There is a review of Ikenfell on Metacritic that dismisses the game entirely, calling it LGBTWTF trash, too obsessed with representation to be a good game. There are of course several other reviews there that are from people who are quite into the game (every game has its fans) and from more levelheaded people who aren’t giant cyber jerks.
That being said, there is little doubting that Ikenfell is one of the most outright queer games I have ever played.
On the surface it doesn’t quite look as much like that. The game is designed in a retro pixel art style that looks like a clever combination of 16 and 8 bit era games. Most gamers will be familiar with that particular style, as it’s become increasingly popular among indie games, particularly RPGs and metroidvanias (which in case it wasn’t increasingly obvious, are two of my favorite genres). Ikenfell definitely leans on the nostalgia, using the aesthetic to create a world that borrows some of that old school, but mostly leans on the charm.
A good portion of that comes from an absolutely stellar soundtrack. I’ve seen reviews and fans point toward sonic similarities with the soundtrack for the Steven Universe show, and that comparison certainly holds. The music is mostly chiptunes, but almost perfectly matches the mood and vibe of the game. One of the best moments for me not just in this game but in my gaming this year was when vocals came in during a few of the numbers. One of the toughest boss battles in the game introduces an actual rap that fits the character it represents and the vibe of the game as a whole.
The basic gameplay is something of a turn based RPG with tactical elements. The game sells itself as an outright tactical RPG, but I wouldn’t say that’s strictly true. You have at most three characters to control across a board that is three spaces wide and quite a few spaces long. You can position the characters and select a variety of different spells, each of which has a varying effect. Each spell has a slightly different timing minigame attached, involving hitting the A button at just the right moment. This idea feels somewhat developed, but it never really goes beyond hitting that button once (even Deltarune, which isn’t timing based, goes further).
Ikenfell makes some interesting moves regarding the overall structure. Most RPG games fall into a pattern of town, dungeon, town, sometimes sliding a field in there in places. Ikenfell takes place entirely at the titular school and its surrounding grounds, but there isn’t really much rest for our protagonists. They go from room to room in the school: the only “safe” area or town is a rest stop that’s nearly in the very beginning of the game. Merchants are scattered throughout that you can use to upgrade gear and items.
The gameplay itself can get a bit draggy. The timing doesn’t always feel quite fair or fully polished for starters. Needing to position characters just right gets tedious, doubly so because you have to click out of menus in order to adjust things. On top of all that, the various areas of the school get as repetitive as you’d expect a real school to get.
You visit libraries four times throughout the game. Four. Times.
So the game definitely isn’t flawless. However, the narrative offers something unique that strikes at the heart of the experience, and that, combine with the music, makes Ikenfell one of the most fun and meaningful games I’ve played this year.
As I stated in the beginning, there’s a review whining about the representation in an entitled manner that dismisses the game entirely because of that. It’s clearly written by a butthurt individual who has some issues, but it also points out one of the cores of this game: it is unabashedly queer.
It doesn’t originally seem so. The main character is Maritte, an ordinary girl who comes to the magic school to find her sister and gets surprise magical powers in the bargain. She meets her sister’s friends first: Petronella and Rook. These two are much more overtly queer: Nel uses “they/them” pronouns (though their gender is never discussed and they’re treated as a female) and Rook is nonbinary.
Again: Rook is non-binary. I know I literally just said that, but I honestly do not know of another game where you can say that of a character. It’s interesting too, because at first Rook appears to be the token male. Their appearance is masculine, their name is ambiguous, and there’s frequently one of those in groups like this (the rest of the cast is female or non-binary). At one point Rook literally corrects another character’s assumptions of their gender in a manner that rings very familiar to those of us who either are that gender or who have friends (of course, my stupid self didn’t get a pic of this OR the “big gay heart” line OR the “I’m so gay” line, because I’m an idiot). It’s handled with remarkable starkness and directness, and probably part of what upset some viewers.
And it does appear as if literally every character in this game is queer to some degree. Reoccurring boss and eventual party member Gilda is quite lesbian (and has the delightful like “I am so gay” after crushing hard on Maritte); lead and power genius Ima uses “ze/zir” for pronouns; Pertisia develops a meaningful relationship with Maritte; and Maritte herself uses the line “I followed my big gay heart” at one point.
Even the various side characters are queer: the party deals with reoccurring joke bosses Ibn Oxley and Bax, who are clearly a male gay couple and the Headmistress has a wife/girlfriend/partner (I’m not certain on that; the confirmation comes from a fan wikis that states she’s female).
The representation is strong here, and it’s very out and center. Those of us who are interested in queer stories and/or in the community are used to needing to read ourselves into stories like this. If there are hints, it usually comes through like in the Fire Emblem parts I mentioned earlier, where queerness is an option and sort of sidelined. Here characters are out front and center to a degree that is rather startling.
I, personally, do sort of wish at least one character present was straight. It feels a little like they’ve overcorrected and went overboard. On the other hand, I was talking about this game with a non-binary friend and mentioned that it was the only one I’ve ever played or seen that had an outright non-binary character. They perked up, and the why was obvious: they had a game where they didn’t have to stretch to see themself as the main character.
That’s all kinds of important. Even the most jaded of us would surely see the need for that level of representation. And there are countless games, RPG and otherwise, that allow us to play straight characters or to just see the queers sidelined or more subtly read. A game that puts the queerness front and center becomes somewhat necessary, though obviously not for all people.
I would take it a step further and argue that the overarching narrative itself has strong elements of queerness. The main crux of the story becomes apparent as the characters follow Maritte’s sister and discover what she’s doing. On one level this feels like your standard Harry Potter/YA homage: the young people fixing what adults can’t. Magic has become twisted and recently broken; Safina (Maritte’s sister) knows why and the rest of the cast are putting together pieces and finding out more behind her. The Adults Are Wrong and the Youth Must Become the Future.
But it becomes less about that as the story goes along: we learn that some adults have been trying to deal with the situation for a while. There struggle becomes framed less as generational and more as a need to address the necessity of change, here represented literally in a cycle of seasons. The literal magic must occasionally be altered and tweaked in order for it to have lasting effect. People must adapt and do things differently. They must be willing to buck the order and attempt to establish something new.
There’s something inherently queer about that, about challenging the order directly and insisting upon the need for flexibility. It doesn’t hurt that the characters doing that are all as out as you could possibly be, eventually even drawing strength from banding together. I’ve written extensively about community (more in my scholarly work than here), and it’s a common theme among queer narratives and culture. We see that developing here in this game, through these characters.
This is what makes Ikenfell such an experience for me and those who are looking for this. We can see this grand narrative and we can see the characters. It’s still not a perfect game or even a perfect experience. Frustrating puzzles and mechanics take away from some of that. There were at least a few points where something irritated me, and sometimes that’s because it got in the way of the more interesting parts: the plot, the characters, the next awesome musical number.
If you’re interested in these narratives, Ikenfell is worth checking out, even if you’re not as much a fan of these sort of games (kinda becoming a reoccuring statement out of me, huh?). The flaws don’t interfere with a great story. And the story is queer almost all the way down. I wish the game had gotten some more polish and a few more interesting areas so I can call it as perfect as, say, Deltarune (or at least one more game I’m going to delve into, one that I swear isn’t as overtly queer as these first four; I like these sorts of games and just happened to hit them first).
Since I do still like ending with a score…
9 incredible music, a cool and queer narrative, and some fun gameplay elements are partially held back by shoddy dungeon design and irritating side moments; none of which make this less a must play for certain audiences.