Review: Iconoclasts

Have you ever engaged with something that feels like it was crafted just for you? Some media that is just touching on all the right spots of your interests, both your proud and guilty pleasures. You recognize the issues with it, but they just don’t mean anything because the rest of the content is speaking so personally to you.

I wasn’t following the development of Iconoclasts, and haven’t played previous games from solo developer Joakim Sandberg. The story I heard of Iconoclasts is a of a magnum opus game,  years spent to create a single vision. When I started seeing some footage of it, At first glance, I saw a charming pathfinder with some neat plot hook. Iconoclasts is all that, and more. A fantastic genre entry which leans on puzzles instead of combat as its primary friction, twisted in with a refreshing use of science-fiction tropes. And characters, oh boy there are some characters.

Iconoclasts is full of pleasant deceits, and the first is in the presentation. It’s beautiful, and like many indie games, leans heavily into pixel art and game aesthetics. This comes with the usual load of associations, but Iconoclasts might be one of the bests uses of it however. The world is bright and colourful, and some fantastic use of parallax backgrounds, but the real shine is the characters. Despite a lack of detail, they are wonderfully brought to life through subtle movements and and details. Despite the style, character sprites communicate details like posture and mannerisms. There are many bespoke animations, sometimes only used once, to fit them into a world or communicate their feeling of a scene. One taller character often slouches in his stance, even while sitting, but care is given to show that when giving speeches, he proudly stands up. Another is clearly communicated as having to look up at him, despite their superiority. Others have subtle idle animations to suggest swinging hips, the direction of their gaze, or their worry.

The visuals are complemented by a suite of crunchy sound effects, grimy blasts and electric shocks charging every action with strength. The loudness knows when to be shaking and overpowering, but also also when to be more delicate. Iconoclasts has the best footstep sounds I’ve ever heard. In quiet moments, I would just run back and forth, enjoying the each metallic plink. The soundtrack comes in to build characters the same way the sprite work does. Many characters all have their personal themes accompanying them into a scene, announcing their entrance into the scene.

A large portion of my energy for Iconoclasts was in discovering how fascinating it’s world became as I progressed. It skims some of the strongest JRPG and anime tropes, and leaves the fat behind. Packaging it into a quicker genre of game to keep the story moving is a blast. The hook is that the player is Robin, a rogue engineer on a planet where that task is regulated by One Concern, the de-facto religion and state authority of the land. The plot immediately develops in some bold ways. I’m not sure if the clash between a frankly tragic story and the cheery presentation is intentional or not, but it’s certainly jarring. There are a few vignettes within the first hour of the game which genuinely shocked me, but also got me more invested in the weight of the story. It’s a boulder that gets kicked off and is thundering down the mountainside by the end.

That weight is carried by the game’s characters, who come as another clash against the charming bright worlds you explore. The best of them come in a rogue’s gallery of villains, all feel widely flushed out in different ways. A few in particular are difficult not to root for. Some of the writing skirts the edges of Metal Gear Solid, either a strength or shortfall depending on who you are. Regardless, the dialogue allows multiple characters have full arcs of development intertwined with the world events around them. It’s something I was not expecting from a genre built on the haunting loneliness of Super Metroid. The strength of the cast unfortunately clarifies the emptiness of the heroine Robin.

Robin is an ambiguously silent protagonist. There are some vanity dialogue options, which unfortunately result in her having no clear voice of her own. Up until the end, much of her motivation seems to be to just move left and carry other characters to their scenes. The rest of the time, her silence has the side effect of her seeming like a emotionless savage while the people around her are falling apart. Giving Robin a voice of her own, and more room to react to the people around her would have created more of a character than just vehicle through the story and world.

Each of the game’s unique areas introduces a unique set of mechanic puzzles to solve. Where most metroid-style games fill their world with increasingly powerful enemies, Iconoclasts mostly replaces them with problem solving. There’s a balance of execution problems, with clear solutions based on proper timing, and more those which require more thought and playing with the pieces. The puzzles are scaled smoothly, so by the end the player is operating room-sized machinery to progress. When it gets to the end, the player enters a new zone and the cycle begins again with new mechanics. It’s a wonderful loop. Actual enemies are often a soft wall, easily defeated to give a quick pulse of action between fooling around with the world’s strange mechanisms.

Each space usually ends in one or more boss fights neatly wrapped into the mechanical loop as well. Some of the bosses introduce their own mechanics as well, with mostly positive results. The failures are often a result of a lack of communication, either how or where to deal damage. One fight in particular attempts to suddenly introduce a stealth mechanic, and I could not figure out for the life of me where the safe points and what would cause an alert. They’re all puzzles of their own, and once you put together the mechanics everything falls into place.

The puzzles and combat are unfortunately flipped near the end of the game, with one zone consisting almost entirely of a long gauntlet of powerful enemies, who can only be damaged with a certain maneuver. One enemy type I’m pretty sure couldn’t be defeated at all, leading to  just skipping over them over and over again. It’s frustrating when compared to the rest of the game. A strengths of the puzzle reliance is the game could be enjoyed by a much wider audience, and the ending contains some of the strongest narrative content I’ve seen in years. It’s unfortunately hidden behind some completely hostile spaces.

The puzzle mechanics are built around the primary thread of new powers and abilities. There are comparatively few upgrades compared to some other games, but the game definitely makes each new discovery exciting. Each one immediately triggers a flash of all the previous spaces you could retrace to collect optional items. These items are resources to craft “tweaks”, which give a variety of benefits and the chance to customize your playstyle.

Tweaks are equipped in an interesting way. There are 3 slots to to plug them into, which are directly linked into your health bar. To keep the tweaks active, you also need to be avoiding damage. This also means you can’t rely on them to be working all the time, or the effects are too minor to be a great change. In the worst case, one player ability feels straight up handicapped without the proper tweak equipped to power it up. I ended up sticking with my tweaks from the first few hours for most of the game. Some more game-changing powers in a more reliable system could have been more fun to engage with, and provide more unique playstyles.

I spent a lot of time considering the pacing of this review, as I there was no clear order of importance. The plot is driven by villains who deliver incredible boss fights, which hinge on fantastic mechanics, which are based on Robin’s engineering skills, which is something she does as a rogue agent and the reason the she gets pulled into the story in the beginning. There are some stumbling blocks, but altogether I was stunned by it. It’s faults often only stand out because everything around them stand so tall. To be extremely of this time, I’ve been putting more time into Monster Hunter World this week, but the experience of Iconoclasts was is going to stay with me for much longer. It’s not often I get really into a piece of media where even after it’s ended I can’t stop thinking about it, but Iconoclasts is one of those pieces. Please send me all your fanart of Agent Black.

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