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Monday, July 5, 2021

Ikenfell

Ikenfell is an indie RPG seemingly inspired by games like EarthBound and Undertale, trying to win players over with some sincere charm in its writing and visuals while retaining overall familiar gameplay and design.  But does Ikenfell succeed in this endeavor, or is it simply a derivative and forgettable experience?


There have been many success stories of indie games in recent years, some even rivaling (or surpassing) big-budget AAA titles with million dollars in terms of acclaim and quality.  Undertale is one of the more prominent examples; despite its relatively low budget and comparatively low production value, it was nominated for awards in numerous prominent game shows and continues, drew a lot of favorable comparison to its main inspiration (the SNES cult classic EarthBound) to be a strong-selling, highly acclaimed title today.

Ikenfell is a game that seems to be built on that same model, utilizing a fairly simplistic, colorful comic strip style of art and animation.  A common thing for indie games to be sure, and the low-resolution style is easy to dismiss as being overused and derivative, but I honestly found it charming; the animation is fluid and the characters are surprisingly expressive given the low resolution of their sprites, and they all sport quite a few frames of animation more than games of similar style from the 16-bit RPGs, so they feel familiar, yet fresh at the same time.  The game's music is quite high-quality as well; little surprise considering they got Aivi & Surasshu (best known for composing the soundtrack to the animated TV series "Steven Universe") on board to compose it, giving the game atmosphere in spades and even a few surprisingly well-performed vocal tracks ("Paint the Future" in particular is fantastic).

Gameplay draws a lot of inspiration from games of the era as well, most particularly games like Super Mario RPG and the Mario and Luigi franchise, incorporating minigames into the combat experience.  Basically, every attack you have deals additional damage if you time a button press right as the move impacts; getting it close will get you a "Nice!" and deal extra damage, while getting it perfect will earn a "Great!" and deal even more.  Similarly, enemy attacks can have their damage reduced (and status effect infliction negated) by timing a button press in similar fashion as it connects with your character.  Late in the game, mastering the timing of hits and blocks is essential - unblocked attacks start to rack up major damage, and whittling through enemies' high HP becomes an arduous task if you don't have the timings down by then.  The execution isn't always perfect on this, though - the timing on some moves isn't always clear, and even when I seemed to time a button press perfectly I would sometimes still only get a "nice" or even an outright miss; fortunately, if you're not a fan of this type of design or simply can't get used to it, you do have the option to disable the timed press requirements in the menu.

Ikenfell adds a new layer of depth to the Mario RPG format, though, by also working in some light tactical RPG elements.  Combat takes place on a wide grid (3x12) and each characters' spells are only able to target tiles within specific ranges, so positioning your characters carefully to deal damage, stay out of enemy attack range and within reach of one another's healing abilities is another major component of the game's strategy. One can also set traps on panels to harm foes, set up decoys to impede enemy movement and draw attacks, and knock targets around with certain moves (potentially pushing them into traps or one another for extra damage), so it encourages some creativity on the player's part to deal extra damage.  It's nowhere near as deep as something like, say, Divinity Original Sin II or Final Fantasy Tactics, but it's a nice changeup and certainly adds another layer of planning to what would otherwise be a fairly simplistic combat system.

Like its primary inspirations, though, Ikenfell's gameplay is solid for the most part, but not the game's primary focus.  The main emphasis here is on its characters and writing, and it succeeds handily there, bringing forth quite a lot of funny dialog but also some surprisingly complex characters, and seeing the way they interact and their relationships with one another forms the heart of the experience.  Ikenfell takes a bolder step than most, though, as most if not all of the central cast falls under the LGBTQ+ umbrella; this does get played for humor with one prominent character (Gilda, the rival character who also has an enormous crush on Maritte), but for the most part it's played far more realistically than in any other game I've played, never feeling like cheap pandering or falling into stereotype territory; their identification as gay, nonbinary or asexual is just one facet of their personalities, and by and large has very little bearing on who they are or how they interact with people.  Because of that, their inclusion feels like it comes from a genuine place, rather than just feeling shoehorned in at the demand of a marketing committee to boost sales and have a cheap way to write off any legitimate criticism of their game as being the work of "hateful bigots".  Not to mention that most multi-billion dollar companies that do this sort of thing generally only do because their highly conservative board of directors just want to use that extra fame and revenue to give themselves some sweet salary bonuses to throw at the next election and whatever anti-union/living wage/healthcare/social improvement/LGBT+ measures are on the ballot, so people who take their minimum-effort "Pro-LGBT" statements at face value are easy marks at best and unpaid sycophants at worst.

In short, Ikenfell definitely draws inspiration from old 16-bit RPGs in its aesthetics and mechanics, but does much to set itself apart as well, building upon its familiar gameplay with strongly written characters and sharing their experience through a simple story with a complex web of character relationships.  It may not be flawless or the most groundbreaking of games, but it never pretends to be, either - it's clearly a work of passion from a few indie developers who wanted to tell a fun story while entertaining you with familiar, yet creatively remixed gameplay, a high level of polish and a reasonable runtime, and that gives it way more mileage with me than some overstuffed AAA release that takes itself way too damn seriously while giving you nothing to see or do that's actually entertaining (but which has plenty of fanboys and paid viral marketers who insist that its uninventive, disingenuous 'message' is too important to not slog through 90+ hours of tedious busywork and $85 of DLC for). So, for being a well-made and entertaining passion project, yet humble enough that it doesn't have to stop every 8 seconds to milk every last brownie point out of its woke element in pursuit of superficial accolades, I say Ikenfell is very much worthy of a purchase.


Developer: Happy Ray Games
Publisher: Humble Games
Platform: PC, MacOS, PS4, Switch, XBox One
Released: 2020
Recommended version: All versions are more or less the same as far as I can tell.

Tags: Western JRPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Combat Minigames, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music, Humorous
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