Ikai is a first-person psychological horror game that is bound tightly to Japanese folklore. The player will live the horror from Feudal era’s beliefs as the priestess of a stunningly designed shrine.
Now, some might say that Japanese horror games get a bad rap. Many are immediately compare to the Resident Evil franchise – which is unfair. That’s like comparing every car manufactured after 1964 to a Ford Mustang. It is just not possible. There are certain elements of a game that either make it unique, or outstandingly similar to the rest of the genre.
EndflameStudio have stepped away from the constraints of traditional horror gameplay, and submerged the player in a fantastically produced period Japanese horror story that will not only be fresh for the veteran horror gamer, but astonishing to new players in the genre.
Fear and anxiety prevail after the darkest tales from Japanese folklore come to life in this first-person psychological horror game. Live the horror from the feudal era’s beliefs as the priestess of a temple.
Ikai – Endflame Studio
Hey guys! First things first – how did the team get together?
Two of us were working on a company that had to shut down. We thought that instead of looking for another job this could be a good moment to start our own company and try to do the games that we always wanted. We needed an artist to finish setting up a basic team covering all roles, so we asked him if he wanted to join us on this adventure since he was also looking for a job.
The three of us already met at university and at that time we did some projects together. So we knew how each others work.
Your first release, Ikai, is a Japanese first-person psychological horror. What gave you the idea? Why feudal Japan?
We teamed up without any idea in mind. So, the first thing we did was brainstorming which kind of game we wanted to do and we were able to do. A first-person psychological horror was the genre that best fit our skills. But with the genre only we couldn’t do much, we needed a theme, a story.
We all love Japanese culture and are familiar with it, also yokai stories fascinated us. After a little bit of research, we found out that not many games have yokais in it and the ones that have are usually action games, not horror. There are actually some horror games about it but, only a few ones and released quite long ago. The ones nowadays normally approach to J-horror with ghosts of girls, targeting a modern Japan. That is why we wanted to go back to an older sense of fear and include yokais in it.
At that point we knew we had found our spot in the market with Ikai, a first-person psychological horror set in feudal Japan.
With the demo of Ikai released, Endflame is now on the radar of many indie gamers. Have you been happy with the feedback so far?
We have! We have received very positive feedback, people liked the game and wanted more. One of the things we were worried and wanted to test with this prototype was if the idea could be well received and if the public actually wants this kind of game. It makes us very happy to see that people are eager to play the full game and that motivates us to keep working on the project.
The aesthetics & mood of Ikai has been captured expertly. Did you draw on any inspiration for the locations?
We are only three and none of us is a concept artist. We used real pictures as reference to create the aesthetics, yet there is no specific place. As for the mood we just did trial and error until we had something that felt right.
A lot of Ikai is based on dark folklore and superstition, and the premise itself is true psychological horror. Is it difficult to keep upbeat & have a good time when developing something like Ikai?
We are all having a good time developing Ikai because we are doing what we love, making games, and we are doing the way we like. Having that freedom is what makes us happy and motivated on the project. We don’t think the theme really affects us much here.
During brainstorming, it’s quite easy to get swept up in a particular feature of a game. Were there any features you had to cut due to time/team capabilities?
We actually had a realistic planning and didn’t have to cut much for the demo. Sure we will in the final game, milestones are not always easy to fulfill on time if not.
The only thing we had to cut was a specific event, similar to the one of the arms from the walls. After some time of iteration and iteration, we were struggling to get the mood with that event and had to discuss about what to do. Spending more time on that wouldn’t grant us a successful outcome and if it were on the demo, it wouldn’t have the quality we expected. Consequently, we decided to remove it.
What are you most happy about with the game so far?
“…we wanted to approach to the Japanese theme with the respect it deserves”
Endflame Studio (Ikai)
There are actually two things that make us feel proud and happy about our game.
The first one was to get a creepy mood, an environment that could make the players feel unsafe even when having not seen the monster yet. It is the first game we develop having the full control of the project and were worried of being unable to achieve this aspect. We can tell from the reactions that most of players feel tense, so it’s kind of relieving.
On the other hand, we wanted to approach to the Japanese theme with the respect it deserves. As enthusiasts of the culture we felt we had to express it the best way we could. After receiving positive feedback from the Japanese market itself, we can’t help but feel happy about the reactions.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the game development process so far?
We had experience on programming, design and art already. We can keep improving and there will always be challenges but, the most challenging aspect came from a role that must be present in every game development: marketing. Having no experience on that, we had to cope with it from the very beginning. It is something we are still working on and find it difficult to reach our audience. However, we keep trying as much as we can to get visibility and get people to know Ikai.
Indie games have proven amazingly popular during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some development teams, however, have found it hard to adjust to the “new normal” of working remotely. Has any lockdown restrictions affected the development process (maybe in ways you didn’t anticipate)?
In regards to remote working, we were already used to it, thus it didn’t change much. What we didn’t anticipate was that our friends wouldn’t be able to come and help us out with the testing. We ended up doing it online, asking them to record themselves as if they were streamers so as we could see their reactions. But, we feel sorry that some of them couldn’t try it out because of having very old computers that can’t handle screen recording, run the game and also the webcam video.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to develop a first person psychological horror?
Launch a demo. We are still halfway of development but, know the right way to follow mostly because of the feedback we have received after releasing a level of the game for free. It is a very good way to test out the audience and see what have you done right or wrong and still have time to improve it before the final launch.
A question for each of the team: What was the first game that got you hooked on gaming…?
Guillem: Pokemon was very popular on that time and asked my parents to buy me the game. They bough me Pokemon pinball… Still a great game.
Iván: I hardly remember it, because I have played many games since that time but, I would say it is Sonic the hedgehog
Laura: I started playing video games with my cousin’s Game Boy and I fell in love with Pokemon Fire Red. That was when I got hooked on gaming.
Ebon Light developer, Ahnna, started out her journey in Video Game Land a little differently, but still managed to put together one of the most acclaimed indie titles in her niche. With her “teeny tiny studio” of one, her visual novel saw immediate success and built a hefty following in a very short amount of time. The playthroughs and reviews still get a lot of traffic on YouTube, and the genre still continues to grow, with new visual novels appearing regularly for hungry fans.
If you have ever wondered why visual novels were so popular, you just have to take a look at the fanbase they accrue. We are talking loyal, dedicated fans and communities who love to discuss the inner workings of the deftly created characters and worlds. Ebon Light’s fanbase is no different.
We were keen to find out more about the game’s success, and the developer herself, Ahnna…
“Ebon Light is a dark fantasy visual novel with romantic subplots, lots of choices, a customizable protagonist, and multiple ways to die.”
Hey Ahnna! You started out in game development a little different than most – artwork as a teenager?
Hi! Oh yes, it’s true! The broody elves I used in my visual novel were initially a product of my teenage mind, which I’m sure is very, or not at all, shocking. Art was initially a means to an end, as I had characters and stories I wanted to show my friends and that was the best way for me to do it. I certainly had no idea at the time that I’d eventually make a visual novel with some of those characters back then, but here we are!
Your “teenie tiny little game studio” consists of just you, which is an incredible achievement! Did you also animate the scenes yourself?
Thank you! Yes, I did! In Ebon Light, that was mostly fiddling with rotations and transparency values.
We enjoyed the depth of the story, but most notably, the characters come alive quite effortlessly. Were there any you liked/disliked writing more than others?
Duliae, something of a driving force for the whole story, arguably one of the antagonists and a potential love interest of the main character, was always fun to write. I also loved to write Laceaga, who is just very rude. Writing treachery is very fun. What may be a little interesting is that Vadeyn, one of my oldest characters, was one of the more tedious to write. I wouldn’t say it was difficult, perhaps even the opposite, too easy because he was an idea cemented long ago.
The artwork in the game is sublime; absolutely a requirement for the genre. Can you tell us a bit more about your methods/medium?
Oh, thank you! Originally, it was all drawn in Photoshop with a drawing tablet, but toward the end of development I began to use my iPad with the Procreate app. With digital art, you can hack things up and blend them together again and again until they start to look good, and I think if I were to describe my process, that’d be it.
Since 2019, have you worked on any more games?
I’ve been working on a few ideas, but nothing beyond that, nothing concrete yet!
The game has seen great longevity and had amazing feedback since the beginning. VN fans usually also enjoy the community/discussion around the games. Did you receive any feedback early on in release that made you realize how popular it had become?
I have, yes, and it’s surreal to see so many people enjoying a game I wasn’t sure anyone would play! I’m not sure I had any idea, no, though in retrospect that so many people were willing to wait so long for the final release should’ve clued me in.
One of your fans’ favorite features is the custom character design. Was this difficult to implement from a technical perspective?
It was not difficult, but certainly tedious and time consuming. I think it goes a long way toward immersion, often helping players connect with the main character right off the bat.
Developing such a rich story that weaves between so many moving parts must be extremely difficult?
There were definitely times where I’d get lost (and frustrated) trying to find loose threads, backtracking to connect the dots again and again, certainly a fair bit of chaos. Sometimes I’d get stuck trying to figure out how to write a bridge from one section to another so that it seemed cohesive and smooth, but that was usually a matter of brainstorming for a while and then going with whatever the best idea had been.
What are you most proud of with Ebon Light?
How immersive some say it is for them! If you’d asked me what I wanted Ebon Light to be before it was released, I’d have said an immersive story.
What advice would you give to any aspiring visual novel designers?
I hope this does not seem very obnoxious, but start small, and do what you must to finish it. It doesn’t matter if it’s exactly what you wanted, just finish it. I could’ve saved myself a lot of time and effort if I’d started with a smaller project, and learning to let go of what I wanted Ebon Light to be is probably the only reason I managed to finish it.
Do you have any future visual novel (or other game dev) plans?
I do, yes! I haven’t written off visual novels completely, but I definitely want to try my hand at other sorts of simple story-centric games. Nothing official yet, though.
Right now, somewhere in a bedroom or attic, a Nintendo Game Boy is being found and dusted off. The small screen flittering to life, and the familiarity of the buttons and weight in your hands flooding you with nostalgia. The muscle memory kicking in, and the first game loading up and filling you with a child-like glee. Ah… nostalgia.
From Tetris to Metroid, we all had our favorite Game Boy title, and it is truly heart-warming to see developers not forgetting the handheld – and actually developing games themselves for it. You can play “There’s nothing to do in this town” all the way through in under an hour, either online, or by playing it as an actual ROM on your Game Boy. We had to get an interview with Simeon Smith to find out why he took on the project, how he did it and what the game actually is!
The RPG, “There’s nothing to do in this town”, is a cool little Nintendo Game Boy ROM or browser based game that players can get through in under an hour. What inspired you to make it?
I’ve been making music with Game Boys for over a decade now with my project “donotrunwithpixels” and am always looking at new ways to present my music both live and online. When I saw the GBstudio tool I thought a short RPG would be a cool way to present some of my music, but at the time I played around with it a little but lacked the commitment to the project. Over the Coronavirus lockdown, though, my mental health took a massive dive and I knew I needed a new and all-consuming project to throw myself into to distract myself from all the sh*t going on in the world. This project was perfect for that and aside from my work and family responsibilities I lived and breathed the game for a few weeks.
Are RPGs you favorite genre?
Totally. I’m a massive fan of Final Fantasy, Golden Sun, Zelda and that kind of RPG. I also love fighting games like Street Fighter, Samurai Showdown and Tekken.
How did you get into game development originally?
