By Samm Jinks
Childhood is often a time of discovery, where new potential and strange possibilities seem eternally present. With a constant influx of new experiences, incredible information, and brand new concepts being presented constantly, it’s no wonder that so many fantastical narratives are built upon the bedrock of someone young stumbling into a world like their own, but just barely out of sight or under the surface.
And it is from this bedrock of awe that many stories eventually build into self-understanding. By knowing and accepting the strangeness of the world you now know to be true, and with some help along the way, you can find truth within yourself.
From this, it’s clear why I was so immediately taken in by the carefully crafted interactive experience that is Ikenfell, a game that I had long wished to enjoy but only recently was able to finally sit down and play in its entirety. And though there are many things I would like to discuss about this title, at the core of my interest with regards to it is the central theme it purports and how that is reflected through mechanical aid and accessibility.
Simply put, Ikenfell is a game that asks you to let others share the load when the weight of life’s foibles, large and small, become too significant for you to bear alone. And it makes that not just a part of its story, but as part of the game itself. Through it’s internally consistent systems, assistive measures, and gentle understanding that you don’t have to overcome every obstacle by yourself, it creates a unique and well-defined experience I’m thrilled I was able to see to the end.
Developed over several years by Happy Ray Games and released by Humble Games in 2020, Ikenfell is a turn-based tactical RPG with real-time combat elements in everything from attacks, to healing, to defending against enemy attacks. Players are able to move each character along a 3×12 grid, changing position to aid in improving their range, provide assistance to other party members, or simply get out of reach of stronger enemies. Outside of combat, the player explores the titular Ikenfell, a magical academy that is under threat by a sudden explosion in arcane abilities, with the cause of this sudden change tracing back to the now missing sister of the narrative’s main character, Mariette.
The game has a splendid pixel-art visual flair, filled with tons of attention to detail with different sprite types between the overworld, combat, and cutscenes. On top of that, a soundtrack by composers Aivi & Surasshu (Steven Universe) immediately draws the player into this bizarre, whimsical world where a mixture of synth and traditional instrumentation impart new potential and danger on the verge of discovery.
Drawing a great deal of inspiration from titles like the Super and Paper Mario RPG series, Ikenfell emphasizes unique timing actions for each ability and enemy attack the player encounters, with differing levels of success depending on the player’s ability to react to specific cues. Success goes in order of Oops > Nice > and GREAT!, with each tier applying a greater degree of a particular effect depending on its intended use, whether that’s dealing more damage, defending against damage, adding hazards to the field, or even imparting buffs/healing to party members. This, along with a battle grid system highly reminiscent of the long-beloved hit Mega Man Battle Network, and no battle is ever truly the same as the last one.
Because of this, every action the player takes has a potential for varying degrees of success, and becoming familiar with both their own abilities and the abilities of their combatants becomes crucial to their continued advancement through the game, as enemies grow in tenacity and ability in kind with their own attacks. Even with assistive items and equipment gathered throughout the experience, no battle is completely without danger, and as the player reaches the far end of the game as a whole, mistakes only become more costly. And this is where an interesting intersection of game and player become especially prescient for me, as someone who was loving the game, but coming up against a wall that was proving difficult to overcome without assistance.
During the actual story of Ikenfell, the player follows Mariette as she gains allies of varying magical disciplines, wholly unique personalities, and problems all their own that require help overcoming. From the sad, distant Pertisia to the colorful, wise Ima, every character is coming to terms with powers that have begun to overflow and secrets coming to light that were never expected. While she never stops seeking out her missing sister Safina, it becomes clear that things are not as cut and dry as they seem anywhere in the hidden mystical institution of Ikenfell.
And eventually, the secrets and the hardships grow too great for each member of the player’s party, and things start to fall apart. In particular, Mariette becomes unplayable, eschewing her newfound pyrokinetic powers entirely.
It’s an event that isn’t uncommon during many games, especially those with party systems, where the individuals leading the pack are often swapped depending on ability or preference. And so it was that here, until a new self-understanding was achieved by Mariette through the trials she faced to know the truth about Ikenfell, her sister, and her role in everything, she was supported entirely by her allies, without any expectation of reciprocation.
Eventually, however, she hits her stride again, and just in time to face new threats. It was a good approach to the story, and one I felt very nicely reflected the struggle of the main villain of the work up to this point. But ironically, while Mariette was now back in the swing of things, as a player I found myself starting to slip as well.
Ikenfell requires effective planning and coordinated action on the part of the player to complete it, and especially in the last handful of areas, failure can become more routine than success. Enemies start throwing in new tricks to throw off the player’s timing when it comes to attacks, and even routine encounters steadily scale upwards into a new range of difficulty. And this was especially evident for me, as someone who had been enjoying the timing system up to that point, but not trying to perform it perfectly.
Rhythm games are something I enjoy immensely, but off-beats are something I have often struggled with when they come up, and there was no exception here. With effort, I was able to make it through many encounters, but my progress had been slowed considerably, and boss fights felt all the more difficult to overcome in general. But when I was close to giving up on the game entirely, I recalled one feature that had been introduced right at the start: assisted battle options.
While I was resistant to the idea of using them initially, as the difficulties mounted it occurred to me that the game itself had been imparting a clear message to the characters within it: that taking on too much alone is often a self-destructive act. As I stared at the options menu, I toggled on two options: Instant Victory and Semi-Auto Battle Actions.
The former would ensure that if I ever met a battle that was too hard or draining to complete through conventional means, I could use a command in the player character’s action menu to end the battle as normal, with no detriment. The latter was a way to lessen the impact of the timing system in general, with a Nice always being given, but a Great still within reach if the player gets the timing down properly.
With both of these turned on, I started back in on a particularly vexing dungeon, and suddenly… I was having fun again. It was so sudden that I tried turning the options off, just to get a feel for the difference, but no, it was clear. I’d been forcing myself to play in a way that had not been fun for me, and it had been taking away from my personal experience of Ikenfell on the whole. While I continued playing, the themes of the game kept reverberating in my mind, and it started to sink in just how well considered this aspect of the experience really was.
Of course I could have muddled through the more difficult fights, either downing healing items continuously, or simply grinding when within walking distance of a conveniently located save point. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do with the game. My time with the game didn’t need to be defined by me playing it in a way that made me frustrated or aggravated. Not when it was so clearly saying, as loudly as possible, that I didn’t have any obligation to do so.
The game was coming to an end. I was playing it on my own terms, and that meant I could leave it on my own terms as well. It’s rare that I get to see the end of some games, as some of them simply prove to be too difficult, too frustrating, or too obtuse for me to really enjoy, and after waiting so long to try Ikenfell, I was worried it was going to go in that direction too.
But I had the power to make a choice. To change the game to be something I could complete, without going through an experience I wasn’t interested in pursuing.
Instead, it was my own experience that led to the game’s conclusion. And I’m grateful I was able to define that, with the assistance I never knew I needed from the game’s creators.
The player and the designer are not enemies. They are, in some ways, collaborators. In others, an artist and their audience. But it can be tempting to view it as an antagonistic relationship, when you are stuck on one end or the other, and trying your hardest to make sure that what you want from this relationship comes to fruition. To help each other make the experience become splendid, wonderful, beautiful.
And a relationship of mutual assistance is a beautiful thing indeed.