PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
Ikai is the debut game from Spanish indie devs, Endflame. In this first-person psychological horror, you play as a young priestess in feudal Japan who is trying to rid her shrine of spirits. It’s an interesting take on Japanese folklore, with some genuinely tense moments. Although, whether it delivers on the promise of being a psychological horror is definitely up for debate.
After your Uncle suddenly disappears, the temple is overcome by Yokai – malevolent or mischievous spirits in Japanese folklore. In order to survive the onslaught, you must explore the Shrine and its surrounding area to find and destroy cursed objects. Once you locate the source of the supernatural energy, you paint protective seals to purify the item and restore balance. At a table, you hold down Circle to apply the ink and use the analogue stick to paint. As you can imagine, it’s not the most accurate design in the world as it can be hard to stay within the lines using only a controller (I imagine this will be easier on PC with a mouse, although I haven’t tested it).
It’s not all plain sailing though; as you gather items to complete a seal, you’re stalked by a spirit that will stop at nothing to destroy you. In one of the earlier purification ceremonies, you’re frantically darting around the Shrine to find some more ink to exorcise a cursed mask. Approaching the library where the ink is stored, a shadowy figure wanders the corridors. Here, you can change into stealth mode by pressing X, which is essentially a crouch that softens your footsteps.
These moments are really tense and you’ll be sweating buckets by the time you make it across safely. Even worse, when you run back to the table to complete the seal you’ll need to do so before the spirits finds you. Friendly warning – you may need a spare change of underwear if you’re too slow. Although jump scares are thought of as cheap, Ikai really knows how to get you at the worst possible time.
Who you gonna call?
It’s refreshing to play a game that eschews combat. Instead, you’ll need to rely on your skills and wits to banish spirits. While much of Ikai involves hiding, fleeing and using stealth, there are a few puzzles thrown into the mix, too. In the second ceremony, you barricade yourself into a room with no exits to avoid being eaten by the Yokai. At first glance, there’s nowhere left for you to run. But if you take the time to examine each object, you’ll notice a series of strange markings that look like some kind of lock combination.
This is probably the strongest puzzle design in the game (although it isn’t particularly original) and provides a welcome change of pace from running around like a Ghostbuster. Sadly, the other puzzles are so obtuse I had to contact the publisher for help. Even after learning the solution, I still had no idea what it meant or how you’re supposed to reach that conclusion from what the environment gives you.
While Ikai creates a tense and unsettling atmosphere through gameplay, the storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. Dialogue is very on the nose and poorly constructed (a result of sub-par localisation, perhaps) and the voice acting is way over the top. Granted, there’s not a ton of narration throughout the game, but the saccharine, child-like American accents really grate. It’s a shame that Japanese voice actors aren’t used given the attention to other cultural details.
Speaking of which, throughout the game you can collect pages of manuscripts detailing Japanese folklore, as well as contemporary artefacts. These can be accessed in the Start menu for more information. Here, you can learn more about the setting and its history/culture, although they don’t ultimately tie in or affect story.
Are you afraid of the dark?
Ikai looks good enough, despite being rough around the edges. It’s clearly aiming towards photorealism, although foliage and certain textures can look a little dodgy. Saying that, it succeeds in creating a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere, from the sparse, shaded forest to the murky underground caves. However, the main issue with Ikai is with lighting. A lot of the temple areas are poorly lit, with sections that are barely visible. This means you’ll likely miss out on important items and interactions. Adjusting the gamma settings in the start menu doesn’t help either, merely bleaching the whole screen. Some of the on-screen icons are also really small, so it can be hard to figure out what you can interact with.
On the whole, Ikai uses sound well to enhance its creepy atmosphere. In the chapel, you’ll hear a rambling of disembodied whispers floating on the air; in the forest, an unsettling caw of crows. Other effects sound cheap, in particular, your footsteps, which are incredibly loud and quite obviously on a loop. The game does enough to immerse you in your surroundings, but the odd noise here and there will take you out of it.
Ikai Review: Final Thoughts
Ikai is an interesting take on the genre with some genuine moments of tension, but it’s nowhere near the scariest thing you’ll ever play. It largely succeeds in creating an unsettling atmosphere, but a lot of the horror comes from jump scares rather than anything deeper or psychological. The earlier purification ceremonies are well designed, although the latter stages of the game are anticlimactic. Given the short gameplay length (it took me around 3 hours to complete), there’s no harm in giving it a go if you’re already a fan of the genre.