You don’t have magic. You always wanted to have those sorts of abilities, because your sibling did and that afforded them cool opportunities. But now your sibling is gone, you gain a previously unseen, supernatural gift while trying to find them, and get to see what that magical lifestyle is like. Welcome to Ikenfell.
Maritte’s older sister, Safina, is a witch. But it seems that came with potential problems, because she never came home for the summer break. Maritte went after her, only to find everything is wrong at Ikenfell, the school she attended. So suddenly, the person who is entirely new to this world is apparently the one person who can help figure out what’s going on.
It seems like a typical underdog story. Which it is. Maritte is an outsider totally foreign to this lifestyle. She’s even bullied by ghosts when she finally finds her way to the forest surrounding the school. And naturally, she develops suddenly unseen magical power that puts her in the position to save both her sister and the day. But there’s more to the game and its story than that.
What I also appreciate is how the game explores how well someone thinks they know someone versus how well they actually do. As Maritte explores Ikenfell, she comes across these crystals that hold memories of Safina’s time at the school. The accounts from these, as well as the testimony of the people who considered her sister an ally or enemy, helps provide this additional sense of perspective.
But that’s not the only deep element to Ikenfell. There’s the exploration of identity. Multiple characters are struggling with who they are and what they’re capable of. From Maritte, who wanted to be a witch like her sister and suddenly has the magic she wanted for so long, to someone like Gilda, who went from weak to sudden power. We see how people adjust, cope, and come to terms with these changes in their lives.
Though, there are times when it can sometimes feels like Ikenfell has a slight identity crisis. It very often draws from the Harry Potter series, with its boarding school, special term for people who don’t have magical abilities and bird-delivered invitations to the titular academy. There’s even the scruffy, well-meaning groundskeeper.
Still, I think the presentation of the game helps allow its conflicts and themes to better stand out. Ikenfell has a very retro presentation, with diminutive characters that get more detail in their portraits and on the battlefield. There’s a sense of whimsy throughout, befitting a world in which magic is everywhere, and the spritework is handled quite well.
It also has an absolutely extraordinary soundtrack. Aivi & surasshu composed wonderful songs that suit all of the game’s moods. Especially when you happen upon tracks with lyrics, like “Showtime.” Though, again, it can feel as familiar as the setting, and I definitely experienced deja vu due to how similar they feel to what people might have heard in Steven Universe. But then, given the scope of this game, I suspect there will be quite an overlap between the audiences.
With all that it does well, there’s one thing about Ikenfell that I feel made it stand out the most. Its battle system, a turn-based tactical affair with shades of Paper Mario-style action commands where you must tap at precise moments to effectively attack or dodge, feels so unique. You have this forced perspective and attacks that require you to constantly consider positioning. Which can get tricky, because by the game’s second chapter you have enemies who will use attacks to forcibly move your party around the field or that will lay (potentially invisible) traps.
But while it is very neat and I appreciated the approach, it also could make Ikenfell feel a bit frustrating. There are times when a battle might feel artificially long, because you have to approach the enemy and, even if you are keeping your levels up, it will take multiple turns to wipe out foes. Also, action commands work best when you have audio and visual cues, and sometimes the game doesn’t effectively manage that. Considering there are no random battles, it could feel like these were designed to increase time spent on completing what would otherwise be simple tasks and puzzles. Battles are also the only place where I found errors, such as a repeating dialogue loop involving Petronella and Rook during a chapter two boss fight.
Ikenfell is definitely a game worth experiencing if someone appreciates any of its parts. Like RPGs with unusual battle systems? It has that. Love chiptune soundtracks or the music from Steven Universe? Stop on by. Appreciate the idea of a life as a student at a magical academy where things are surprisingly hazardous? This is a good alternative! Not to mention, it’s a very inclusive game that can be comedic, dramatic, and heartfelt. There are some hiccups, sure, but it’s generally satisfying.
Ikenfell is available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.