I hadn’t heard a lot about Ikenfell, but there was one person whom I follow on Twitter who repeatedly said very positive things about it, in a way that got me interested. So, when I hit a break in the higher priority games for me to play, I figured I’d give Ikenfell a try; it’s been ages since I’m played a 2d pixel-art RPG, I might as well see where the genre is at these days, and this one might be interesting?

At first, the main thing that struck me was that there’s an active attack / defense aspect to the combat. It’s reminiscent of Paper Mario in that regard; the feeling is a little different, because in Ikenfell every move feels different to react to in a way that Paper Mario doesn’t. And maybe Ikenfell asks for a little more precision than Paper Mario, I found myself failing to get the best result more often than I remember doing in Paper Mario games; but, the flip side was that reliable perfect execution wasn’t required, it seemed to go well enough as long as you basically did the right thing most of the time.


So that’s the mechanics; a pleasant change of pace. In terms of story, it’s about a magical school. My first reaction on hearing that, without thinking about it too much, was a positive one; I’ve enjoyed school stories in the past, I’ve enjoyed magical school stories in particular, and maybe that’ll make the story a little more localized than the sort of “save the world” plot that RPGs too often have? The flip side, though, is that these days I think differently about, say, Harry Potter than I used to; most of that is the author, of course, but some of that is the genre. (I still love Earthsea, though.)

Digging a bit more into my reaction to a school-based RPG: the parts of RPGs that make me feel the best are almost always the towns. They’re just so much more human and more humane than the overworld and the dungeons: that’s where you see people’s lives instead of just slaughtering monsters. And a school story feels like a way to lean into that aspect of RPGs.

The thing, is, though: as I played Ikenfell more, it actually takes the opposite approach. The school isn’t in session, so you don’t have crowds of students; and something has gone wrong, so monsters are everywhere. So, in fact, the town aspect of Ikenfell is minimal: I can actually only think of one location in the game where you just see people hanging out together, and that’s a place that you have to go out of your way to return to. (And it’s static, too, people’s reactions to you don’t change.)

So the game ends up being very heavily weighted towards dungeon crawls. As dungeon crawls go, they’re pleasant enough: you’re not going through some abstract lair, you’re going through a dorm or a library or a department’s building or something. So there’s a sense of place in each of them; it’s just a sense of place that is overlaid with monsters rather than humans.


So, if you’re looking for human interactions, you’re not going to get them from the environment; you’ll get them from the party, and from some of the NPCs that you fight. (And, that, unsurprisingly, often end up joining your party.) That part of the game, in a quiet way, turns out to be rather good, in my opinion the strongest aspect of the game.

You play a girl who is visiting the school to look for your sister. And as you’re trying to find her, you run into her friends. And a complex picture emerges: your sister isn’t an angel, she definitely has flaws, and she’s hurt the feelings of her friends. And she’s hurt the feelings of people who think of your sister as more of an enemy than as a friend.

And, as you hear about this, and also hear about the past interactions between the various people who make up your party, a more complex picture emerges, and one that is realistic and meaningful. People have reasons to have had their feelings hurt; but, also, people make mistakes, and the fact that you’ve hurt somebody’s feelings doesn’t mean that you’re inherently a horrible person, it means that you screwed up and have some learning to do? And it was pretty neat watching the game deal with these issues, watching characters process what’s happened to them (not all of which centers around your sister, incidentally: everybody has their own issues) and figure out how they want to deal with that going forward.

Also, for what it’s worth, if your personal friend group is the sort of friend group where it’s unusual for people to be straight and where it’s normal for people to use nonstandard pronouns, then you’ll find aspects of Ikenfell that make you feel at home.


So Ikenfell does well on the small scale. There’s still too much of the large scale in the game for my taste; it’s an RPG, though, so I don’t exactly blame it for having you more or less save the world and for having a bit of a chosen one aspect, but I could have done without that. (Though, given that it takes place at a school of magic, it would be hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be some amount of chosen one syndrome…)

The upshot: I’m glad I played Ikenfell. On the whole, it isn’t quite what I wanted, but it does one unusual thing rather well, and the active aspect of the RPG system is also a nice change of pace. And there were some good lines, and one or two piece of music that I rather liked? And one way in which it’s pleasantly nonstandard for an RPG is its length; I was done in two weeks, six or seven play sessions, which is quite a bit faster than most RPGs take me.

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