Originally, originally? My Dad had an old boxy Mac II, back in the mid nineties, and my friend Danny and I would make short point-and-click adventures for each other in HyperCard and swap them on floppies. Since then and until a few months ago, my programming had been limited to musical applications using PureData.
Did Game Boys feature heavily in your gaming arsenal?
Oh yes! It was really the only console I had as a kid. My family moved around a lot and we rarely had much money, but there was always the old Game Boy. Link’s Awakening was what got me hooked, and I then played through Mystic Quest a few dozen times (which I think was called Final Fantasy Adventure in the rest of the world).
What development tools did you use?
When I first saw GBstudio it was like someone had created the software just for me! It’s pretty limited in some regards, but those limitations just encouraged my creativity. MilkyTracker [is] where I made the music, I’ve been using trackers like LSDJ (Little Sound DJ) for the Game Boy and DefleMask for PC for years, so it was kind of second nature.
You created the chiptune in the game yourself. How did you do this?
GBstudio uses a driver called GBTPlayer to get music to work on the Game Boy. Once again, it’s very limited, even for the sounds the Game Boy can produce, but there are templates with all the instruments loaded for you to edit in a tracker into music for the game.
Originally I had wanted to put more music in the game, but the music I was writing was too complex and hanging up on notes when you changed screens. My music usually has a heavy rhythmic element and it just sounded horribly out of time while playing the game. In the end I had to simplify the main theme a lot, so I then pulled out all the stops for the music during the credits, where you can run more complex things. I’m really happy with how it turned out though, and I think all the trouble I had getting the music to fit right with the game paid off.
What are you most proud of with “There’s nothing to do in this town”?
I think the thing I’m most proud of is the town and character design and how cohesive it’s turned out.
The top-down elements and side-on pixel art feel like the same world, and the music feels right for the game. A lot of games have characters that don’t feel like they come from the same game or the music doesn’t quite fit and however proficient the programming is the design of the in-game world just doesn’t seem quite right.
I was really inspired by Link’s Awakening with the little platformer segments that are totally different to the rest of the game but fit so well because of the sprite and background design.
Do you have any advice or tips you could pass on to anyone getting started in Game Boy ROM development?
“A lot of tutorials say things like “Keep it simple” and “don’t try to run before you can walk”. I say f*ck that sh*t.”
Simeon Smith – Developer: There’s Nothing To Do In This Town
Yes – Get yourself a flash cart and play the game on the original system throughout development. It’ll massively help your player experience and give you a different perspective on the game.
Also, a lot of tutorials say things like “Keep it simple” and “don’t try to run before you can walk”. I say f*ck that sh*t.
If you’ve got an idea and the passion to make the project happen it’ll be a better game if you throw every idea into it and obsess over every detail. That’s not saying it should be complicated, but don’t compromise your vision just to get things done in an easy way.
What are your future plans for game development?
Now I’m familiar with the tools I’d love to make a longer RPG, but I need to come up with a great storyline for it. I think of the most impactful moments in RPGs I’ve played like the Ghost train in Final Fantasy VI and they’re all based around an incredible storyline where you get really emotionally connected to the characters. That’s what I need to find for my next game.
I’m also always making music and now I have the experience of getting my music into a game made in GBstudio would love to contribute my music to other people’s games. I’ve noticed a few games on the platform with little or no music and it’s a real disservice to otherwise great games.
So, yeah, if you’re developing a cool project and want some classic 8bit music, hit me up!
What games (indie or mainstream) are you looking forward to seeing released and playing this year?
I’m looking forward to playing The Survivalists with my 10 year old. Spiritfarer looks like my kind of jam too.
It’s the apocalypse, and you are running for your bunker; you can only grab ONE game (not your own!) to play as the world crumbles around you, for a long, long time… what’s the game?
I’ve been playing Street Fighter II Turbo for decades now and I’m still not bored with it. I think that’d have to be it.