Manifesting a Japanese Ghost Story in Ikai
You can probably say it’s almost October. When games like The mortuary assistant, Cursed at golfand I’m on observation duty 5 start showing up on GiN’s homepage, then you’ll know it’s getting closer to that spooky time of year. Ikai fits perfectly with them.
Ikai is a first-person horror game centered on Japanese folklore. You play as Naoko, a young girl who is left alone in a village while her uncle goes to another nearby village. The story begins innocently enough. You clean the shrine and do the laundry before nightfall. However, traveling outside the village walls to the nearby river, you come across a knife and a bowl. While picking up the knife, you accidentally cut yourself and passed out. When you wake up, you realize that something has gone terribly wrong. There are monsters now because they kind of woke up.
The rest of the game is spent solving puzzles and writing sigils to destroy evil creatures. A twist at the end reveals why these creatures are attacking you and what you need to do to stop them.
I was not a big fan of Ikai. Although horror games aren’t really my thing (I always think I’ll like it, and then the first scary thing happens and I walk out), my husband, Neal, has revisited dozens of them over the years. He was not a big fan of Ikai That is. I say this to prove that my adversity at horror games is not the reason I dislike Ikai. And even though I don’t like horror, I’m a big fan of folklore. I was excited about Ikai due to its focus on Japanese folklore, but the game does more to say than show.
Encyclopedia-like pages of information on different monsters are spread throughout the game, but the only time you encounter these creatures are jump scares, so you barely get to experience the folklore itself. same. There are a few creatures stalking you that you need to hide from, but the majority of the horror comes simply from jump scares.
The only time I felt like the horror was done right was at the beginning, when you had to seal the evil inside a mask. The cupboard containing the mask emits hurried, overlapping whispers as you approach. When you pick up the porcelain mask, the inside of it shakes and is enveloped in a black coating. There’s another little bit towards the end where you’re trapped in a room. The table is thrown violently towards you, and a lamppost begins to spin widely as there is a thud at the door. I wish the game leaned into more moments like this than cheap jumps.
The majority of gameplay involves running and hiding from monsters, solving puzzles, and writing seals. Ikai is also brief in duration. Many players are able to complete the game in about an hour. I think there are only four puzzles in the whole game. The puzzles are not really difficult, but they are confusing. The two puzzles at the end seem to be solved by brute force or trial and error. Sigil writing can be tricky at times, especially with the threat of a monster jumping at you, but after the first half dozen times it just becomes an annoying inconvenience. Between its brevity and the absence of real challenges, Ikai really isn’t that fun, and there’s virtually no replay value.
The only reason I held on was because I was curious about the plot, but that quickly turned into a disappointment as well. The story takes place in one night in an abandoned village. I say village, but it looks like only Kaoko and her uncle lived there. The plot is mostly conveyed by Naoko’s clumsy narration. Some of what Naoko says doesn’t even make sense, and she often alludes to something but doesn’t go into other explanations, so you wonder why she even said anything.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but let’s just say that the majority of the plot is revealed in two big letters towards the end of the game. I also didn’t find the plot conclusion satisfying at all. Naoko’s solution to the monster problem was most likely deeply rooted in the feudal Japanese culture the game is set in, but even so it wasn’t properly conveyed. I can’t speak to current Japanese culture, but from a Western perspective, the solution was a bit disappointing.
The graphics are just meh. They’re pretty standard, but everything is dark and muted. The monster designs are creative, if a little cartoonish at times, but you really only get a glimpse of them when they come to rip your heart out. The sound on the other hand is really good. The floors creak constantly and far too loudly, and you can often hear scratching and scampering nearby. The sound effects do a good job of keeping you going as you navigate the many halls and halls of the village.
Globally, Ikai gains 2.5 out of 5 GiN gems. He has a lot of potential, but sadly falls flat with his execution. With the brevity of this title, the jerky and convoluted plot and the lack of true horror, Ikai leaves a lot to be desired.