Ikenfell is a magical school in its seemingly natural state: peril. Students have gone missing, strange trees are cropping up, and other magical anomalies plague the land. As Mariette, the non-magical yet still worried sister of one of Ikenfell’s students, you embark on a journey through this pixelated 2D RPG adventure to save her, the school, and maybe the whole world. A number of interesting ideas in both story and combat make Ikenfell an appealing prospect, but since some prove stronger than others in execution, ultimately it's a journey with more than a few bumps in the road.
As the game begins, Mariette almost immediately gains supernatural pyromantic abilities thanks to strange magical occurrences. It actually feels a bit at odds with the message of not needing to be magical to be heroic, which throws the vibe off kilter right from the beginning. The conceit does make sense within the context of the story, though, and sets out one of the first mysteries in the game. New forms of magic are cropping up, and even some who previously had no magical powers suddenly find themselves wielding elemental magic. Mariette can use her new fire power to take on the various magical enemies of Ikenfell in turn-based isometric grid battles, with a bit of a twist.
Combat is a fairly large part of the game and is mostly turn-based. Turns are split between a movement phase, where you position your team on the battlefield, and then an attack phase where you select from combat options that have their unique ranges and damage, and sometimes added effects. Starting out you’ll have basic attacks which do moderate damage to a single enemy in front of you on the grid. As levels are gained, party members added, and moves are unlocked, more strategies and styles open up.
The strategy really gets quite flexible as no two moves from any party members are the same; they each have their own skill sets which suit their characters. The impulsive electric wielder can teleport in and out of danger quickly, whereas the timid alchemist has limited range and does best at healing or poisons. Even though I eventually found myself settling on the party of three I preferred, I still found myself using the full selection of their moves in different battles. This is thanks to the wide variety of enemies which all can be approached in a variety of ways. I tended to use poison and regeneration spells in long fights against high-HP enemies, for example, rather than bombarding them with direct damage. For heavy hitters I’d make note of their attack patterns and position my crew accordingly, which would change the feasible attacks. The mechanics are simple but present enough strategic considerations and opportunities to keep the formula feeling relatively fresh over time.
The twist to the battles is that, while turn-based, they incorporate timed elements. Each attack and even each defensive maneuver will have its own unique animation and timing. Despite being relatively simple pixel art, some of these are just gorgeous and filled with personality. Hitting the button in time with the animation and sound will determine how successful your attacks are. Some may do more damage, while others may need solid timing to inflict status effects. When defending, timing a button press to the block will reduce your damage.
In the beginning, I really enjoyed this system. While the early battles were easy, simply having something to give me a boost made me feel a sense of mastery over the combat. Timing something right just feels good, almost like you're flicking your wrist in the final moment of casting a spell or actively bracing for defense at the crucial moment. It also makes spells you’re consistently good at really feel like your own, like your practice has paid off. However, timing something badly is frustrating and with so many different attacks from both sides to learn, it can be tricky to get it right consistently. The timing elements mean you always have to be aware of what’s happening on the battlefield and not being able to pause during battles requires a high level of diligence.
The impact of how successful you are at timing is immense, which makes it a bit double-sided in that failing them can work against you as much as success can work in your favor. The clutch mechanic, which allows you to survive a lethal blow on successful defense, means it’s literally a life and death difference. As I went further through the game I ended up swapping the option in the settings to semi-auto, giving me a bit more leeway, and I much preferred it. This change got rid of some of the more unfair-feeling losses from timing that I swear I had nailed and it encouraged me to experiment without the fear of losing outright. You can also turn it completely off, and while I didn't prefer that option, it's an important one to have to make the battles more accessible.
Alongside battling, there are also puzzles to solve. Most are fairly standard in that you might need to flick a series of switches, push rocks around, or gather specific items. They’re usually the right amount of challenging to make you think without leaving you stuck, and they provide a nice break between battles. However, some just feel purposefully obtuse. Once I had to look for books in the library and I just ended up interacting with all the shelves until I found them--there didn’t appear to be a marker or strategy to help. Sometimes there are invisible paths with little to signal them other than, "I guess I’ll just try walking through this wall." In that way, Ikenfell can sometimes feel as confusing as it is magical.
Battles and puzzles take place all over the school grounds and the surrounding areas of Ikenfell. Each area has its own lovely chiptune themes to match the environment. The battle music doesn’t tend to change, though, and as you’ll enter into so many of these it can get repetitive--except when it transitions into a few voiced songs for specific character moments to show off their personalities and intentions. Unfortunately, these aren’t very good and can be incredibly jarring when it happens mid-game. I often found myself turning the volume down during these sections.
The story has you explore different dungeons in the form of classes, dorms, libraries, and more as you try to find your sister and work out what’s going on. All the different areas offer new backdrops, enemies, and puzzles to solve. I feel like every time I was getting bored with one place, Ikenfell would usher me into another with a fresh set of exploration opportunities. The variety is lovely but it also has a very “Sorry, your princess is in another castle” feel, where I always felt strung along thinking the story was close to ending but it just kept going. Naturally, this started to feel tedious at times. The drip-feed of story progression drifts into slow and unrewarding for your troubles at times.
The story itself is just kind of odd. It’s definitely a direct parody of Harry Potter, though somewhat gender-swapped and queer as all get out. But the same plot holes that plague the halls of Hogwarts are still present here. Students are somehow as powerful, or sometimes more than, teachers and engage what’s described as incredible feats of magic. Teachers let them and don’t seem to have any desire to be particularly helpful, despite the end-of-the-world stakes. They may be intended as humorous nods, but in effect come off as incongruous.
Despite this, Ikenfell has some interesting takes. It explores the kind of toll the actions of a heroic group of do-gooders, not unlike the trio from Harry Potter, is bound to take on a school. What about the people that get hurt for their brazen actions? How much stress does this kind of constant danger put on all of those meant to care for these students? What does a really progressive, queer-positive fantasy world like this even look like? And how does it feel to be excluded from this magical world as an ordinary person? There’s some unexplored ideas to the magical fantasy that deserved looking at, and Ikenfell does its best.
Ikenfell made me feel like it wanted to really care about these important issues, but it does nothing to explore them.
Unfortunately, the execution struggles at times, with things feeling a bit forced. For a game all about caring for each other, all you can really do is fight things and beat the crap out of them. A few times characters will even say things like “I’m so gay” after the story has already plainly shown us they are and most of the other characters are attracted to the same sex. Why is being gay a big deal in this world? Was there queer oppression? It’s ripe with queer internet culture but with no real anchor to the context within the fantasy world. This makes it feel tacked on as an afterthought rather than an authentic representation of real people.
Ikenfell made me feel like it wanted to really care about these important issues, but it does nothing to explore them. Characters sometimes break the fourth wall in odd ways to lampshade these ideals, but without context or relevance it often feels shoehorned in rather than true representation. I can see the beating heart of good intentions and ideas, but they ultimately feel fumbled.
Ikenfell is a game of good intentions. The take on RPG combat is both satisfying and interesting with enough options, both with in-game tweaks to characters and strategy and also directly within the settings, to help tailor it to your preferences. It just drags on a bit without feeling like anything has actually really happened until its final moments. The nice variety and wholesome vibes present a lovely little world to explore and save. There are just enough little pitfalls in the story and execution that can be quite grating when I wanted to feel immersed.