|Developer||Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg|
|Release Date||January 23, 2018|
Finally available after a tortuous eight-year development, Iconoclasts, designed by Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg and published by Bifrost Entertainment, is best described, if you like clumsy portmanteaus, as a Metroidvania game. But that doesn’t really do it justice.
Yeah, it’s a 2D action-puzzle-platformer. It has a semi-open world that you can only fully access by unlocking new abilities and tools. But it has enough fresh ideas to stand on its own. It doesn’t feel like a direct homage to either, and has a bolder, more focused approach to storytelling than both.
What’s it about?
Our hero is Robin. She doesn’t speak. And she’s a mechanic, although in the authoritarian settlement in which she lives, she isn’t allowed to be. One Concern, the dogmatic religious and political organisation that governs her society, has outlawed the use of tools. So she’s forced to hide her wrench in the basement and tinker with things on the sly, like a blue-collar ninja.
One Concern monopolise extraction of a magical resource called Ivory. It powers their machines. Seeps through the veins of their militant enforcers. Warps the game’s environments; their colour, their shape. Natural features appear angular and harsh. Geometry piles on geometry. This is pixel-art not just as visual style, but thematic expression.
I assume Robin falls foul of One Concern?
Of course. After an unexpected run-in with its agents, Robin decides that what needs fixing most is the fascistic regime which demands slavish devotion to a cosmic deity – one that forbids personal ownership and free thinking. She’ll need the help of her brother, Elro, her shotgun-toting pirate friend, Mina, and the telekinetic heir to One Concern’s ethereal “Mother”, Royal.
This, you might have noticed, is more plot than such games are usually afforded. Iconoclasts has reams of dialogue, a huge cast of minor and major characters, and frequent breaks for traditional cut-scenes. It’s legitimately funny and heartfelt, but also sharply critical of religious doctrine.
This provocative blend of humour, pathos and humanistic critique might not be easy to make jokes about, but at least I’m acknowledging that it matters, which is something that most critics are too comically terrified to do when it comes to matters of spirituality and religiosity.
Is it important to the game, though?
In the case of Iconoclasts, it’s far more than window dressing. Countless games have depicted faith, and a few have even had the guts to criticise or deconstruct it. But rarely does a title build itself entirely on its narrative framework, and almost never with the commitment of Iconoclasts.
Incidental conversations in this game are multi-layered, believable and affecting. Characters have personal philosophies and worldviews that fit snugly in a setting like Robin’s, which stifles individualism in favour of a nebulous divine certainty. Widows sob at the loss of their spouses. How does tragedy conform to their religious belief? Why should penance be paid when no slight has been committed? Of course, the man, who you meet in a small house and don’t have to talk to, prays to find the answer.
And Robin being a mechanic is a metaphor?
The obvious one is the idea of “game mechanics” made literal. But the subtler significance of Robin’s vocation is in how it represents the power of an individual to not just fix something that is broken, but to forge their own path. In Iconoclasts, Robin’s wrench is a multifaceted tool. You can use it to bonk enemies over the head. Robin can twirl it like a Wild West gunslinger, to block projectiles or generate electricity. She attach it to wires and glide along them.
But it’s other, more interesting use is to crank on glowing bolts that are often hidden throughout the large, interconnected levels. Some can be swung on to leap over obstacles. Others operate machinery. Still others manipulate an increasingly complex network of doors and platforms, creating a path through the world. Robin exists in open defiance of One Concern’s insistence of a preordained destiny. When she opens doors she isn’t supposed to, she and her allies slip in, and the truth slips out.
But how is the gameplay?
It might be described as “standard”, but it’s about as polished as 2D action-platforming is ever likely to get. Along with the wrench, Robin has projectile weapons, including a stun gun and a grenade launcher. Her arsenal isn’t large, but each gizmo has multiple applications. The large bestiary of enemies, all with their own distinct attack patterns and weaknesses, give you plenty of opportunity to discover them. And most of these secondary functions have utility in the platforming and puzzle-solving. The latter gets focus here over almost anything else, but the precise and responsive controls keep leaping around the environments and either avoiding or dealing with its threats a consistent pleasure.
Are there boss fights?
Several – some of the most inventive and enjoyable I’ve come across in a while. The screen-filling, multiple-phase encounters are reminiscent of something like Cuphead; not thanks to their difficulty (which is often relatively high, but never in a way that feels tedious or unfair) but in how they demand precise pattern-recognition under fast-paced and chaotic conditions. But Iconoclasts goes one further by frequently incorporating additional puzzle mechanics, such as one encounter which requires the player to rearrange the elements of a room and periodically switch control between Robin and Mina in order to land hits.
What about RPG mechanics?
Iconoclasts skews more towards the “Metroid” than the “Vania”. But there is an element of customisation to be found in “Tweaks”. These can be crafted by materials found in hidden treasure chests, and when equipped offer passive buffs. One makes your wrench deal more damage; another allows Robin to twirl it for longer. There are Tweaks that make you move faster, or hold your breath for longer either underwater or in toxic gas. It isn’t a particularly robust system, but it’s there, and gives the player some scope for tailoring Robin to fit a specific challenge or their preferred play style.
Any issues in Iconoclasts?
A few, but all minor. The game occasionally suffers from a slight lack of clarity, leaving the player temporarily unsure of where to go next in order to progress. A throwaway line might hold a clue. But deciphering that isn’t always easy, in a way that sometimes feels unintentional. A fast-travel system which uses a tiny four-pixel screenshot to identify your destination doesn’t help. Neither does occasionally vague language, like the line, “He’ll probably be at a settlement,” which is likely to lead you to Settlement 17, rather than the area immediately nextdoor to it, which is also a settlement but isn’t labelled quite so clearly. (Spoiler: The guy you’re looking for is there.)
I also found the writing – particularly the jokes – to be a little too glib at times. But that’s a personal preference, and it was offset by many more instances of truly incisive and thought-provoking dialogue that help to keep an often dark story feeling infectiously vibrant and theatrical.
Iconoclasts sets a high bar for 2018. It’s a fine game; a masterful take on a well-worn genre, and a ballsy, ironic critique of rigid thinking and authoritarian governance. Smart, sharp and satisfying, Iconoclasts, if nothing else, lives up to its name.
- Finely-tuned gameplay.
- A stunning pixel-art aesthetic.
- Smart twists on established conventions.
- A provocative, meaty story.
- An occasional lack of clarity and direction.
- The odd bit of needlessly glib dialogue hurts the game's tone.