A few days ago, I tried out a preview build for the horror game Ikai. At first blush, it appeared to be a straightforward Japanese horror title, pulling direct inspiration from local mythology and folklore for its distinct scares and scenarios. But what was surprising during my time with the game were a few changes to a formula that has become all too familiar in horror games.
The demo started out simple enough. I played as a shrine maiden at a local temple, tidying up after the departure of her uncle. It began with some simple (and thankfully quick) bits of maintenance like drawing symbols to make holy talismans, sweeping the floors, and doing the laundry. But eventually, night came and the uncle was nowhere to be seen. It was after a decent, albeit kind of out of place, sliding tile puzzle that I left the temple and ventured out to see what had become of him.
This is where Ikai finally revealed its yokai horrors to me. After a few jump scares with some demon heads as well as a timed running puzzle with some oni fire, I returned to the shrine in the middle of the night, only to have things go from bad to worse. There was a cursed artifact somewhere on the grounds, leading to yokai coming through and causing mischief.
This is where a lot of Ikai's more mundane design choices began to shine. The press release mentioned that the designers were trying to create a horror experience that didn't rely too much on just hiding and running away from monsters and threats and, for the most part, this demo succeeds. The game has “click and drag” interactive controls similar to the Amnesia games. You use this to open doors and cabinets as well as move ladders and footstools to get around. This lead to some great stretches of atmosphere where I was desperately lighting lanterns and searching left and right for the cause of what was going on. Something sinister was going on thanks to some solid sound design and some great mood lighting, but I didn't feel like my progress was being slowed down for an arbitrary “stealth sequence.”
This was where Ikai truly shined. Too often in horror games, certain levels can feel like a highly curated carnival attraction with highly scripted, linear scares. Alternatively, they can feel more like stealth games, just with highly gratuitous gore for failure states. Ikai manages to keep things intense with a more subtle atmosphere, this slowly building tension that something has gone horribly wrong, and if you don't do something soon it will only get worse.
It also helped me greatly appreciate the authenticity on display in terms of the architecture and local customs. For example, I found a room reserved for a Japanese tea ceremony, the cabinets even included cups and kettles.
Admittedly, this is where Ikai's cultural reference points lead to a bit of clunky exposition. There were points in the demo where the maiden would mention what needs to be done or what the presence of a certain yokai meant. For the most part, these lines are succinct and work in the moment as video game objectives, but sound weird when spoken out loud. To the voice actor's credit, the performances are solid, I'm just hoping the localization team does one more pass between now and the full release.
As my time with the demo came to a close, however, Ikai did fall into at least one major horror game cliché: the frantic chase sequence. After finding the cursed artifact and sealing it, a brand new yokai showed up with hungry eyes for my maiden: a large wormlike demon with giant teeth. From here, the game went from a great slow boil with some nice touches of dread and atmosphere into a more conventional ghost train ride. Run into this room, block the door with a cabinet, figure out how to get through this window before the monster breaks through. In terms of threat escalation and as an extended payoff, the sequence itself worked, I was just disappointed that it was in the form of something so rote.
As far as first impressions go, Ikai is a little rough around the edges but has the potential to be something special. Atmosphere, tension, and forward momentum are really difficult to get right, especially in a horror game, and the developers here manage to get it right more than wrong. As for how well they can maintain that balance, that will have to wait until the full release.
TechRaptor previewed Ikai on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is set to launch Q1 2022 on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch.