There’s no shortage of RPGs to choose from nowadays, but none of them are as diverse and unapologetically queer as Happy Ray Games’ Ikenfell. While modern gaming is slowly becoming more inclusive by adding a gay character here and there and changing their social media banners during Pride Month, Ikenfell puts its entire cast — with non-binary, asexual, bisexual, and homosexual representation, not to mention multiple non-white characters — front and center. I’m a straight white dude, but I’m so happy for my marginalized friends and family to have an entire game to relate to, rather than just a very tiny slice.
Ikenfell itself is a witch school that teaches magic and alchemy to its budding students, but a mysterious event occurs that alters the very fabric of magic as they know it. You play as Maritte, who visits Ikenfell in search of her missing sister (and Ikenfell student) Safina. Upon arriving, however, something awakens in Maritte that grants her the power of fire magic. In this world you’re either born with magical abilities or you aren’t, with the latter being referred to as “Ordinaries,” which Maritte had been up until now. Safina, however, had a knack for magic and left home to attend Ikenfell, but all communication abruptly ceased, leading to these opening events.
When Maritte enters Ikenfell and meets up with some of Safina’s fellow students, it appears that none of them are sure of her whereabouts. Hell, they didn’t even know that she had a sister at all. There are memory shards spread across the school grounds that act as flashbacks, with some of the earliest ones showing Safina acting out in class, butting heads with other students, and becoming frustrated by the slow nature of her curriculum. You eventually pair up with Safina’s two best friends, who come to the conclusion that maybe Safina was keeping even more secrets than expected.
The events that follow are wonderfully plotted out over the course of 15-or-so hours. You’ll gradually meet up with more students and faculty, whose individual stories all seem to connect with Safina in one way or another. It’s pretty lighthearted early on, but it definitely goes places and isn’t shy about its characters’ sexual orientation and gender identity. It never once portrays this in a negative light, or abnormal, which is refreshing. Basically, it doesn’t read like a straight person wrote gay characters. Their struggles don’t revolve around how straight people view them and nobody is there to question someone’s non-binary identity. It’s a diverse cast overcoming familiar fantasy tropes like self-doubt, power struggles, rivalries, and plot twists.
Ikenfell also has an interesting take on the turn-based subgenre of RPGs, feeling more like Radiant Historia and Mega Man Battle Network and less like Final Fantasy or Persona. There’s a visible turn order at the top of the screen that lets you strategically plot out your next moves, but you’re also given the ability to maneuver around a small grid like a bite-sized Fire Emblem. Your positioning is important since certain skills can only target specific tiles, groups of enemies, and so on. It’s familiar enough and easy to grasp after just a few battles.
It also peppers in a bit of Paper Mario quick-time events, rewarding well-timed button presses to increase the power of attacks and reduce the amount of damage received. I thought this was a very cool addition to an already refreshing take on turn-based combat, but it became tedious after a few hours as battles aren’t exactly short. Thankfully, you can turn this off in the options menu and turns will play out as if you always had perfect timing. There’s also an instant victory ability you can toggle to immediately win battles if you find yourself struggling or you don’t feel like grinding levels out the long way. This makes for a more relaxed experience and doesn’t disable achievements like some other games that offer similar options.
Overall, Ikenfell was an awesome experience that I thoroughly enjoyed and have very little to complain about. The pixel art is fantastic, with an overworld that reminded me of A Link to the Past and different character sprites in and out of battle. Oh, and you save your game by petting cats. The soundtrack is incredible as well, featuring a laundry list of bangers that wouldn’t feel out of place within Earthbound or Mega Man X. Certain characters even have their own vocal themes, which all ruled.
Ikenfell is a great turn-based RPG that trims the genre’s bloat and accomplishes a lot in 15 hours. If you’re a fan of these types of games then it’s worth checking out whether you feel represented or not. However, I’d imagine you’ll enjoy it even more if you’ve felt unseen over the years.
I played the Xbox version through Game Pass, but it’s hard to recommend that method since it leaves the subscription service in just a few days. It’s available to buy there, as well as Switch, PlayStation, and PC, for $19.99 USD and I’ve seen it go on sale pretty often.
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