Release Date: March 29, 2022
Reviewed On: PS5
Publisher: PM Studios
Admittedly, horror experiences aren’t my forte. I never straight-up avoid the genre, but it’s rarely one I find myself eager for. Regardless, out of a sense of passing curiosity, I decided to dive into Ikai, a first-person horror title by publisher PM Studios honing in on Japanese folklore. While it may not be a particularly impressive venture for dedicated horror game fans, it can be a thrilling time for open-minded genre newcomers.
Throughout Ikai, players control Naoko, a shrine maiden who tends to standard duties such as cleaning and charm-crafting. However, after the priest who trains her leaves the premises, oddities involving the supernatural begin to sprout. Naoko then finds herself indirectly combatting these threats via puzzles and mindful navigation. Those aforementioned factors are the heart of the experience, with the story being relatively light in deliverance. Additionally, the dialogue is all voiced, but the execution is frequently humorous or lacking. Naoko often talks to herself, and while her voice actress tries to sound genuine, she over-emphasizes some statements and exclamations, leading to questionable results.
The gameplay takes place in the first-person perspective, with Naoko able to walk, crouch, examine, and run. Most notably, though, she is entirely defenseless, lacking any offensive options. This seems to be a standard in most horror games, and it works reasonably well here. Naoko is essentially a normal shrine maiden, so her frailty makes complete sense, also serving to amplify the potential feeling of unease. Progression can be generally divided between two phases: stealth, and puzzle-solving. The former is basic and never really inventive, solely comprised of avoiding foes’ line of sight by hiding in applicable spots. Still, the elementary mechanics get the job done and rarely overstay their welcome, granting greater prominence to the puzzle-solving.
Puzzles are actually quite varied, with some requiring timed movements to avoid hazardous scenarios and others necessitating ways to open up required paths. As a beginner to these types of games, I rarely felt overwhelmed by the difficulty these tasks imposed upon me, likely meaning that genre veterans will have a straightforward time. However, regardless of the challenge, the puzzles were enjoyable to figure out. While they may occasionally be too apparent in portrayed clues, I always felt at least moderately satisfied whenever completing one. Further, for those who find themselves stumped during particular instances, Naoko will speak aloud, providing hints.
As for the genre’s namesake, the horror itself, I truthfully never found myself legitimately terrified. There were moments when the bizarre creatures caught me off guard solely because of their otherworldly appearances, but they don’t let out needlessly vocal jumpscares, which is appreciated. At most, players will likely find themselves unnerved by the general atmosphere since Naoko is by herself in a fairly open space. Nevertheless, I was continually on my toes, and any occurrence where another organic being was around felt like a genuine event. It immediately confronted the lonely dread the game primarily houses.
A gameplay mechanic I’ve neglected to mention is charm-crafting, which is just tracing Japanese characters onto a piece of paper. This inclusion can be seen as Naoko’s sole line of defense since it directly contends with the supernatural. Still, the active element of tracing the characters might seem needless initially. Though, I gradually realized that it’s there to instill a sense of impatience since there are events where you must create charms while avoiding nearby monsters. As light in depth as it is, the charm-making granted a neat thrill. There isn’t much to say regarding sound design. Most of the game is quiet, with sporadic noises during enemy arrivals and Naoko’s steps, providing critical trepidation.
Ikai is a light horror experience providing genuinely qualitative puzzle design. Unfortunately, its presentation is somewhat lacking, and its brief playtime may not be enough to satiate some crowds aside from scant collectibles. Regardless, if you’re yearning for a simple but effective horror title, you could do much worse than Ikai.
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