Iconoclasts is a game I’ve thought about almost every day since I first demoed it, nearly five years ago. No, it’s not that the demo was just that good (although it certainly was good); it’s that, ever since I first wrote about it in an article called Metroidmania: 12 Great Games to Satisfy Your Craving For Open-Ended Platforming, there hasn’t been a single day in which that article hasn’t been right at the top of Invisible Gamer’s daily page views. And that article was published in April 2013! It’s been a long-running joke here to bet on whether our latest review, editorial, feature, or podcast would come close to getting as much attention as a list I published back when Nintendo still had hope for the Wii U; that, combined with the fact that Iconoclasts was the only unfinished game featured in that article, has made me think of the game as a sort of unofficial mascot for Invisible Gamer—a way to mark time and reflect on the many changes we’ve gone through. That the game is finally releasing as most of our writers have all moved on to bigger things… well, it feels like an ending of sorts.
But I digress. What of the finished game? Has one-man developer Joakim ‘Konjak’ Sandberg managed to carry the magic of that limited demo forward into a fleshed-out product that’s worth playing in 2018—especially with competition like AM2R, Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight, Ori and the Blind Forest, Owlboy, and the Steamworld Dig series? The answer, not surprisingly if you’ve followed Sandberg’s work over the years, is “of course.” Iconoclasts combines the fluid animation, detailed sprite work, catchy music, and responsive gunplay that were already apparent in 2013 with a puzzle-heavy approach to exploration and a surprisingly mature narrative unlike anything else you’ll find in this genre. Iconoclasts has reset my expectations for the kind of story that can be told in a game like this, and although that story occasionally falters for want of a dialogue editor, it’s something that I think simply demands to be experienced.
At the heart of Iconoclast’s story is the One Concern, a technology-obsessed theocracy that is trying to assert total control over Ivory, a dwindling natural resource that’s allowed humanity to just barely hold it together on a planet that’s all but used up. The One Concern has a stranglehold over people of all socioeconomic strata: the poor toil away at jobs designed to increase the organization’s bottom line, rebelling only at great risk to their family’s well-being; the rich sacrifice personal freedom for creature comforts, while their youth are subjected to grotesque experiments and brainwashing. But there are some who’ve flipped the bird to the organization’s edicts, and one of these is our player character, Robin, a wrench-wielding mechanic extraordinaire who couldn’t care less what anyone else has to say about her place in the world. When an alliance with a group of ‘undesirables’ helps Robin realize her greater value to humanity at large, her actions have unexpected repercussions, igniting a spark of discord that shakes the One Concern—and ultimately, the entire planet—to its core. It’s grand storytelling wrought on an intimate level, with characters on all sides of the conflict painted in sympathetic shades of gray. Acts of heroism lead to suffering; stubbornness gives way to understanding; delusions of grandeur to disillusionment. The story beats may be strange and unfamiliar, but as a whole, Iconoclasts never strays far from one basic truth: that it takes all kinds to make the world go round.
Iconoclast’s narrative, while memorable, can feel impenetrable thanks to its occasionally awkward dialogue, but Sandberg has made it easy to skip cut scenes for those who prefer to keep the adventure moving at a steady clip. What you can’t skip, however, are the Portal-like navigational puzzles that are scattered liberally throughout the game’s map. These account for the bulk of Iconoclast’s challenge—you’ll rarely enter a major chamber in any given zone without having to think about how to get from one exit to another—and they increase gradually in complexity, often demonstrating new ways to use Robin’s tools and weapons. Iconoclast’s puzzles typically involve some combination of ratcheting open mechanical gates, blasting movable platforms into position with bombs or missiles, and using your wrench to soar over death traps on electrified rails, but there’s a surprising amount of variety from one to the next. Because you’re given most of Robin’s critical abilities early on, puzzles rarely yield tangible rewards aside from the raw materials used for Iconoclast’s underutilized “tweak” system (more on that later), but if you enjoy solving spatial brain teasers, progress becomes its own reward.
If there’s one core area outside of the dialogue in which Iconoclasts could have benefited from some extra time in the workshop, it’s the boss battles. These encounters are typically satisfying, often thrilling, and occasionally so inscrutable in terms of broadcasting an enemy’s weakness that you’ll find yourself repeating the same failed strategies over and over in hopes that something will stick. One late-game mini-boss stuck out like a sore thumb for how completely confounding it was; though the solution ended up being something simple I was overlooking, a Google search for the solution proved I wasn’t alone in my confusion. I hope these issues are ironed out in the future, because Konjak’s unrivaled art and animation has led to some of the most memorable boss fights outside of the Metal Slug series, from bipedal war mechs and giant robo-worms to half-tree humanoids, mutated matriarchs, and more. They’re awesome to witness, but sometimes they’re more frustrating than fun.
Any other quibbles I have with Iconoclasts are minor enough that they don’t really affect my estimation of the game as a whole, but I do think they’re worth discussing as they impact replayability. As I mentioned above, the tweak system—which allows you to trade in raw materials for hidden moves or inconsequential upgrades to the power or duration of Robin’s abilities—proves largely useless aside from filling out the in-game completion meter. And then there’s the interface for tracking key items, which doesn’t actually allow you to examine any of those items, leaving you clueless as to what you might want to do with them. A Soldier’s RSVP; scraps of paper that read “BY” and “MOTHER”; I have no doubt these objects lead to post-game content that I know exists but that I haven’t unlocked yet, but I’ve been all over the map trying to pawn them off on NPCs to no avail. Some kind of guidance would’ve been appreciated.
It’s a strange, freeing feeling to be typing out the conclusion to my review of Iconoclasts—a game that was in development long before I wrote about its promising demo half a decade ago. In all honesty, I didn’t actually think it would ever come out. But now that it’s here, I’m happy to say it’s lived up to that promise. Sandberg has taken a well-worn concept—the so-called “Metroidvania”—and shown that there’s still a lot of mileage left in open-ended platforming. Iconoclasts is a gorgeous, cerebral, exciting, and sometimes messy game that deserves your attention. And who knows? It might just be your next favorite game.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Iconoclasts is based on final PS Vita review code provided to us by the developer. The game launched on Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018.