‘Ikai’ preview: a feudal Japanese horror tale that’s more intriguing than scary

Lore and order

There’s something fascinating about seeing old folk legends brought to life in
games. We often want rich background lore in our stories, and folk tales about the hidden power of nature, curses and rural superstitions provide exactly that. The texture of myths and legends give historical and fantasy settings a deeper, and
darker, sense of place.

They don’t have to be genuine folk legends either. One of the most absorbing things about The Witcher games, for example, is that each monster Geralt hunts seems to exist as part of the fabric of the natural and cultural environment. In the course of tracking them, we get to understand their habits, spot signs of their presence, and learn to create concoctions that might draw them out. Some, it transpires, are the products of magic. Some aren’t so monstrous after all.

But most of all, perhaps, such myths are ideal fodder for horror, as they tap into powers beyond normal perception. Folk horror is about primeval forces embedded in nature and the isolation of small community life – ripe ingredients for making us feel exposed. One of the best recent games of this kind is Mundaun, in which a tiny Swiss village is disrupted by ancient evils in increasingly surreal ways, leading you to indulge in bizarre rituals to survive.

Which brings me to Ikai. Given my interest in folklore-led gaming experiences, it was always likely that this forthcoming horror title would catch my attention. Like Mundaun, it’s a first-person tale wound around object-based puzzles and eruptions of otherworldly entities. Here, however, the ceremonies and demons are inspired by the feudal Japanese setting, with Barcelona-based developer Endflame drawing on the country’s existing folklore.

Ikai. Credit: Endflame.
Ikai. Credit: Endflame.

I’ve recently been playing a demo of Ikai’s opening sections, and there is something intriguing about its attempt to manifest a cast of Japanese Yokai (demons and ghosts) by diving into the lore and rituals that surround them. In some ways, the setting is quite familiar. It wasn’t long ago, for example, that I was in feudal Japan facing the evil Yokai in Nioh 2. But there they were susceptible to a flurry of blows from my battle scythe – in Ikai, protagonist Naoko has nothing to defend herself with nothing but occult knowledge and religious ritual.

I like, then, that Ikai is driven by an almost educational tone at times. Naoko’s temple abode is like a museum of period artefacts, and I’ve been stumbling on written descriptions of demons, like fragments of discarded lecture notes. “Should you walk alone in the forest, beware of passing underneath the highest trees,” one begins, before explaining that giant demon heads called Tsurube-otoshi have a habit of waiting in the forest canopy, then falling from their perches to crush unwitting travellers. I’d already forgotten this lesson by the time I was doubling back along the forest path and ‘whomp!’ this great horned head slammed down in front of me, gawping at me with a devilish grin. I don’t know if it simply wanted to scare me or misjudged a more murderous landing, but point taken.
I also like the rituals Naoko has to perform to stay alive or solve puzzles. Explanations aren’t exactly subtle, as Naoko’s internal monologue pokes you in the right direction (the Japanese voiceover is essential to maintain any kind of atmosphere, incidentally), but it would be difficult to appreciate the significance of the various items scattered around the temple without it.

Ikai. Credit: Endflame.
Ikai. Credit: Endflame.

To pray, for example, you first need to find where the priest keeps his coins and drop one in the offering box before ringing a bell. Or you might find yourself in need of a magic charm – which you can place on a door to repel a demon or on a cursed object to stop it spreading evil vibes in the area – so you’d better find a table and some ink so you can sit down to paint one. There’s a tactility to these and other activities, too, as you don’t merely click on objects to use them, but use the mouse to, say, grab and pull a door open, or waggle the bell chord, or to trace those ink lines, in one case under pressure with a monster lurking in the vicinity.

Unfortunately, when you’re under pressure Ikai rather unravels. Lore and ritual are only one side of the folk horror formula, and it struggles with the other – creating interactions between protagonist and supernatural entities that remain tense and frightening. While it seems wise that Ikai steadfastly refuses to resort to combat, the alternative of focusing on Naoko’s vulnerability leads to a lot of immersion-breaking trial and error (and not only because her shuffling default movement speed makes it feel as though her feet are tied together).

Ikai. Credit: Endflame.
Ikai. Credit: Endflame.

The second half of the hour-long demo introduces stealth and escape sequences, and with that descends into farce. Forced to outrun a giant worm-like creature, for instance, I repeatedly got chomped trying to guess the correct route, or struggling to push shelving units aside with controls that in the heat of the moment simply become unwieldy. In one attempt the demon worm followed me into a tiny dead-end room and got stuck, leaving the two of us staring blankly at each other. Stalemate.

AI routines and signposting may be tightened here, of course, but that won’t make them scary. Aside from the worm, what I really can’t escape with this demo is the sense that the demons are more ominous when they’ve only descriptions on scraps of paper, when they’re still only legends. Once they fully emerge to show their faces – literally in the case of our friend Tsurube-otoshi – the results are comical or irritating, with unconvincing creepy sound effects and no weight to the jump scares when they grab you.

The lesson I’ve learned from Ikai is that the draw of folklore is its connection to the natural and the mysterious, and too often Ikai seems intent on making it mechanical, exposing the strings and placing it in patterns. In another scene, a fire spirit set the path ahead of me ablaze, leaving me to pick my way through flames that blinked on and off like traffic lights. When I touched the fire, a burning effect briefly filled the screen, then I was abruptly dumped back at the start. Hardly horrifying.

It’s difficult to see, then, how the more overtly digital tasks that rub against the lore won’t rob Ikai of a building sense of dread. It does remain intriguing when it’s focused on the milieu of myth, like charms and curses, or the everyday routines of lighting lanterns and offering prayer. Whether or not Endflame has done justice to its source material, the old rituals and the implication of supernatural threat pulled me in. But they don’t complement video game rituals like stealth play and clockwork puzzles. Most of all, perhaps, Ikai demonstrates how quickly the power of folk legend dissolves when it has to adapt to modern rhythms.

Ikai launches on March 29 for PC, PS4, PS5 and Nintendo Switch

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