Just Another Cataclysmic Day As A Shrine Maiden
When it comes to genre-bending titles, Ikai is one such title that is hard to define. One look at the cover is all the player needs to know about what to expect when playing this title. I can imagine walking into a game store, seeing this on a shelf, and immediately saying "Oh is this based on Ringu?" A terrified young woman in the foreground with a pair of beady ghostly eyes looming behind her. That's the feeling players will expect as they explore a cursed forest and shrine.
It doesn't shy away from the fact that it's a horror title, but it's more to it than just jump scares. There are puzzles that both help break tension while adding more to the atmosphere. One of the earliest examples of this is a lock to open the shrine door at the very beginning of the game. How do you open this lock? Well, through sliding puzzles of course. Something simple as opening a shrine door is taken to the extreme with a classic sliding puzzle and this sets the course for Ikai. It's a puzzle horror game, with equal parts in both genres.
Ikai Draws Right To The Chase
Naoko is a young shrine maiden who is being raised by her uncle. She's first seen being taught how to draw seals on talismans, in which the player has to replicate themselves. The brush strokes are slow and precise, yet the kanji symbols don't have to be precise themselves. After several drawn talismans, Naoko cleans up the shrine while having a flashback about her sister. Just like the sealing practice, the player has to play tag while "blindfolded."
As Naoko is blindfolded, the player can still sense the presence of their sister, amplified by the sounds they omit. This is one of the things that Ikai does well, as the stereo sound is easy to identify the source of where it's coming from. Even dangerous spirits that are out of Naoko's vision can still be heard, with this exercise being a tutorial example. While the risk of danger isn't present, the potential danger is.
From The Forest To The Shrine, Atmosphere Is Everything
As Naoko makes their way to the forest, there are trees as tall as the eyes can see. Environmental sounds as well as the lack of visibility help instill a feeling of dread. Even in broad daylight, the stillness of the forest coupled with Naoko's slow movements means one is uncertain where to go or what awaits them. Fortunately, Naoko occasionally talks to herself by giving away hints as to where to go next. One example is Naoko telling herself to "see no evil." In front of her are three jade monkey statues, each representing the "three wise monkeys" she's referring to.
Whatever path is behind the monkey that covers its eyes is the right path. In the beginning, there is no penalization for going the wrong way, but everything changes once the game begins. At some point, she approaches a shrine with a knife and upon holding the knife, Naoko will fall. Time will pass and it's the dead of night. The "seal" is broken and the "gods have left," but this is where the fun begins.
Nowhere Is Safe With No Way To Defend Yourself
There are interactable objects throughout the forest that foreshadows the dangers that Naoko will face, which includes information on the various yokai. There's one yokai that's described on a piece of paper as a giant head that falls from a tree, crushing unsuspecting travellers. The moment the demons are released, sure enough, giant demon heads will attempt to crush Naoko while serving as a jump scare. The stillness of the forest continues yet the lingering darkness of the aftermath remains. Suddenly the peaceful yet mysterious forest is hostile and yokai will attempt to subdue the shrine maiden.
After moving past the demon heads, a path will obstruct Naoko in the form of a river of fire. The player can attempt to run past the fire, but will immediately succumb to the flames while doing so. These are how deaths are handled in Ikai. The player doesn't "die" in a gory fashion which would contradict its Teen rating, but rather the game will force the player to restart until they solve the puzzle.
Ikai Is Short, Yet Sweet
The MSRP for the digital release of this game is $15, which is $20 less than the physical release but it does includ exclusive goodies like stickers. I mentioned the price because looking at playthroughs from those who aren't idiots like me and are able to solve the puzzles, the average playtime is two hours. When I said that it "draws to the chase," it wasn't just a brush strok pun. Ikai ends just as abruptly as it begins, in the same time it would take to complete a chapter of an average game.
This isn't a bad thing, however, as it doesn't overstay its welcome. The game takes about as long as a player would in understanding what it requests of the player. The atmospheric nature doesn't go away nor does the sheer helplessness. While it doesn't hold your hand outside of vocal clues, it isn't impossible to progress. The game's way of quickly loading the player back in should they fail, encourages the player to press on. Ikai lures the player in with its mystique and horror while trapping them with an engaging story and unique puzzle. The amount of content correlates to the price tag and it's a must try for those invested in the horror genre.
Ikai is available on Windows, PS4, and PS5