Psychological horror has been a mainstay in the gaming scene for decades, with titles like Silent Hill, Alan Wake, SOMA, and Observer bringing creeping dread to the masses in various guises. For games like these to be successful, they must do the one thing that any excellent piece of horror media can get right — they have to be scary!
This doesn’t have to mean jump scares or excessive gore per se, psychological horror is usually more cerebral than that. It can be the claustrophobic atmosphere, the heart-pounding soundtrack, or the creepy characters that instill that sense of fear into you. That fear and tension are necessary for a title to be viewed as an authentic psychological horror.
Published by PM Studios, Ikai is a first-person horror game that has you dealing with spirits and yokai. In the opening thirty minutes of the game — which only lasts for around three hours maximum — you’re introduced to a shrine priestess in feudal Japan. She has been left alone after her uncle hurries away to help a nearby town. After some awkward exploration and a hide-and-seek mini-game with your sister, you’re required to leave the safety of the shrine. This is where the trouble begins. After some fairly nicely done puzzles, and some ritual bloodletting, you head back to the shrine to stop the evil you’ve unleashed.
Here is where I knew Ikai would not be up there with the games I mentioned in my opening paragraph. That defining moment took place as I was walking back in the dark. A giant yokai mask fell from the sky and into my path, before launching itself back into the sky with a cartoonish whoompf. Obviously intended as a jump scare, I didn’t flinch. At no point during the entire game did I jump or was shocked.
The complete experience is devoid of horror; jump scares or otherwise. The game attempts to use various tactics to frighten the player, including enemies that you have to hide from, enemies you have to run from, bizarre nightmare-style sequences, and a shrine surrounded by darkness with only candles to protect you from the shadows. On paper, this sounds pretty scary, right? In actuality, the execution fell flat.
The terrible voice acting, which caused me to grimace in embarrassment rather than terror, did not help create that needed atmosphere of tension and fear. Even the puzzles, which start out fairly interesting if not simplistic, turn into tedious head-scratchers halfway through. The game made it difficult to engage with and by this point, I was just ready to get to the end. I’ll admit that I cheated by checking a guide on a couple of occasions.
This game has qualities I appreciated. The setting is intriguing and well designed, though often dampened by the terrible voice acting and on-the-nose sound design. The overall story is decent, although I found how the story’s presentation throughout the game to be lacking.
Some puzzles are genuinely interesting, but others resort to sending you around dull mazes or on fetch quests for a very hard-to-spot item. I liked the yokai enemies too, but I found them to be underutilized. I only saw one upon defeating her, unaware that this yokai was even after me until I unintentionally banished her from the mortal realm.
Throughout the game, I found that for every aspect I enjoyed, there were four I did not.
It doesn't help that the mechanics weren't user-friendly and bugs led to the game becoming unplayable. For example, the painting of signs that you perform (as is your priestess’ duty) is unpleasant and difficult with analog sticks. The signposting of what is traversable and what is not can be dire (especially in one particular chase through the shrine). Finally, there were several bugs that required me to restart the game. The worst of these occurred at the end of the game, where I was taken into a room rather than to the credits sequence. Trying to leave that room resulted in the screen turning black, only allowing me to go back to the menu upon restarting entirely. I ended up having to check YouTube to see if I missed anything crucial.
It certainly isn’t the worst game I’ve ever played, but as a lover of the horror genre, it comes up severely short for me. Ikai has some potential and requires polishing, but ultimately wastes the setting and story on trite mechanics and rote gameplay. If you have a few hours to kill, literally nothing better to do, and can find this game on a subscription service or for free, then give it a shot. In any other circumstance, though, it’s, unfortunately, one to avoid if you’re looking for a memorable horror experience.
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