Iconoclasts review

3 weeks ago by Mathew Kumar

Failing to break the mold.

Developed across nearly eight years by a single developer, Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg and largely lauded since release, Iconoclasts is a serviceable—if flawed—example of the action platformer genre, but one that perhaps suffers more from the singular vision than it benefits.

Iconoclasts stars Robin, a near-silent protagonist who goes from being an illegal mechanic to (somewhat accidentally) causing the downfall of an entire theocratic society. Unarguably one of the challenges that the player is going to face with Iconoclasts is that—surprisingly for an action platformer—it’s drowning in cut-scenes and story, and if you don’t gel with it, and fast, you’re going to find yourself annoyed more than engaged.

With a title like “Iconoclasts” you could—perhaps—expect something meaningful, but I found its themes of faith and loss left me underwhelmed. Or rather, I found these themes often undercut by the characterization. Robin, as a functional mute, feels like she lacks agency, and the characters that you’re likely supposed to most empathize with—her conflicted brother Elro and the pirate Mina—actually come across as, if you’ll pardon my french, complete arseholes. The cast is pleasingly diverse along several axes, including race, age, disability, and sexuality, but the story feels like a jumble of ideas that clumsily rolls towards dramatic moments that, at best, feel unearned, and at worst feel utterly confusing.

This all wouldn’t matter so much if the story weren’t so so clearly what is meant to continue a drive through a game that—outside of Sandberg’s stunning pixel-art—is rather ordinary, suffering the niggles of experience design that you’d expect from an indie game that hadn’t taken eight years. Iconoclasts isn’t a straight “metroidvania,” though it’s inspired by them, but even within its quite siloed individual levels it’s unfortunately easy to hit sticking points where you feel lost. It’s surprising, really, because Robin has a very limited set of upgrades, so sometimes it’s simply that the traversal is confusing, if not outright miserable (a mid-game tower, featuring several lifts, is a lowlight).

The issue is that each sticking point just seems so obvious once you’ve dealt with it for the second, third, or fifth time. Boxes that you must jump onto to pick up; that you can’t place but must always throw (in an inexact fashion; frustrating because you often must stack them). A rocket weapon that if you don’t forget you have it (I did, for ages) often doesn’t seem to work because it won’t “prime” unless you’re standing a certain distance away (leading me to think it wasn’t the solution to more than one puzzle, frustratingly). Indeed, I think I got all the way to the end without ever becoming comfortable with or enjoying the controls. I solved several puzzles in ways that felt not like I was making use of a broad play-space but rather incorrect shortcuts.

This is particularly a problem when you hit the bosses, which tend to upend the conventions of the game and offer a more Metal Slug-esque experience. Soaking up tons of bullets or requiring specific actions to defeat, as visually sumptuous as they are, they’re often not particularly fun to battle with, as you find yourself either battling between switching weapons or their (often lengthy) cool-downs. Iconoclast’s modus operandi seems to be trying to offer the experience of earlier “show, don’t tell” action platformer games—bosses often have clear “tells”—but this often jars with the wide variety of potential, unclear solutions to the problem.

The absolute nadir of the entire game comes in the last third, when you’re faced with an invisible boss that you must hide from, while it is entirely unclear how to defeat him and you must control two characters—and each time he hits you he goes through an animation and spits some dialogue seemingly designed to annoy. It’s a moment that I feel like many players might give up at, and it’s wildly unclear why it’s in the game in the first place. (You don’t actually do any other stealth in the entire game.)

Other touches—the game’s “tweak” upgrade path, for one—are half-baked to the point I didn’t even see the point of exploring to find more chests containing tweak materials once I’d filled the three tweak slots once (and you can never gain more slots, oddly). Robin’s abilities stay mostly static; there’s no sense of power-build as there is in Iconoclast’s inspirations.

Indeed, those inspirations might include the likes of Metroid Fusion and Metal Slug, but the most obvious—and perhaps damning—influence and comparison point is without a doubt Daisuke Amaya’s Cave Story, a game that itself took its sole developer five years to release. Cave Story, though now so ported it feels ubiquitous, once felt like a stunning surprise of a game; something that only became more exciting the longer you played it and the more you understood it; taking you past what was, in 2004, rudimentary if charming graphical styling (this was, after all, before pixels truly had their comeback). Iconoclasts, by comparison, stuns with its graphics at first blush, but slowly that charm falls away and you’re left grinding your way through something that feels… well, fine, but every spike of frustration makes you more and more likely to turn away from it.

Ultimately, Iconoclasts scarcely lives up to its name by breaking down or reshaping the institution of action platformers. It’s simply too idiosyncratic; too obviously the work of a specific taste and desire to succeed for players who don’t share those exact idiosyncrasies.

Why don’t I like Iconoclasts? I guess it’s because I don’t.

Verdict: No