Okay, folks. This one is absolutely totally unequivocally NOT suitable for kids. I’m not even sure it was suitable for me. But it is the most terrifying game I have ever played. Ikai is right up there with the best of the best psychological horror games. It will have your adrenalin racing and then expect you to stay calm while completing the tasks. All I can say is: play this during the DAY on Day 23 of our Halloween Game Reviews. Or if you play it at night, leave ALL of the lights on. Every single one.
What Is Ikai?
Ikai is an upcoming first-person psychological horror set during the Feudal Japan period. It was originally set for release in October 2021 but, unfortunately, has been delayed until January 2022. In the meantime, a demo is available on itch.io and Steam (which is what I played for this review). It also featured during the Steam Next Festival with a new updated demo.
The story is inspired by Shinto mythology, especially with regard to yōkai. You play as a priestess, Naoko, burdened with the task of sealing the breach between the real world and the spirit world before chaos crosses over. Your only tools are a brush with ink and the knowledge of protective seals. You are not going to fight your way out of this. Instead, you will need to rely on silence and wits to avoid the spirits and the evil forces surrounding you.
Traditionally, in Shinto belief, spirits have emotions. People make offerings at Shinto temples to appease the spirits and keep things happy and shiny. When spirits feel neglected or abandoned, they can become angry. Yōkai are not exactly spirits, more like the manifestation of the angry emotions felt by spirits in our real world, be it through mischief, chaos, or outright terror. Ikai takes the mythos of yōkai and brings out the most dangerous chaotic side imaginable. And it works. Really well.
Stealth Is Not Optional, It’s Survival
“Be silent, do not disturb the evil.” – Ikai
Everything about Ikai is to create an atmosphere of helplessness and horror. There is nothing you can do to fight the spirits and demons. You can’t even defend yourself. The very first scene opens with two actions: C for stealth/crouch and Shift for run. If you need to know how to run that early in the game, then you know you are already in trouble.
Your task is to simply re-seal the breach between the living world and the spirit world. Keep it slow and easy, and you may avoid detection long enough to save the world. Suffice to say, I was not very good at this. And I am horribly susceptible to jump-scares. My strength lies with observation and exploration. Ikai requires in-depth exploration, searching in every corner for the missing piece in the puzzle. The deeper you immerse yourself in this hunt for clues, the deeper you fall into Naoko’s experience until the fear, the helplessness, and the chill envelop you. Ooooh, I just had shivers down my spine recalling that whole sensation. It is that good.
What Hides in the Shadows
Every creak. Every sound. The mumbling and whispers. The sudden opening of doors. I cannot tell you how creeped out I was in every scene. When the demo starts, you have two candles lighting the hallway. That’s it. The first room you explore (just to figure out what is going on) is not lit. So you start exploring the shadows for anything to light the room. A quick tip: there is a lantern you can light. And then it begins.
The beauty of Ikai is the natural way it weaves the atmosphere around you. Playing in first person is such a perfect fit for experiencing the story through Naoko. The power of a good psychological horror is to build your empathy before bringing in the physical horror. Every creak and shadow is so well-timed to bring you out of your comfort zone. You have to keep moving. That’s it.
Keep Your Cool
Why do we love the horror genre so much? I think it might be because it’s a safe space to experience some of the most horrifying elements of our imagination. Some might even say we love the sense of relief that comes after a really good scare. I definitely agree with this for Ikai because there is a genuine feeling of satisfaction when you successfully draw a seal with a steady hand despite your heart racing.
For me, this is the treasure of Ikai. It is a psychological horror but it is filled with puzzles. By taking away the instinctive fight response, the game forces you to rethink your strategy. As you search through each room for clues, you need to take your time and calmly approach each item. They are not easy to pick up nor are they always obvious to understand. But this is intentional: the more focused you are on the task at hand, the deeper you are falling into the experience. Ikai is folding you into its shadows, wrapping you in its dark shroud, and promising you a way out only if you solve one more riddle. It’s terrifying. And it is so, so good.
One more tip: Because of the intensity of the game experience, I suggest moving your mouse sensitivity way down and maybe even raising the lighting a little. This won’t take anything away from the mood or play of the game. There were a couple of scenes that started so dark, my deep focus aggravated my motion sickness. Not exactly something you want when you’re playing a horror game. Yet here I am, eagerly awaiting the release in January 2022. I am such a glutton for punishment, especially during Halloween.
Ikai is currently available as a demo on itch.io and Steam. The full release is currently scheduled for January 2022 on PC, PS4/5, and Nintendo Switch. Evil Genius Mum played the free demo for the purpose of this review; no further compensation was received.
Score: 4.5 out of 5 ofuda (paper talismans)