Developer: Joakim Sandburg
Publisher: Bifrost Entertainment, DANGEN Entertainment
Format: PS4, PS Vita, PC (Reviewed)
Released: January 23, 2018
I love it when a game teaches me something. Dark Souls taught me how to deal with failure and the importance of persistence. No Man’s Sky taught me how to be skeptical at the promise of something too good to be true. After a brief dip into denial, that is. Swedish one-man team Konjak, on the other hand, taught me a whole new word with his latest project, Iconoclasts: A game seven years in the making that serves as a practical lesson in tearing down an entire planet’s religious institution and committing deicide, wrapped up in an adorable and colourful Metriodvania-style platformer.
You play as Robin, a mechanic who has taken up the family business after her father’s death. At least, she would if this line of work wasn’t outlawed to regular citizens due to the world’s fuel resource being so sacred that only licensed hands can touch it. Forced to keep her skills with an oversized wrench a secret from the planet’s authoritarian religious regime, the One Concern, