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Ikenfellboxart.jpg.416969e1e1d78482105f216b4dedfdb7.jpgIkenfell takes place in a school of magic, and we're going to breeze right past any comparisons or references to a certain famous school of witchcraft and wizardry and get right to the heart of this game. With retro pixel art graphics, a cozy soundtrack and a battle system rich with strategic opportunities, Ikenfell balances a classic RPG formula with engaging combat. The cute graphics belie a surprisingly challenging adventure though.
You play as Maritte, a girl who journeys to the Ikenfell school of magic because her sister who attends the school, Safina, has gone missing. Maritte is an Ordinary (not a mage), but within the opening moments of the game strange magical abilities awaken within her, and she'll have to battle her way through a school that has become overrun with odd magic to rescue her sister. The story moves along at a brisk, almost mechanical pace—find a new clue, meet a new friend, then explore another part of the school—but the emotional core of the game certainly deserves praise. This is a charming cast of characters who all have their flaws and foibles, and gradually open up to one another in touching ways. There's a lot of realistic representation of personal struggles and coming to terms with identity even within this fanciful magic setting as well as strong LGBTQ+ representation, and it's very easy to grow attached to these characters over the course of a 15 hour or so playthrough.
The star of the gameplay in Ikenfell is the battle system. It's turn-based and tactical—characters act based on speed, meaning some could even act twice before another acts once—and takes place on a 12x3 battlefield grid. Characters can move around the battlefield and every attack (or spell) has a certain range or area of effect, so positioning yourself well is key. You may also want to group your characters up so you can cast AoE healing or buffs. At the same time though, this might leave you open to enemy AoE attacks, so there's always a strategic gamble in positioning your characters. Ikenfell also uses a timing system similar to Mario RPGs—by hitting the A button at the right time, you can boost the damage of your attacks or reduce the damage of incoming attacks. These aren't just minor bonuses either. For some spells, missing the timing means there's no effect whatsoever, and with most spells you'll more than double or triple your damage output.
It's a wonderfully fresh battle system that makes every encounter engaging, whether it's a long, drag-out boss fight or a simple skirmish with normal enemies. You can't just rush forward mindlessly lest you put a character in a dangerous position, and you have to learn each spell's timing to put them to the best possible use. That added level of engagement makes every battle nicely rewarding, which is especially nice since Ikenfell doesn't have random encounters, so facing an enemy or trying to run around them is always a choice.
That said, the timing system might be a double-edged sword for Ikenfell. The extreme difference between a miss and a success can be pretty frustrating, especially early in the game when your healing options are so limited. A successful block might reduce damage down to 1 hit point, but a fail might deal 5 points, a huge chunk of your max health early in the game. It's always tricky encountering a new enemy as well, when you don't know the right timing for all of its attacks. All of this is to say, the difficulty is perhaps not quite balanced perfectly, which may turn off players who don't click with the timing system right away.
The good news though is that there are difficulty options to make battles easier. For one, you can just turn on an instant win option to let you basically skip through any encounter. The other, less extreme option is to turn on semi-auto or full auto modes, which automatically give you a "nice" or a "great" rating on any timed button press, respectively (nice increases/reduces damage a bit, great does it a lot). These still feel somewhat like bandaids or at least overpowered options to make the game easier, and the core gameplay should probably have been balanced instead, but they're great options for anyone that just wants to see the story.
There is also, naturally, a bit of exploring to do in this RPG. It's not the most elaborate, but there are some fun environmental puzzles here: flip the right switches to open a path, collect the keys, etc. The exploration side of Ikenfell is undeniably light compared to the rich combat system though. There also isn't much in terms of side quests here, which is unusual for an RPG and feels like a small missed opportunity—it's a school of magic, there are endless possibilities for side adventures.
The game's retro pixel artwork looks a bit like every other retro pixel art game out there. Most enemy designs are pretty basic and the scenery can feel flat—character portraits in particular are surprisingly repetitive, simple designs—though some of the little touches in animation are particularly charming, like one character swaying her arms back and forth while talking. The soundtrack however is excellent and perfectly captures the energy of the game: cute and cozy at times balanced out with adventurous, mysterious moments.
Ikenfell is a charming and engaging bite-sized RPG, perfect for fans of the genre that want a game that won't eat up dozens upon dozens of hours. The strategic combat system and timing mechanics do mean that this isn't quite an adventure for novice players, but if you're able to overcome the high difficulty spikes, you'll be rewarded with a heart-warming RPG.
Rating: 8 out of 10 Spells
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