I love horror, and I especially love horror that doesn’t follow the same old patterns of running away from monsters, dying in a rush to escape, and stealthing around rooms to avoid the big bad. Which is why, naturally, when I saw Ikai’s description promising a new type of horror experience not based around running or fighting, I was excited to try out something new and creepy. A first-person horror puzzle game, this story of feudal Japan’s rich supernatural folklore actually comes to us from a small Spanish indie studio, Endflame.
Ikai follows a young shrine maiden, Naoko, tasked with taking care of the shrine while the priest takes off to investigate a disturbing rumor of demons afoot. Her tasks seem mundane enough – sweep up the shrine, draw up some talismans, take the laundry to the river… Unfortunately, her routine trip to wash clothing takes a sinister turn when she discovers a makeshift ritual setup, and evil is unleashed. It’s up to Naoko – all alone at the shrine – to figure out what’s happened, and stop it.
The game seems to take a hard approach to trial and error gameplay – you only really get obtuse hints about what to do next, and no real understanding of the space that you’re exploring. Finding the laundry took a wild amount of time purely because I had no clue where to go or what to do as I pulled out drawers, looked through different areas, and tried to explore the area. You’ll do some kanji drawing as well, which I was actually pretty surprised by how smooth the controls were. To be fair, I study Japanese so drawing kanji isn’t anything new to me, but using a controller drew smoothly and cleanly.
The atmosphere of Ikai is quite creepy and immersive – the sounds in the distance leave you unnerved. I even paused occasionally to convince myself that what I was hearing was only my footsteps echoing through the forest, and not something behind me. You’ll also find papers around, detailing different types of yokai, which definitely made me tensely wonder if I would be meeting any of these creatures soon. The graphics are also quite nicely detailed, though I found myself having to turn off motion blur when it was hurting my eyes far too much.
Unfortunately, I liked the atmosphere significantly more than I enjoyed playing through the prologue. A darkness adjustment would be helpful, as at times it’s far too dark to see objects in the night, and only a small amount of mouseover will tell you that an interactable object is there. I had to go back and visit the ritual site twice in order to realize that I could interact with something there, because my cursor had to go over a very specific spot, and that was even in the waning daylight. The first puzzle was also difficult to work with. In theory I understood it – it’s a pretty common type of puzzle found in games – but on both controller and mouse it was awkward to make moves, and took significantly longer due to all the fumbling. Because the puzzle didn’t hold in place on the screen, the view would constantly shake and move as the game switched between pulling pieces into place and counting your movements as actual character movements.
I was also a little disappointed by the gameplay once the demons came into play. I want to be clear that I absolutely don’t fault a horror game for using conventional horror standards. Running away and sneaking around may not be my cup of tea, but they’re absolutely valid horror game mechanics. However, Ikai’s description seemed to be promising something more new and unique, especially when it says you won’t be running away from your demons. In fact, you will be. Plenty. You’ll be finding safe rooms to hide in, crouching through rooms as you move, fleeing when something chases you, and avoiding the creatures stalking you through the night.
Between this failed expectation, and the rather clunky puzzling, movement, and trial and error, I think Ikai is something I would have to see more of before I decide if I’m actually interested in continuing my playthrough upon release. With a few adjustments, I think it could be a creepily immersive adventure into the legends of feudal Japan, but as-is it didn’t really inspire me to go further.
Ikai comes out March 29th, and you can check out a demo on Steam now for free if you’d like to try it out for yourself.
Order Up! is a column featuring indie-focused reviews, news, or interviews! We like old games just as much as new ones and are always looking for something to check out. Have a game recommendation, a project, or a company you want to talk about? Email me at [email protected] or find me on Twitter @ArcanaChance