[Hands-On Preview] ‘Ikai’ Paints Fascinating Japanese Folklore Onto an Overly Familiar Template

First-person Yokai-heavy horror game Ikai certainly likes to keep you busy from the off, but is it too much busywork?

It certainly distracted me from a strong setup. Set in feudal Japan, Ikai concerns a young priestess named Naoko. She’s heard whispers of ancient evil creeping through the forests where she lives, but has dismissed it as nothing more than childish babbling by easily scared civilians. Naoko is about to find out there’s every reason to listen to that babbling. The woods are dark and full of monsters. The Gods have seemingly abandoned the people, and left the back door open for all manner of nefarious creatures to slink their way into our world.

It’s a genuinely fascinating idea to focus on the superstition and ritual of this period, and in its best moments, Ikai shows a cool confidence in approaching it in a less than traditional manner in terms of horror game structure. Unfortunately, that’s not easy to see at first.

The first 20 minutes of Ikai had me paint symbols, sweep the floor, play hide n’ seek, pick up dirty laundry, rearrange wood blocks in a hefty door in order to slide the locking bar open, and navigate supernatural fire in a forest after narrowly avoiding being squashed by giant heads. As a parent, I found this all pretty relatable, but I was hoping for a break from that.

It’s not that this variety is particularly unappealing to me, it’s more that it often feels like padding that’s not really needed. The symbol drawing? Great, it feeds into Japanese folklore nicely. Door puzzles? A little contrived, but hardly the first to do such a thing. Walking through fire patterns with instadeath the punishment for failure? Well, that’s the kind of thing that just gets in the way of interesting exploration of different types of Yokai and how they’ll try and scare the shit out of you. Basically, some stuff works fine, the rest feels like some sort of contractual obligation…at least until things even out a bit.

Where Ikai appears to be at its best right now is in the moments it stops trying to be ‘just another horror game’. When it focuses on the various Yokai and what they threaten to bring to this unfortunate party, when the story has its moment to delve into Naoko’s intriguing past, and when the puzzles are a good fit for the story. The second we tread on the familiar ground of stealth and flee gameplay sections or platformer-esque timing puzzles, it gets boggy underfoot, and saps away at the more interesting parts.

The symbol drawing, in the context of the game, is where Ikai stands out most. It’s used to create protective seals over corrupted areas, and remarkably manages to capture the same sweaty tension of reloading a gun whilst danger’s fetid breath draws near in a trembling hand trying to paint within the lines as quickly as possible. As Naoko’s idea of reality begins to crumble, it’s almost a perfect representation of how intense it must be for her to do the job she’s supposed to do despite not quite believing she has to do it at all.

The most refreshing thing about Ikai, despite its occasional lapse, is how it takes these moments to force Naoko, and the player, to face monsters without a physical weapon to fight them with. There’s notes for each Yokai to find around the mountain shrine area where the story takes place, and they give clues as to how Naoko must deal with them, or indeed how to avoid incurring their wrath. There’s a measured, methodical style to the way things unfurl in Ikai, and it’s steadfast in keeping it that way. While I may have grievances with Ikai’s more typical instances of ‘helpless protagonist horror game’ boilerplate, it’s only a real issue because there’s plenty here that eschews it for something a little more novel, so it sticks out like that aforementioned giant head.

If the rest of the game continues to show the better side of Ikai, then it could very well become something to look out for. As it is, I’m a little apprehensive about where developer Endflame is going with it, but mostly, I lean towards optimism. At the very least, Ikai already has moments that will stick in my mind at the year’s end.

Ikai preview code for Steam provided by the publisher.

Ikai is set to release March 2022 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Series X/S.