Last year I was introduced to Yokai by Kwaidan ~Azuma Manor Story~. A neat little survival horror game, that had its issues, but also had a charming cast of pretty goofy creatures.

Ikai on the other hand is more of a horror walking simulator, focusing more on puzzles and exploration – but also contains some far more serious and terrifying versions of Japanese folklore. A promising premise for sure, but can it pull it off? Horror walking simulators hardly have the best reputation, after all.

Many thanks to PM Studios for the review code.

IKAI MAIDEN
Ikai tells a relatively simple tale. Set in feudal Japan, you take control of Naoko, a shrine maiden who lacks confidence in herself, but still goes about doing her duties whilst her uncle is away in order to maintain the shrine. As she’s out in the forest, she stumbles across a blade and loses consciousness; as she comes around, she realises that the sacred ground has been overrun by evil Yokai spirits. So begins her journey to seal them away and find the root of the problem; but in doing so she is going to have to confront the horrors of her own past too.

The story is told relatively well, even if there are some issues at times with the pacing – with the start of the game in particular feeling like a bit of a drag. You’re asked to find certain things that can be quite difficult to spot at first, especially as you’re not entirely sure what it is you’re looking for let alone where it is. Naoko also has a habit of repeating her objectives a little too frequently at times, which only serves to irritate you even more as you start walking around in circles. The worst part is a ‘tag’ section that occurs during the opening segment; the idea is fine in itself, but you inexplicably fall over whenever you try to run for more than a second. It becomes infuriating really quickly.  The sequence itself is a setup for a later gameplay sequence, as you’d expect; only that later part doesn’t have you trip over, which makes its inclusion in the opening even more baffling.

Things pick up after the demons start arriving, but the pacing still isn’t quite perfect. Each narrative section focuses on one main Yokai that you need to banish, but the game is heavily weighted towards the second and final ones; not only are the others used far less, but I barely even saw them – which is a real pity. One of them changed the environment up in such a way that it quickly became a memorable highlight for me – only for that sequence to be all over within five minutes. Considering the one before lasted for such a long time, it’s a little disappointing that the others weren’t given the same level of attention.

Thankfully, this uneven storytelling isn’t too much of an issue. As the story progresses, you’ll gradually get more engrossed with Naoko and her world. It’s a terrifying world too, with the atmosphere in particular being spot on. After Kwaidan, I was expecting a similar level of goofiness, but that is not the case here. The demons are portrayed in a genuinely unsettling manner and verge on terrifying. The developers chose their starring Yokai well to ensure that the game keeps you on  the edge of your seat. Whilst Ikai does have the odd jump scare, it doesn’t rely on them. It manages to build up a level of tension to ensure that those cheap scares don’t feel so cheap – they feel earned.

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SEAL OF APPROVAL
Naoko is no action hero, so she has to rely on her wits to overcome the horrors that await. She’s not entirely defenseless though, since as a priestess she is able to draw magical seals that can be used to banish the Yokai. That’s not going to help her most of the time, however, as she needs to seek out the artifact that the creature is using to draw its power and attach the seal directly to it. For some reason she also has to inexplicably draw these seals on a table whilst seated on a cushion, presumably because there are certain traditions she should abide by – even when she’s being hunted by dangerous monsters. Stealth can be used to her advantage too, but it’s not used as frequently as you’d expect, and these sequences are also quite forgiving. When stealth fails, fleeing is also an option and this too can be quite tense. Yokai encounters are really well done and I never found any of the encounters frustrating in any way.

Most of the time, however, you’ll either be exploring or puzzle solving. Controlling Naoko is relatively simple, with very few controls to worry about. Most of the time, you will be focused on moving and interacting with things. Much like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, interacting with things is typically done manually. By holding the button and moving in a direction, you’ll slide or open things as appropriate, which you can then use to find objects or to navigate the environment. It works well and doesn’t feel particularly clunky, although the default camera speed is way too slow; this can be adjusted in the settings to fit your requirements, so you shouldn’t find it an issue for too long.

It’s the puzzle part of the game that surprised me the most, however. Right off the bat, you’re given a pretty challenging puzzle just to open the front door! Whilst it’s not that difficult, it was certainly tougher than I had expected for the first puzzle in the game. Overall, the puzzles are usually decent, with a nice variety of puzzle types to keep you entertained. They’re not all perfect, with one towards the end being infuriatingly obtuse, but by and large they make a nice break from the rest of the action. Naoko does offer hints every now and then for certain puzzles, but they tend to be a mixed bag in terms of actual helpfulness. The clue for the aforementioned puzzle was so vague that it bordered on misleading. It would have been nice if the game had a layered hint system, with Naoko offering more useful advice if you’ve spent a long time on one puzzle with no success.

As for the game’s audiovisual presentation, the game is surprisingly well put together. The art direction is superb, with the game looking quite stunning at times; and the soundtrack is flawless, giving the game a very eastern horror feel that chills you to your bones. The voice acting is the only thing that really lets it down, with the protagonist being fine for the most part, but the secondary characters range from stilted to downright irritating. Given the setting, I think that having Japanese VA with subtitles would probably have worked a little better.

It’ll probably take you around 2-3 hours to get through the game, but there are many collectible items for you to find that will potentially extend your game time. Letters provide extra story context, but you can also record information on certain objects and Yokai too; the latter of which will prove particularly fascinating to those interested in the folklore, but it’s probably not enough to encourage you to play through the game again. Ikai is short enough not to outstay its welcome, which I appreciate, but at the same time it would have been nice if some of the underutilised creatures had a little bit more time devoted to them.

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Ikai started off weak, but ended up being a pretty fun and atmospheric horror game by the end. The Yokai are really well done, and the game features some great set pieces; it’s a shame then that it’s let down by underutilised Yokai and some sections that fall a little flat. Despite those issues, anyone looking for a horror game based on Japanese folklore may find what they are looking for here.