Imagine if Harry Potter was set in a progressive postmodern RPG – that’s pretty much what the basic premise of Ikenfell on Xbox One feels like. Of course, this barely scratches the surface but if the idea of an RPG set in a magical school sounds like the perfect setup, then the latest by developer Happy Ray Games and creator Chevy Ray might just be the RPG many will enjoy while they wait for the promising Hogwarts open-world epic in the next console generation. For its developer and creator, Ikenfell might very well be the breakout hit that puts them on the proverbial map, and arguably an indie release for the ages alongside the likes of games like Celeste, as an indie video game willing to go above and beyond to really standout as a legitimate modern-day classic.
The story follows protagonist Maritte as she steps into a mysterious forest located at the outskirts of a magical school – the titular Ikenfell itself. She’s in search of her older sister Safina, a promising student at the school who built quite a name for herself in short time. Having gone missing, our hero suddenly unlocks a hidden magical potential she never knew. As soon as this fiery power is unlocked the adventure immediately kicks into high gear and the narrative never slips up. There’s a lot to love about the story here, and a lot of it is character-driven too, with most of the archetypes based on modern society constructs which makes this tale both timely and contemporary. Although it is all part of a fantastical setting with all sorts of magical creatures, the underlying themes are very much human and relatable. On this basis alone Ikenfell as a game achieves something that will allow it to stand the test of time beyond 2020.
Ikenfell does a great job at building its lore and setting, and with the focus on character development it doesn’t take long to captivate a player’s attention and for them to genuinely care for the game’s diverse cast. These characters, even in their stylistic presentation, feel very real; their experiences much appreciated and welcome in video game narratives. The setting and all the moving parts manage to bring the world of Ikenfell to life in ways even the best of RPGs often struggle with. The writing is packed with emotion, the dialogue flows well, and there is a genuine sense of humour too.
As an RPG, Ikenfell tries to take after the conventions of Japanese RPG titles than anything else. This becomes especially apparent in the inventive battle system, which combines turn-based sensibilities with the grid-based approach of strategy RPGs. The combat flows well here, as characters are able to move freely around the grid before carefully figuring out the best spell to use. When initiating spells or attacks, it’s about being in place on the right section, but the actual action involves timing a button press just as the circle closes in. This is a system some Xbox fans will be quite familiar with from Lost Odyssey, which makes combat more engaging than most turn-based romps. Furthermore, there is a relatively more subtle parry system which requires timing a button press just before an enemy’s attack lands on a character.
The gameplay variety is strong here, with a lot of depth to the battle system especially as new spells are learned and more characters join the fray with their unique playstyles. The strongest aspect of the game design is the boss battles, and the ingenuity of these encounters become clear early on. Unlike most RPGs where bosses are just overpowered tanks with HP levels through the roof, the bosses in Ikenfell are experimental in their design, with most battles having a clever puzzle element – victory has more to do with figuring out their weakness than blasting high-powered spells. Each boss encounter is more creative and satisfying than the last, encouraging players to be creative and strategic rather than to waste their time level-grinding.
The visual presentation is strong despite the simplistic graphics, and it has a lot in common with Celeste. Although the game goes for a dated graphical look, the attention to detail is still strong and the animations are quite fluid. Fans of Steven Universe will appreciate the musical input from the series’ composer too. The key artwork in particular has a lot of personality, especially in the character designs. It goes back to RPGs of yesteryear when awesome artwork had to make up for primitive character sprites.
Ikenfell on Xbox One is a special release; one of those games that will be appreciated more in hindsight years down the line. Anyone willing to give it a chance in 2020 will find it to be one of the most unique and memorable RPGs of the year. It may not have the high-end production of some of the other big releases in the genre, but the game uses its humble graphics to create a world players will enjoy being a part of with a cast of characters that will leave a lasting impression. As far as indie RPGs go, Ikenfell carries more originality and heart than anything else out there.