A turn-based role-playing game using a retro sprite-based art style isn’t hard to come by nowadays, with the indie gaming market booming with them every other week. But Ikenfell, a new game from Happy Ray Games, slapped me in the face with pleasant surprises again and again as I played. Fun and well-written characters, a gripping story, and great music and sound design all surrounded my personal highlight of the game: a deep battle system that heavily impressed me.
Ikenfell absolutely nails the retro charm that so many other games constantly try to accomplish, but in a way that feels different from other games of the same vein. While so many retro-inspired indie games go for the NES or SNES look, Ikenfell seems to go for more of a Game Boy Advance feel. From the sprite work to the music that combines chiptune instrumentation with traditional instruments, Ikenfell kept bringing me back to the days of playing RPGs like the Legacy of Goku series and Zelda games on the GBA with their visuals and accompanying sounds.
Ikenfell begins by throwing you right into the mystery as main character Mariette goes on a quest to find her sister, Safina, who’s gone missing from the magical school, Ikenfell. As Mariette travels on her quest, she awakens from being a non-magical Ordinary into a pyro-magic wielding fighter. She also meets rivals and friends of Safina, who may help her along the way as they discover the dark secrets of the school and find Safina’s whereabouts. The story unveils itself through a mix of unspoken exploration and lots of heartwarming, dialogue-filled cutscenes with enough well-written jokes that I was laughing the whole way through. And for those worried about the balancing of plot, battles, and exploration, be assured that every gameplay element is scattered about so well that nothing feels invasive or overdone.
With this perfect mix of elements, the game does a great job at presenting the sense of wonder of this magical world, as well as the mystery Mariette becomes wrapped up in. This mythical tone is reflected in the fulfilling puzzles, the designs of the enemies, and the many very diverse and fun characters.
But if there’s one thing I love to have in my RPGs, it’s a strong battle system to keep me interested and to help with the potential monotony of grinding. Spoilers: This game absolutely has that.
Ikenfell’s battle system brings together many familiar mechanics from RPG systems of the past. Leveling up to earn new skills, battle options taken in turns, and a tactical RPG movement grid are all present here, with Happy Ray Games refining it all into a darn near perfect combat experience. The battles are done in the usual turn-based style but with all of the characters on a grid, similar to mini-tactical RPGs like South Park: Stick of Truth, with each character’s speed attribute determining how many turns they get in succession. This first layer of the combat system puts a strong emphasis on when and where you want to be during a fight, and the game teaches you this through trial and error with the early and easier enemy encounters.
The movement-focused nature of the game continues to be prevalent as battles get harder, due to both the player characters and the enemies you encounter gaining such a wide variety of abilities. In the case of both playable characters and enemies, no two abilities are the same. Each attack has different effects and can cover a different area of the battle grid. This opens the door for characters to get away from enemy attacks, so they can use acts of defense, whether it’s to heal, give themselves a stat boost, or even just get a breather while another character goes in for damage.
The next layer to this combat system is the fact that there is friendly fire active for everyone on the field. Many times I had to think about whether I wanted to drop damage on an ally unit to get a big hit on a boss character, since they were so close to each other. I also found myself strategizing and getting what’s basically a multi-hit combo on enemies by either getting them to attack an ally right after one of my turns, due to positioning, or defeating a smaller unit and getting them to explode and damage one of their allies. The latter of these strategies actually got me out of quite a few near-death moments during boss battles. This truly feels like the core of Ikenfell’s battle system and makes it all the more unique compared to other RPGs under the same umbrella. What’s even more amazing is that there’s still another mechanic thrown into the mix.
Ikenfell incorporates a rhythm pressing element to the battles, very similar to that of the Paper Mario, Super Mario RPG, and the Mario & Luigi games. Each attack, both by the player characters and their enemies, has specific rhythms that the player can catch onto, and if you press the corresponding button at the right time, you’re able to either stack on more damage or negate damage. This system makes it important to, essentially, learn every move and its timing, because that can spell the difference in losing or winning a battle. This is doubly apparent when you’re introduced to the clutch mechanic, a comeback mechanic that can save your character from a hit of death as long as your defensive timing on the killing blow is perfect. For those who may struggle with this mechanic, there are options for manual, semi-auto, and auto defenses, with the latter two options making the timing element easier or completely doing away with it.
Each of these elements come together to make an addictive combat sandwich that hasn’t gotten old for me yet, and I’m quite a ways into the story. The system makes for challenging battles that require me to actively think about cause-and-effect with even the smallest elements. “Will moving to point A get my ally hurt at point B?” “If I attack here, can I potentially get this enemy to hit my target as well?” These questions, among many others, are going to be ones that you’ll be asking yourself as you play through Ikenfell. Sometimes the smallest misstep can get you bodied big time, depending on who you’re fighting.
All in all, Ikenfell is a successful trek into the new but familiar territories of the RPG world. If you want a fun cast of diverse characters, good art, amazing music from Aivi & Surasshu (the composing duo behind Steven Universe’s soundtrack), a fun story, or a deep tactical battle system, then Ikenfell should be on your radar, because it has all of the above.