Iconcolats is a long-standing passion project developed in its near entirety by Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg, a developer who caught more than a few excited glances throughout the 2000s, where they frequently put out smaller experimental 2D action titles that all bore an adoration for bombast and detailed pixel art, earning him some degree of acclaim during what could generously, or pessimistically, be described as the ‘golden age of indie developers’. At the turn of the decade, Konjak would announce his first commercial title in the form of Iconoclasts. A title that I have been following with varying degrees of intrigue since it was first unveiled, but it still took me a year to get around to it because, well, that’s kind of how I roll.
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, Vita, Switch
Developer: Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg
Publisher: Bifrost Entertainment
History aside, Iconoclasts follows Robin, a plucky young mechanic who desires little but to help and aid those around her, but in pursuing her innocent goal, she is branded a fugitive by the oppressive religious and governmental regime, known as One Concern, that control much of the world. But being the intrepid sort, Robins winds up joining arms with a scrappy resistance group, most notably the crafty and hotheaded partner Mina, and set off to save both the people she loves and the entire planet from the destructive actions of the One Concern in a story that, taking a step back to view things broadly, is a strangely underplayed environmentalist holy war.
While that is the long and short of it, there is quite a bit to the overall story and narrative of Iconoclasts, but it is ultimately a victim of an insular design practice that comes from an individual working on a singular project for years upon years without anybody to offer direct and frequent feedback to their work, or needing to delve into too much detail about the minutiae of the world. As such, certain story details, lore-based tidbits, and character actions can come across as a bit odd when experiencing the story through the game, amounting to a story that, while easy to follow from a broader perspective, comes across as a bit obtuse or clunky. I did like a lot of the concepts that are thrown around, thought the blend between sillier antics and somber destruction worked well, and found the colorful cast of characters to be endearing, but I still finished the game feeling that I needed to consult a fan wiki in order to fully make sense of everything.
As one would expect from someone as well versed in 2D game design as Konjak, the fundamentals underlying Iconoclasts are rock solid. The running, jumping, shooting, and general game feel are all very in their design, creating a game where the most basic actions are enjoyable to perform, and are very well supported with punchy sound and visual effects. But when looking beyond the bedrock laid out for this title, I cannot help but mutter some grievances.
I naturally do not know much about the internal development behind this game, but it is easy to interpret Iconoclasts as a sort of dream game for its developer, attempting to encapsulate everything they love about 2D action games and mingle it with ideas and concepts developed by creating small demos over the years. What I am trying to say is that while I do feel that Iconoclasts has a very well thought out design and clearly had a lot of work put into it, I cannot say that I liked a number of the core design decisions employed here.
Let’s begin with the whole metroidvania angle. While Iconoclasts has a large interconnected world filled with collectible items and nails the core fundamentals, it is strangely stringent with permanent character upgrades, limiting them to a total of 5 from beginning to end. Instead, the rest of the collectibles are in the form of materials and schematics used to create Tweaks, passive buffs that Robin may equip 3 of at a given time, and have a tendency of temporarily breaking whenever Robin takes damage. Robin loses these Tweaks upon taking damage and can only regain them by collecting energy that bizarrely is not fully replenished by save points or boss battles, and is most reliably gained by defeating enemies or solving certain puzzles. This makes Tweaks a limited resource that the player cannot always rely upon, and most of them aren’t all that useful.
While the Tweak that lets Robin absorb one hit is useful for obvious reasons, just about every other Tweak feels like it would have been a optional permanent character upgrade in any other metroidvania game, such as the Tweak that allows Robin to fully charge her wrench in a single spin, rather than getting 90% of the way there before needing to start over again. Or the ability to have a certain weapon shoot through walls, when the default weapon already can shoot through walls. Having all of these minor yet useful character upgrades be available to me after reaching the 100% mark was a hollow achievement because of this, as despite spending so much time and effort on finding all of the materials and schematics, I was still controlling a character only marginally more powerful and overall better than what she was 12 hours ago. All of which I think is at least partially missing the point, or at least one of the appeals, of metroidvanias.
As for the generalized level design, the environments of Iconoclasts are considerably enjoyable to explore, contain a number of nicely distributed secrets, and while the mixture of fast travel and inaccessible items does result in a somewhat underwhelming final run through every environment prior to the endgame I can say that I enjoyed travelling through most of them. The only exceptions I have center around two back to back areas that are unfortunately sandwiched together in the middle of the game, with both the elevator-based tower and the dark caves being more than a little cumbersome to explore and amount to a very discernable low-point in the overall experience.
Yet beyond exploration from action instance to action instance like many of its peers, Iconoclasts does attempt to incorporate a number of puzzle sections into Robin’s journey, and succeeds quite well. The puzzles are intuitive, having clear interactable building blocks with good feedback and a discernible goal, and function as near seamless displays of the game’s mechanics that manage to remain creative from beginning to end. The only bad thing I have to say about them comes from a puzzle involving a several shafts and levitating gears near the end of the game that I simply could not figure out, and I never needed to, as I could simply jump around the puzzle room in its entirety using Iconoclast’s version of a double jump, which involves jumping and then shooting a charge shot downwards. Which was a weird concept for me to get a grip on, but I got used to it over time.
However, one could argue that all of this preamble and detail is merely supplemental to the core of this game, its boss battles… but having gone through the gamut of them, their quality is more than a little mixed. Bosses here run the gamut of enthralling and wisely designs encounters that were so much fun that I immediately wanted to fight them again, and others that were just the opposite. Frustrating encounters that overwhelmed and left me genuinely befuddled as I played them and tried to comprehend what the desired strategy was, or generally did not enjoy the mechanics they introduced. Thankfully Iconoclasts never get carried away with the difficulty for any of them, at least before getting to the optional super bosses. Yet this gulf of quality made me apprehensive of, say, hopping back in for a boss rush gauntlet, as while I would love to fight bosses number 5, 9, 16, and 17 with knowledge of what I’m supposed to be doing, rather than sort of fumbling through them, I’d rather skip out on a repeat showing of bosses 7, 12, and 13. But ultimately, there are more hits than misses here, and when a boss is good, it’s really, really good.
The presentation similarly isn’t a slouch either, boasting some of the finest sprite art I’ve seen in recent years with gorgeous and detail rich environments, fluid animations that emphasize each character’s personality, and routine instances of visual splendor. While many of the environments play it ‘safe’ in adopting well trodden motifs between forests, deserts, and industrial facilities, the ingenuity of these environments, their unique quirks, and subtle instances of worldbuilding were enough to both make them shine, and make the discovery of a new area a reward in and of itself.
Overall, there is quite a lot to like about Iconoclasts, and in many instances it shines radiantly as a nothing short of brilliant 2D action game. But despite this game clearly having been given so much love and care from its developer, there are certain design decisions that I simply could not get behind, and resulted in a very push-pull experience where my thoughts shifted between adoration and mild irritation. Adoration thankfully managed to win out, and while I cannot say that I ultimately loved the game, I still had a pretty good time with it.