Fair warning: this review is longer than usual and descends into analysis territory at times. An earlier draft was much shorter, but I didn’t feel comfortable putting my criticisms out there without concrete examples. Despite spending a lot of time focusing on the negatives, I don’t hate Iconoclasts by any stretch. It’s average.
Iconoclasts is much more than a retro 16-bit action platformer, but trying to pin it down to any one genre is tricky. There’s plenty of shooting, however huge chunks of the game are dominated by a deep story that is more reminiscent of stories from JRPGs than platformers. Your brain is more important to progression than your reflexes and, of course, there are Metroidvania elements. In the end, Iconoclasts might have taken on one genre too many because none of its disparate elements excel enough to make the game memorable.
You play as Robin, a young woman forced to go on the run from the tyrannical One Concern after being caught illegally engaging in the act of being a mechanic. The One Concern is a strict religious group that represents a God known as Mother. Under its rule, only licensed mechanics may work with the power source called Ivory, which appears to be in short supply. If the concept sounds a little deeper than most 2D platformers then you’d be right. Iconoclasts’ plot feels more suited to a nineties JRPG and I got regular Final Fantasy VI vibes from it in the first few hours.
In true JRPG fashion, the story goes all over the place in the final third and you’ll need to put in some effort if you want to understand what’s going on. I found the conclusion a touch disappointing. There’s a lot of important themes for people to dwell on and write think pieces about, but I won’t be one of them.
The writing can be charming and funny, especially the few times it breaks the fourth wall. The main nemesis is much more than a token big bad, and the individual guards are amusing enough that you feel bad about knocking them out. Unfortunately, the writing can be a touch awkward. Developer Joakim Sandberg isn’t a native English speaker and at times you can tell. Sentences are packed full of double negatives and passive structures that make a mess of otherwise simple thoughts. Jargon is thrown at you from the first few minutes and, unlike an RPG, you don’t get much chance to ask questions and develop your understanding of the world. I only found one character in the entire game who would answer questions and he seemed to be there solely as an exposition dump.
Iconoclasts is stunning to look at. The visual style is targeted at those with nostalgia for the 16-bit era like myself, however there’s no way Iconoclasts could have run on 16-bit hardware. The bright colors, shading, and subtle details in character animations are phenomenal. Iconoclasts hasn’t replicated the visuals of 16-bit classics like Gunstar Heroes; it’s replicated how our minds remember them looking. That’s exactly what I want from these retro-style games such as Shovel Knight.
Boss designs steal the show. One early boss has you running along a moving train, while fighting a villain called Chrome as he leans out of a helicopter reading scripture at you. You fight one boss by switching between Robin and Mira, the secondary playable character, and another has you zipping around a rail as you’re chased by a mechanical caterpillar thing. The final couple of bosses are especially epic, but I won’t spoil them.
I’m not a huge fan of the “you’re playing it wrong” line of fanboy defense, however it might apply to my first few hours with the game. I initially fought Iconoclasts’ bosses “wrong” and found them frustrating as a result. Robin has a couple of powerful weapons and there are plenty of explosions on the screen so I treated the bosses as combat challenges. They’re not. It’s best to think of them as puzzles. Once you’ve figured them out, you won’t need a lot of skill although there are a couple that I wouldn’t fancy fighting on the harder difficulty setting.
The rest of Iconoclasts requires a similar attitude because combat is rarely the focus. Instead, you’ll spend the majority of your playtime solving light puzzles and unlocking new abilities. I enjoy puzzle platformers and Metroidvanias, so the lack of a combat challenge doesn’t bother me. The problem is that neither the puzzles nor the Metroidvania aspect are done particularly well.
Iconoclasts has the telltale elements of a Metroidvania: progress is gated until you’ve acquired certain weapons, you’ll pass objects that you can’t use, and see chests you can’t reach. However, Sandberg didn’t commit to the genre. It’s like he wanted the Metroidvania label to apply to the game, but he didn’t want to make one. Robin collects upgrades called “tweaks.” As the name suggests, these are minor changes and make little difference to how you play the game. Your wrench might do slightly more damage or take less time to charge up, but it’s hardly exciting. The only tweak of note is the ability to breathe underwater longer which lets you access new areas for secrets.
The other major problem is that the abilities aren’t much fun to use. Zipping around on electrical cables acts more like a teleport to warp you from one section to another. It doesn’t require player interaction or skill, except to grab hold of the cable in the first place which requires a pixel-perfect wrench swing for some reason. Some rocks need to be blown up with a missile and others with a charged laser blast, with the distinction just being a different type of rock. Later in the game, you’ll be able to power up your wrench which lets you zoom around on rails a lot quicker and burst through rocks. That could be fun, except for some reason you have to hold down a button to charge this up and you must be stationary to do it. It typically takes more than one charge to reach full power, so there are these weird moments where you’re just waiting there for the wrench to charge before you can grab the rail. None of these problems are deal-breakers by themselves, but they slow everything down unnecessarily. A combination of underwhelming tweaks and stale mechanics leads to a lack of desire to fully explore the levels and reach 100% completion.
Before complaining about the puzzles, I’d like to emphasize that most of them are pretty straightforward. I often knew exactly what to do as I entered a new area and if I didn’t then a little bit of brainpower (I do have some after all) was enough to solve the problem and generate that nice little endorphin rush to have me feeling smug. That’s most of the puzzles. The rest… oh boy.
A good environmental puzzle in a game such as this should have you saying “oh, that’s what I had to do” with a huge grin on your face. A bad environmental puzzle gets a reaction more along the lines of “really? That’s what you wanted me to do?” There’s no grin; only a grimace. You remember those moments. They might only happen 10% of the time, but that 10% can be infuriating. The Witness is one of my favorite puzzle games and it also had these moments. The big difference is that the bad puzzles in The Witness were optional and I didn’t feel the need to do everything. I was able to complete the game without getting frustrated and as such I had a great time.
The following few paragraphs discuss issues I had with some of the puzzles. I checked out other people playing the game to make sure these issues weren’t unique to me. I’m not saying everyone will have the same problems, but I can say that I was not alone.
Iconoclasts doesn’t always teach players what they can do with a new ability or weapon. It then requires you to use a weapon in a very specific way to solve a puzzle before never using it that way again. For example, early on you need to break some rocks. The obvious way to do this would be to roll a grenade under the rocks but that doesn’t work. It should work. The grenade gets close enough to blow up the rocks, but that’s not what the game wants you to do here so the normal rules don’t apply. This is what I refer to as “video game logic” which I’ll talk about more later. Anyway, there’s a gap that looks just about wide enough for a grenade however it’s at a diagonal and every grenade I fired in that direction just bounced back down. It looked like it wouldn’t fit so I gave up and came back after exploring every other nook and cranny. Sure enough, eventually, I managed to get a grenade through the gap. You are never told you can use the grenades in this way and you never need to do it again. There’s one optional chest you can get using this technique, however I couldn’t repeat the trick of getting the grenade to go through the gap. It didn’t feel like the grenade should have gone through there, and if that was the desired solution, why make it so awkward?
In one section you have to stack boxes to reach a spot to use your wrench. The boxes don’t reach high enough. There’s a gap in the wall but you can’t push the box into the gap. However, if you throw the box towards the gap, it will end up warping in somehow. Video game logic. See below. This puzzle stumped one player so much they ended up finding another way to get to the switch without using the wrench at all.
Iconoclasts often forces you to learn new techniques and then never builds on them. You meet Ash who insists you learn stealth because apparently you’ll need that skill to enter the One Concern. This fight is completely pointless because you never use stealth again. You literally can’t use it because stealth requires hiding in bushes and switching characters which is never an option.
The fight is also tedious because of more video game logic. You control both Robin and Mina. You hide in bushes or water and jump out when you see Ash turn his back on you. When Ash is down to about a third health, he enters a phase where he can only be hit from behind while he is distracted by the other character. This means you need to attract his attention with one character and then sneak up behind with the other. The obvious thing to do is keep Robin and Mina close together so that after Ash finds one of them, the other is close enough to attack. However, if Robin and Mina are close together, Ash never finds them. He only finds one of them if the two characters are split up. So, just to be clear, even though he doesn’t know where Robin and Mina are, he has a sixth sense that tells him not to find any of them if the other is hiding close by. Video game logic.
There’re other random examples of Iconoclasts teaching you something and then not properly building on it. For example, there’s a compulsory mini-game that forces you to learn how to organize explosive boxes to avoid them blowing up, however this is knowledge is then barely used. At one point, you need to fire a missile through a gap to move a block. You’re never shown you can use it in this way when acquiring the weapon and you never have to do it again. This might sound like welcome variety, but I would prefer a challenge based on increasingly complex use of existing techniques instead of random new stuff being thrown in.
Iconoclasts also commits the cardinal sin of wasting your time. There aren’t many waypoint markers until later in the game when they suddenly become frequent. You sometimes get a quest objective, but they’re often vague such as “go and speak to x” or “go to the forest tower.” It’s not uncommon for a door to be unlocked on a completely different map with nothing to tell you that you need to go there.
This is a consistent problem throughout the game, but I’ll give an example that also includes more video game logic. Robin gets trapped in a tower. I explored this place thoroughly while trying to help Mina escape. I eventually managed to free Mina and then had to find Samba who was also in the tower. I had no idea where she was because I’d searched all over this place. I continued my search and found all the secrets but still no luck finding Samba. She ended up being in an empty area I’d already searched. I guess she just popped in after my conversation with Mina. Video game logic.
This review is already far too long, so I’ll just dump in some additional complaints quickly. You play as Mina occasionally and she’s terrible. Her shotgun is awkward to aim and she has no abilities of note. Every Mina section could have been removed without loss. I initially started playing on hard, but the checkpoints were so bad I ended up playing on normal just because I got fed up retracing my steps after silly deaths (which were my fault). For some reason, you pick up boxes by standing on them and pressing up. And whenever you throw a box, it will travel a seemingly random distance. If there’s a gap in a wall that’s big enough to crawl through, Robin will grab the edge and pull herself up to crawl through the gap. However, she’ll only do this if the gap is high enough above her. If the gap is at roughly head height then she can’t do it even though it should be easier. Video game logic.
I genuinely could go on, but this review is already becoming a rant and Iconoclasts doesn’t deserve that. I let a month pass between completing the game and writing the review just to calm down a bit. The negatives of Iconoclasts are so frustrating because it has such a solid foundation and you can feel the love put into every level.
I want to reiterate the positives. Iconoclasts is beautiful, the bosses are stunning and require a bit of thought to beat, and most of the puzzles are satisfying to work through. It’s not a bad game and I apologize if my frustration and disappointment has made it sound like one. It could just be so much better.
Iconoclasts took me about fourteen to fifteen hours to complete. Around ten hours was fun. However, it’s the other five hours I’ll remember, like the frustration of trying to figure out what obscure mechanic I needed to use to progress or the time spent wandering around aimlessly with no direction. Iconoclasts tries its hand at action, puzzles, and Metroidvania and doesn’t commit to any of them. The end result is mediocre. You’ll occasionally have an hour without frustration where you’ll soak up the story, atmosphere, and characters. Then you’ll hit something that defies normal logic; video game logic.