able to say with some degree of confidence that Ikenfell is not really like any of those things in terms of mechanical complexity or openness/player creativity. It’s a very “authored” experience – linear gameplay with a traditional narrative and defined character types. I think that authored experience is of good quality but in general your list of preferred RPGs suggests to me that it’s probably not the kind of thing you look for in the genre.

        Liked by 1 person

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