There was a point in Ikai where I was trapped at the bottom of a well, surrounded by the bones of demons. I had to search through these bones for sturdy pieces of wood to make a ladder using a crack in the stone face. The lighting was ominous and the sound design kept this droning unsettling buzz in my ears. There were even a few anxious moments where these cursed bones moved. It was a great stretch of dread and anticipation even while the puzzle solution itself amounted to something rudimentary. Now if only the overt storytelling could be as atmospheric.
Lost in Translation
In Ikai you play as Naoko, a shrine maiden tending to a holy location in feudal Japan. After a horrendous event during a laundry run, Naoko discovers that yokai has overrun the temple and is threatening the nearby village. With her knowledge of yokai and the supernatural exorcism, Naoko vows to seal away these spirits.
If there is a major issue that hurts Ikai right out of the gate, it would have to be the English localization. I mentioned before in my preview of the game that the exposition can feel clumsy and inelegant in English, sounding more like something translated directly from Japanese with no regard for grammar, syntax, or local colloquialisms. Sadly, that is still the case in the full version.
This does the storytelling no favors. The marketing for Ikai frames the game as a psychological thriller, coupling the overt supernatural elements of Japanese ghost stories with an underlying mystery of how and why these horrors are terrorizing Naoko. There is even an entire subplot established with characters from Naoko's past and the potential wrongdoing of a local samurai. But the subpar translation of the text greatly cheapens these elements. This ends up blunting an otherwise intense third act where these plot threads come together, leading to a confusing denouement.
Yokai: The Dark Descent
But while Ikai's dialogue and exposition are underwhelming, it more than makes up for it in the atmosphere. It cannot be overstated how good the sound design is here. More times than I could count, I felt my blood pressure rise as ominous whispers swept into my ears. The simple rustling of grass put me on edge while performing a delicate task. For a horror game, the sound is fundamental to the experience and it's great to see Endflame Games nail it. It does a lot of heavy lifting as the familiar rooms of the shrine slowly twist and change throughout the events of the story.
Special note must also be given to the lighting and environmental design. Naoko's shrine feels like a lived-in place with natural locations for laundry, spare clothing, stitching, and local supplies. This is coupled with some great color-coding, dark purples, and sinister oranges, to help let the player know when things have gotten intense or dangerous.
But while the atmosphere and environmental design mesh into a gripping sense of terror, Ikai's translation issues begin to clash with the gameplay vignettes. In isolation, the puzzles and challenges in the game are fine. Trace a certain pattern on a magic seal, search for the plot-relevant key item, simply get to the next area, etc. When Ikai simply lets these setpieces play out and signposts the goals, the game comes alive.
The best comparison I can give is to the rollercoaster ride antics of Red Barrels' Outlast. But instead of the shocking jump scares and gratuitous phantasmagoria found at the Mount Massive Asylum, Naoko's confrontations with the paranormal pays off its tension with escalating anxiety. This led to some standout sequences like an extended stealth sequence through a forest where I had to rely mostly on sound to avoid the enemy, the above-mentioned well full of demon bones, and an underground extended chase sequence.
But despite some straightforward setpieces, Ikai's subpar English localization ends up clashing with some puzzles, causing them to feel obtuse. There's a sequence early on where you are instantly killed while drawing a magic seal unless the doors are closed and you have a light source lit, something I had to figure out through trial and error. The absolute lowest point however comes from a puzzle near the end of the game. There are no contextual clues, the puzzle itself operates on a completely different logic from anything else seen, and Naoko's hints do no favors. The entire time I was banging my head against a puzzle I wasn't wondering what the solution was, I was wondering just what the hell the hints even meant.
Ikai | Final Thoughts
As an exercise in atmosphere and tension, Ikai has a lot going for it. A take on Japanese folktale survival horror that does carry some novelty. However, some shoddy localization does rob the experience of gameplay clarity as well as muddies an otherwise rote ghost story.
TechRaptor reviewed Ikai on PlayStation 5 with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
- Solid Sound And Environmental Design
- Decent Horror Setpieces
- Subpar English Localization
- Sporadically Obtuse Puzzle Sections