Reviewed on PCAlso available on Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch
Developed by Happy Ray Games and published by Humble Games, ikenfell is a new tactical, turn-based RPG centered around the mysterious goings on at the titular magic school and uncovering the dark secrets within.
In ikenfell, the game begins with a boisterous girl with fiery-red hair named Maritte. Maritte's sister, Safina, a witch-in-training, has been missing and out of contact with her family, resulting in our heroine setting out on her own to check on her sister. Born without any magical powers, Maritte grew up intrigued by her sister's abilities and perhaps a bit jealous that she could not attend ikenfell as well.
Shortly after setting out, Maritte begins to experience odd occurrences, including moving trees, magical creatures, and delightfully purring cats. Taking things in stride, Maritte eventually stumbles upon ikenfell, discovers that she now does indeed have unexpected magical powers to control fire, discovers that ikenfell is locked up tight, and begins finding odd crystals that show past events involving Safina. Thus begins our story.
Where ikenfell attempts to set itself apart from other retro-inspired RPGs is with its unique combat system. While some battles are scripted into the story itself, basic battles come in the form of magical oddities and creatures moving around the screen initiating a fight upon contact. While most of these can technically be avoided, by doing so you are robbing yourself of much needed XP, possibly resulting in being stuck at certain points because you just aren't powerful enough to proceed.
Combat itself is described as turn-based and "strategic time-based" by the developer, and that is certainly accurate. If I had to equate this combat to other games, I would describe it as combining the movement of Fire Emblem with the timing of Super Mario RPG. However, ikenfell's timing mechanics are not nearly as forgiving as those of Super Mario RPG.
When attacking an enemy, the player is meant to choose an ability, target a foe/area of effect, and then properly time the execution for maximum effect. For example, if done well the word "Great" appears on screen, "Nice" for average timing, and "Oops" for poor timing. Quite often, the difference between a "Great" and "Oops" comes down to near pixel-perfect timing, with grave consequences coming from not nailing the rhythm. For example, a great attack may do eight damage and turn the tides in a tough battle, but an oops attack would instead do a measly one damage. This would be forgivable and an added challenge, if it weren't for the fact that this also applies to defense. A poorly timed defense against some enemies attacks can quickly take your full-health hero to death's door in no time.
The environments and story of ikenfell treat the player to a charming, heartwarming game intermixed with ominous moments. The art style and general ambiance reminded me immediately of the golden age of turn-based RPGs. In addition to spot-on visuals, I can't say enough about the direction Happy Ray Games took for the sound accompaniment. Created by the composers from the beloved animated series Steven Universe, the soundtrack, particularly during boss-type fights, is upbeat and expertly aligned with gameplay. Despite the repetitiveness of battles after a time, the music does an excellent job of maintaining momentum at least.
As frustrating as the combat of ikenfell is, I still found the challenge enjoyable and pleasantly fresh...in the beginning at least. After a few hours into the game, the timings either become perfectly predictable or punishingly perplexing, with no consistency as to which it may end of being. Also, unlike in the comparison to Super Mario RPG in which the timing-based actions are supplemental, utilizing proper timing in ikenfell is the difference between victory and failure, even on the most mundane of enemies. Given this game takes a minimum of about 10 hours to complete, the repetitiveness of this mechanic is likely to wear on many players.