A game as indie as it gets: Iconoclasts was developed by one person. Joakim Sandberg did all the work, which makes this game all the more impressive at first glance. A quick look at his website konjak.org reveals expertise in a lot of pixel platformers, with Noitu Love 1-2 probably being the most notable ones. Iconoclasts presents itself very reminiscent of the earlier arcade times, featuring clean pixel graphics and smooth animations that get close to the quality levels of Metal Slug or Super Metroid. But the similarities don’t stop there: Iconoclasts borrows heavily from the aforementioned, with a Metroid-vania like level structure that opens up as Robin – a female mechanic and main protagonist of Iconoclasts – expands upon her expertise and craftsmanship.
Although the story of a dying, exploited planet and religious cults sets a very dark overall tone, visuals and humor provide ample contrast with a vibrant, straightforward appeal. Fortunately Iconoclasts quickly picks up the pace in terms of its plot, revealing quite a range of diverse settings and characters. An the initially bland-looking story unfolds to be unexpectedly nuanced to what intially appears to be a very clear “good VS evil” scheme. Robin itself acts in the well-known role of the “mute” heroine, being a beacon that doesn’t want to resort to violence in a world of war. However she also doesn’t fear to have it her way, making her appear as very relateable and strong female protagonist. Her reasons for remaining relatively mute through the game – aside from occasional multiple-choice answers and words uttered with emoticons – are revealed in a believable manner, allowing the player to bond and identify with her quite easily. Robin interacts with the cast mainly through her actions, with occasional multiple-choice answers thrown in for good measure. However, the choices given don’t seem to be very meaningful, making the whole dialogue system of Iconoclasts more of a “nice to have” experience instead of a “do it your way” one. Overall the story of Iconoclasts is unexpectedly deep, but doesn’t truly warrant a 2nd playthrough just for the sake of more lore and depth.
As the main screen of the game already implies, many other characters are also given occasional screen time to shine with unique gameplay mechanics, which helps the player to engage and care about them even more. Some battles are even fought in a team-like manner with either the AI assisting the player with hints or by giving complete control of both characters to the player. These tag-team fights are often combined with stealth or boss-battles where the AI gives you cues on where or when to strike. It’s the moment where Iconoclasts shines the most, both in mechanical complexity and range of new ideas shown. If there only would’ve been more use put to those ideas….
What grinds the gears
Let me open this up by saying that Iconoclasts at no point moves itself into the “bad” category, but the following points struck me as odd and need mentioning. All aforementioned gameplay elements are all solid by their own regards. Controls are always tight and spot-on, even when controlling two different characters at the same time. The only problem I had during play was that most mechanics felt like being left on an experimental level. You get introduced to stealth elements early on, but the depth is never fully explored. You even fight a boss that explains its stealth-mechanics beforehand, but the fight itself is basically over after 5 minutes without the same mechanics ever being used again. Other boss-fights leave you to figure out the mechanics yourself (which gives those amazing “Eureka!” moments) but then it’s suddenly all over and the mechanics are never emphasized or expanded upon in later gameplay.
Now don’t get me wrong: all these new ideas introduced work by themselves. Tag-team fights are one of the real major strengths of Iconoclasts, same as the unusual “mechanic” (heh!) of Robin using a wrench as her main weapon in fights and exploration. However this important focus on theme is not tied very organically into the game’s progression system. Instead of “earning” new things you rather get new abilities in a rather unexpected or unspectacular fashion, while the actual exploration is just rewarded with small “components” which you can use to slightly improve your existing abilities. This weakened the “Metroidvania” exploration parts for me, shifting my focus on progressing with the interesting storyline first. In conclusion I finished the game at 65% with probably still a lot to explore and find. But knowing that the game hid complexity mainly in the story there is very little motivation to explore the remaining world.
Getting things done!
Now I don’t want to end this review on a bad note – far from it. Aside from the explorative- or game-mechanical shortcomings Iconoclasts does so many things right. May it be stealth, horror or humor – the game manages to get the point across. The sound backdrop does a good job of conveying what’s shown, and the music – while not being overly memorable or spectacular – fits for the most part and gets the job done. If you know the sound of “Noitu Love” you basically know what you in for – not everyone’s taste, but overall solid.
Throughout the whole 10h of playtime I thoroughly enjoyed the constant switch of dark tones and “Metal Slug” series humor, which had me laughing out loud more than once. Most characters are being fleshed-out nicely (albeit a few get dropped too quickly) and there are some really unexpected twists and turns to the story that I will keep remembering for sure. Iconoclasts has a lot of distinct and personal character, making it stand out quite a bit in the sea of open world platformers. For the most part and runs like a well-oiled machine, but it would’ve used that 2nd revision on rewards, world-building and exploration to be a true hit.