We’ve seen enough Japanese-inspired horror over the years to last a lifetime, with most of it spurning nothing more than cheap thrills and failed jump scares along with unwanted folk tales that do little to leave a lasting impression. On the odd occasion however it has been known that cult classics have also been born from the tales of Japanese-inspired horror, with media efforts such as Ju-On: The Grudge, The Ring and cult classic gaming hit Forbidden Siren being the standout efforts that live long in the memory. Now Ikai looks to try to join those famed titles, but does it have the quality to reach those lofty heights or is it another forgettable folktale to add to the list.
The story of Ikai sets players into the shoes of a local shrine maiden and head priestess of a secluded shrine named Naoko. Things start off fairly reasonably with some signs needing writing up before you head out for a laundry run down the local river close by after your uncle leaves you in charge, but from this point on things only go from bad to worse as it’s quickly revealed that the supernatural spirits of the Yokai have been unleashed on the world, overrunning the very temple Naoko is expected to look after, and with her extensive knowledge of both Yokai and the supernatural it is only reasonable that you’d be expected to banish these evil spirits once and for all and seal them away where they cannot return.
Now before we get into just how well this translates – or rather doesn’t in this case, let it first be known that in terms of atmosphere and tension, Ikai hits all the right notes. From environmental design to sound or artistic flair, you name it, Ikai masters it in terms of getting the right feel from a creepy horror/thriller experience. Whether it’s the lighting and shadows that light up each environment, the detail in level design, or even the sudden jolt of sound as the music plays you into the next area of interest, there is some fantastic work that has been done here to truly resonate a frightening and creepy vibe and that is something that only shines more and more as you progress throughout the relatively short 3 to 4-hour experience.
Something that definitely plays into and aids the environmental fear factor, is the lack of options to attack, be it through the distinct lack of weaponry or attacking abilities, with stealth or simply running away your only options throughout the game as puzzles are instead used to banish the Yokai entities that are running about the land. Puzzles are a huge part of the game too. None of them are overly confusing but it goes without saying this is very much a game that relies on some well-placed scares and clever puzzles to see things through to the end.
The one thing that truly faults Ikai from being a truly memorable experience is the poor localization present within the game. Sure, Japanese to English is going to have a few hiccups along the way, but throughout the game, there are several moments in which even hints are completely useless as they just don’t translate well enough to give a clear understanding of what is supposed to happen next. Puzzles are where this shows most with some puzzles completely confusing things, and that’s even with some of the straightforward puzzles.
This mixed with forgettable storytelling for the most part that expects players to link the story together with minimal pieces of narrative as you progress, and a lack of any real link to the protagonist, and you start to see where this adventure needs to improve. Sure, the environments and sound design are all fantastic, but with no real link to the protagonist’s storyline, or any explanation as to why Naoko is being haunted at all, we are really just looking at an impressive art piece rather than a memorable horror experience.
That’s not to say everything is stunning, with some textures and even certain items looking to need a bit more polish, but with clever lighting, many of these are hidden relatively quickly.
Back to a positive though and it must be said that the enemies you’ll face off against within Ikai sure do make for some great nightmare fuel, with demonic beings and hideous creatures aplenty, some of which are purely bizarre such as walls with eyes, whilst others such as the freakish spider or the random heads that fall from trees tend to fall more in line with the pure creepy side of things.
The final point to note is the controls as these don’t quite fit as nicely onto a controller as you would like. Now that’s not to say they are simple enough, in fact the controls are as basic as they can be for such a game and are pulled off well on a controller as opposed to the mouse and keyboard experience we got when playing through the preview, but with a little too much stiffness when doing things such as painting symbols or making minor movements, there can be a few occasions in which you’ll make a mistake purely because the controls didn’t quite do what you wanted them to, exactly when you wanted them to do it. It’s not a complete game breaker but it is definitely a noticeable irritation that becomes obvious early on and lingers throughout.
Overall and if you like horror games that pick up on typically used tropes or ones that have atmospheric tension dripping from every angle, then Ikai is probably going to call out to you. If you’re wanting a polished Japanese scare-fest, then you may want to either wait for a few updates or skip this one until a sale rolls around. It’s not a game you should avoid entirely but even with incredible audio and fantastic atmospheric design, this isn’t likely to be the biggest horror you’ll play this year, but in the same breath it will be far from the worst.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox Series S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.