Ikenfell: Game Pass first impressions

By Heidi Nicholas,
October is a time of autumn leaves and Halloween horror. But caught up somewhere in all that weird mix of wintery cosiness and scary games is Ikenfell, an utterly charming, turn-based RPG about a magical school, cats, monster battles, cats, troublesome students, and more cats. Ikenfell is a mix of timing-based combat and exploration, with a heavy focus on character and story. You might recognise echoes of other games and worlds, ranging from Celeste to Harry Potter, but Ikenfell is definitely doing its own thing.


That doesn’t mean Ikenfell and I always got along. That timing-based combat is a major part of the game, and it can feel a little clunky and frustrating at first, especially since each spell and attack is timed differently. It’s a bit like watching the line in every fishing activity in every life-sim ever: glaring at the bait as it bobs about until that tiny window when you frantically mash the button before the fish gets away. Ikenfell has that same tiny window for each spell or attack, when waiting until the right moment boosts your damage or saves you from losing too much health, but since each spell moves differently, you’re most likely to get it wrong the first time, causing you to lose a chunk of health or waste a turn. “Nice” means a good hit or block, while “Great” is best, and “Oops” means, well, oops. Each spell has a different animation to make you panic, and it takes a little while as you’re being peppered with dozens of “Oopses!” to learn when exactly you’re meant to react to each — and to keep that in mind for every spell. I'd get Petronella to use Salve, a healing spell, and watch in awe as the bottle she threw explodes into three winding arms of blue light. Quick as a flash, they go zooming towards Maritte and — "Oops!" I missed my moment.

Having said all that, Ikenfell is open to everyone. There are options to change the timing in battle from manual, where you have to land the hits and blocks yourself, to semi-auto, where each hit is always “Nice” but you can still try for a “Great,” and automatic, where everything works perfectly and you don’t need to worry about timing. There’s also an option to instantly win every battle. To make sure all players feel comfortable, there’s also an option to enable warnings before sensitive content happens in the story, and this means Ikenfell has something for everyone — you can take part in every fight, or sit back and focus on the story as and when you feel up to it.

Ikenfell

The combat was a little aggressive at first: not with the difficulty, but with how often enemies were popping up. It was a little tricky to explore Ikenfell’s lovely forests with a horde of angry beasties in tow, and it felt like stepping into Mt. Moon and getting harassed by Zubats every few steps. And my character, Maritte, had only one spell at first, making things feel a tad repetitive. But then Ikenfell picks up: Maritte learns more spells and levels up, other students join your party with new attack moves, and suddenly the combat is much more varied.

Ikenfell’s story revolves around Maritte and her quest to find her sister Safina, who attends the magical school, Ikenfell, itself. Maritte is not a witch, and is instead referred to (slightly insultingly) as an “Ordinary” — that is, until she discovers her own strange and fiery magic, adding another layer to the tale as Maritte attempts to understand what’s happening to her. There’s a definite Celeste vibe to areas of Ikenfell and to the Maritte character — especially when she first discovers her “otherworldly” powers — and that’s by no means a bad thing. I’m only a few hours in, and I can see the story already starting to twist into some darker areas. How does Maritte feel about being left out of Ikenfell? What happens if Safina isn’t who we thought she is? Where Ikenfell feels most promising is in its story-building and the interactions between characters, ranging from the painfully-shy Petronella to the gradually-building mystery around the troublesome Safina.

Ikenfell

The game is beautiful, with falling leaves and vibrant colours, even if the simple pixel art-style can feel a little bare-bones — I went to open what I thought was a little chest of some kind, only to wake up a worried little beast that had apparently just been napping on the table. But Ikenfell just feels magical. This is due in no small part to its beautiful soundtrack, which (apart from one glaring exception) seems more than a little magical itself — it’s easy to lose track of time while playing. And heading to a magical school on a good old-fashioned quest is an irresistible premise. It took me a little time to reach Ikenfell itself: fighting through forests and puzzles and even an innkeeper’s cellar to reach this increasingly mysterious destination only built up the intrigue even more. Ikenfell as a game might not shake up the genre or captivate you forever, but it is full of charm. For instance, petting cats until they purr saves your game and heals you completely, and those cats are helpfully strewn all across your path. The strength of Ikenfell’s story and characters, the wonderful music, all come together in a wash of cutesy pastels, magic, and a gentle sense of humour that makes the whole thing feel like a welcome break to play.

The Ikenfell achievements mostly seem to be based on combat and progression through the story, but 23 of the 27 achievements are secret, so if you’re playing through without spoilers like I am, it won’t always be clear what you’re in for. Battle times can vary depending on which setting you’re playing on, so unlocking all the achievements could take a while depending on how you intend to play. I’ve been playing on manual, but we already have some achievement guides up for Ikenfell, and both neeker75 and Bodom78 say using the auto-victory or auto timing options in battle doesn’t affect the related achievements, meaning you can get those achievements immediately.

Ikenfell Achievements


Summary

When I first thought about this Xbox Game Pass First Impressions bit for Ikenfell, I expected it to end up rated as Pass-able. However, since the whole time I’ve been writing this I’ve been hearing that beautiful soundtrack and thinking about when I’ll next get to go to Ikenfell, it’s definitely going to have to be a FREE PASS. It might not capture you forever, but if you’re looking for something magical, for an escape from everything going on in the world, for your next great indie game, for something to pass the time with on Xbox Game Pass, or something with that beautiful Autumn vibe, Ikenfell might just be for you.

Heidi spent a couple of hours trying (and failing) at timing-based combat, petting cats, and exploring Ikenfell, earning four achievements as she went. She will most definitely be returning to Ikenfell, although she might change the timing settings...
Free Pass
Heidi Nicholas
Written by Heidi Nicholas
Hey, I'm Heidi! I've just finished studying a Masters in English Literature, but I've been obsessed with gaming since long before then. I began on the PS2 with Spyro, before graduating to the Xbox 360 and disappearing into Skyrim. I'm now a loyal RPG fan, but I still like to explore other genres — when I'm not playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey, or being lured back into Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher 3!