[Video Game Review] IKAI
Courtesy Endflame
Back in 2018, I worked part-time at an escape room spot in Manhattan. We had four rooms to choose from and our most popular one was called “Maze of Hakaina.” Set in ancient Japan, teams had to escape a dark, mystical maze by defeating several demons that presented puzzles for them to solve. Combining immersive theater, top-notch production value, a compelling story, and smart game design, it’s no wonder why the room was so popular – there simply aren’t many other escape rooms out there quite like it.IKAI, a new first-person horror game by Barcelona-based developer Endflame, reminded me on more than one occasion of “Maze of Hakaina.” Set in feudal Japan, you play as Naoko, the priestess of a shrine, who must survive encounters with several dark entities throughout the course of a night. Along the way, you’ll learn more about her past while exploring the area in and around the shrine, solving puzzles, and defeating these monsters.

While there is a story to be found here, it mostly takes a backseat in favor of immersing players in a highly atmospheric setting and offering up a series of strange set-pieces. If there’s one thing I admire about IKAI, it’s that the game is not afraid to get weird with its enemy encounters. On several occasions, I let out an audible “what the…” when I first caught a glimpse of a foe I had to deal with.

Courtesy Endflame

When dealing with these enemies, IKAI doesn’t have any traditional combat, but offers an interesting spin on the “run and hide” mechanic that’s popular in other indie horror titles (though some of that’s here too). This mechanic comes in the form of drawing protective seals. You’ll encounter objects around the environment that are cursed and, in order to remove the curse, you’ll need to draw out various symbols using an ink quill and then place the completed seal on the item to enchant it. Once the item has been enchanted, it can be used to vanquish enemies. Before you can trace out the symbol with the ink, you’ll need to find a safe place with plenty of light. The catch is that your character can die while tracing these symbols. Some of the creepiest moments in IKAI come from remaining calm under the pressure to complete these tasks before an enemy catches up to you. Sitting at a table and hearing ghostly sounds and seeing spiders crawl across the paper can be chilling. During these moments, I found my best bet was to pick up my stuff and find a different room in order to avoid dying.

While enemy encounters are some of the more memorable moments in the game, it also brings me to my first of many issues with IKAI – the pacing, or in addition, the way the game is surprisingly lacking in tension. Naoko provides narration as a way to advance the story as well as provide hints to the player, but sometimes it felt like her character was handing me the solutions to problems before I even had an opportunity to try and figure them out myself. In fact, sometimes she’d provide me with answers to puzzles I hadn’t even realized I needed to solve yet. This can often take you out of what would otherwise be suspenseful or intriguing moments. I appreciate the game’s desire to keep the player on the right path and not wander around aimlessly, but I couldn’t help but wish it allowed me to solve more on my own. It left me feeling like I was being rushed when I wouldn’t have minded taking my time on certain tasks. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen all the time, but this is unquestionably a linear experience as a whole.

I played on the base PS4 and found that the game generally looks nice enough. Some of the textures aren’t the best, but it runs fine. While I can’t personally speak to the cultural authenticity, the ancient temple made for an immersive setting for this type of horror game, and moments such as when you’re walking up a massive flight of stairs illuminated by torches are effectively cinematic. Along the way, there are collectibles in the form of letters, objects, and “yokais” – supernatural entities from Japanese folklore. These factoids provide an insight into the enemies you encounter within the game and it’s just fun to learn more about the mythology that inspired the game’s story.

IKAI offers multiple language and text options. Voice acting, particularly the English option, isn’t anything exceptional, but I wasn’t distracted by the voice acting so much as I was by the sound mixing throughout the game. Whether it’s the voice acting, music, or sound effects such as opening a door or walking on a creaky floor, it all sounds a bit distant. It’s not the most damning sound design ever, but it can be immersion-breaking at times, which is a big bummer in any game, let alone a horror game where sound is always critical.

Courtesy Endflame

This brings me to another major issue with IKAI – there’s a notable lack of polish overall. Throughout my journey, there were multiple glitches I came across. Every now and then, usually, when it came to reading signs around the environment, the text would disappear after less than a second, making it impossible for me to read anything. On some occasions, there was no voice acting when there was supposed to, and/or voice acting would cut off mid-sentence. These glitches didn’t necessarily hinder my progress in the game, but I do hope they get ironed out in the future.

Technical issues aside, there are simply some problems I have with the core game design. Controls are mostly serviceable for a game like this, but there are some bizarre choices here, including the fact that the game didn’t allow me to control the camera while also moving an object around the environment. For instance, if I wanted to move a stool to the far end of a shelf so I could access an item that was too high up for me to reach, the camera would lock in place while moving the stool. As a result, I would have to exit out of the screen to adjust the camera and see where I had moved the stool to. It’s difficult to understand why this was the case, as plenty of other first-person games allow you to maneuver objects in one fluid motion while controlling the camera.

Puzzles are a mixed bag and, more often than not, I felt that they stopped the game in its tracks rather than providing me with a satisfying challenge. One puzzle required me to match objects to symbols around a room and then input the symbols in the right order on a combination lock, but I found myself just fiddling with the lock until I eventually solved it. There’s another sequence later in the game where I found myself trapped at the bottom of a well that was littered with human bones. In order to escape, I needed to find 4 sticks from the pile and insert them into the side of a wall so that they’d act as a ladder for me to climb my way out. It’s a neat idea, but the actual act of looking for these sticks in a pile of bones felt like a chore rather than using my brain in a fun or engaging way.

[Video Game Review] IKAI
Courtesy Endflame
Neat ideas aside, IKAI left me wanting more – more polish, more interesting level design, more scares, better puzzles. It’s possible that the technical issues I came across might not be a problem on other platforms, but some of the design choices hold the game back from being a truly terrific experience. There’s a rock-solid foundation here, make no mistake. The vast wealth of stories from Japanese folklore could absolutely make for a tremendous psychological horror game and I can envision the developers at Endflame taking what works here and knocking it out of the park with a sequel should they decide to go in that direction.The “Maze of Hakaina” is unfortunately no longer around due to that Manhattan location shutting down back in 2019. While IKAI didn’t quite manage to fill that void for me, it might be worth a trip if you’re someone who’s interested in Japanese culture or simply hungry for a horror title with unique enemies and a beautiful setting. Otherwise, everyone else should maybe wait for a patch or a sale. The yokais aren’t going anywhere, after all.

IKAI releases on March 29th, 2022, and will be available on Steam, Itch.Io, PS5/PS4, Xbox Series X | S / Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. A copy of the game was provided by the PR team for the purpose of this review.

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