School settings are very common in media. Perhaps it's because school is so relatable—everyone has to go through it. When you throw in magic and mystery, this setting becomes much more exciting. No wonder games such as Persona and Fire Emblem: Three Houses are so popular, not to mention the following fanbase behind Harry Potter. If you're chomping at the bit for another magic school fantasy, Ikenfell is an upcoming title that will surely satisfy that appetite.
Developed by Happy Ray Games and published by Humble Games, Ikenfell is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign from 2016. It is a turn-based RPG where players take control of magical students in the school of Ikenfell. Now on the verge of release—on Oct. 8 in fact—we talked with Ikenfell designer, artist, and programmer Chevy Ray Johnston to learn more about the game's world and combat system.
The Design of the School of Ikenfell
When developing a game, it's typically done at the developer's house (especially if it's an indie title) or at an office. Curiously, Johnston says that his public library acts as the "main office" for a large portion of Ikenfell's development. This proved to be useful when creating the school itself, since Johnston referred to old architecture books.
"I found this book of old cottages that had dozens and dozens of sketches," said Johnston. "It was amazing."
One could say that Johnston then created the foundations of Ikenfell with a blueprint. He "white-boxed" the school in the early stages of development, but didn't add any of the fine details to the buildings and dungeons just yet. Think of it like a building under construction in real life—first, you have to make the structure of the building, even if it looks like a giant hunk of wood, stone, or brick. Johnston's vision was clear, however, saying he had "a concrete idea of all locations and areas of the game early on."
"So once I had that foundation laid down, it was a matter of filling it in as I developed content," he said.
Ikenfell is a completely 2D game, so creating a unique and magical school while packing it with detail might come across as a challenge. Johnston cleverly created a custom map editor in order to make the process that much easier. This map editor allowed for Johnston to easily breath life into every room by packing them with "details and secrets." This method allowed for him to overcome the limitations of a 2D title and create a school that is truly special. He also credits Ikenfell's pixel art style as making things a lot easier.
Among the various areas you'll explore in the school of Ikenfell are the aforementioned astronomy tower and dorms, but he also mentioned summoning classrooms, dueling halls, and even a giant library. The library in particular is interesting, if anything because Johnston hints at some ominous secrets. That makes it all the more enticing for players to visit, though.
"You'll also visit the library several times," said Johnston, "as it is very large and has several different wings with different levels of access. Nobody goes in the Stacks, that's off-limits. Too dangerous."
The Stacks is one area sure to be full of mystery, but the same can be said about many other rooms in the school. Johnston says Ikenfell and its setting is "littered with secrets," and the treasures are something you're going to want to get. He really encourages exploration, but also respects the player and makes it worth their time to look around.
"The game has dozens of unique items that can only be found if you know where to look," said Johnston, "and I rarely hide something if it's not worth finding."
The Inspirations and Mechanics Behind Ikenfell's Timing-Based Combat
In Ikenfell, you'll control a cast of spell-slinging students. The combat system is timing-based, so Johnston takes inspiration from games like Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, and the Mario & Luigi series. These games let you choose an attack, and you can do extra damage if you hit a button at the right time while attacking an enemy. These aren't the only inspirations, though—Johnston cites Mega Man Battle Network, Mother 3, and even Fire Emblem. He adds that an obscure tactical RPG on the SNES, called Robotrek, served as another source of his creativity.
As for the battles themselves, they involve three party members, although there are six total you can recruit. Each character loadout is distinct, too, so they'll have a different pool of spells to choose from.
"There are only subtle differences between the characters' stats," said Johnston, "your party choice will almost always be based on which spells you like and how much you like a particular character. Any party combo is able to beat the game, but sometimes switching in someone can take the edge off a particularly tricky boss fight."
Johnston notes that each of these unique character spells are timed differently, much like Mario's Super Jump and fireball in his RPG appearances. You also have the ability to block enemy attacks and you take less damage if you can time blocks correctly, too. As players move on to new challenges in Ikenfell, enemies will try to trip players up with their attack patterns to make it more challenging to negate some extra damage.
"Each character learns eight unique spells over the course of the game, and on your turn you can choose to use any of them you wish. When you or an enemy is attacking, that's when timed hits come into play," he said. "When a spell hits, if you press the button in time, you can get a 'NICE!' or a 'GREAT!' if you time it perfectly. When attacking, this will often deal far more damage, or even cause additional effects (e.g. knocking the enemy back, or poisoning them)."
One consistent component to many RPGs is resource management; in other words, keeping track of your mana bar, or whatever the name may be for the respective title. Players constantly have to rely on regenerative consumables to keep their spell resource topped off in order to survive in combat. Ikenfell, however, doesn't utilize this system and trades it in favor of players knowing when to use the right spell at the right time.
"Think of each of the spells as one of Mario's moves: he can run, jump, backflip, roll, throw Cappy, triple jump, etc," said Johnston. "Each of these actions has a place and a time where it's the best to use, and sometimes you can even mix them together in clever ways. This is more how I think of Ikenfell's mechanics, except it's turn-based. There's a place for priced game mechanics in many genres of games, but I personally don't like point-costing spells in RPGs so I didn't add MP to Ikenfell."
The Journey to Ikenfell
There's a few more things players can look forward to with Ikenfell. One is the similarity between Johnston's game and the highly popular cartoon Steven Universe. Johnston tapped the composers for the cartoon, Aivi & Surasshu, and they're now creating the soundtrack for Ikenfell. For a taste of their work, you can listen to one of their compositions featured in Ikenfell on their SoundCloud.
"The soundtrack is absolutely bananas spectacular good," said Johnston. "We brought in multiple singers, instrumentalists, and other collaborators. Every song is carefully chosen and placed moment to moment, and each character has their own theme. I'm happy that folks who finish the game will be able to download and listen to the OST afterwards and relive some of their favorite moments."
Other than being extremely excited for players to experience all the effort put into Ikenfell's soundtrack, Johnston has hidden three secret bosses within his game. He's eager to see how players fight these "extremely difficult" foes, so be on the lookout for some extra challenges along the way. As for the release date of Ikenfell, players can finally get their hands on it on Oct. 8 on Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Steam, Humble Store, and the Windows Store.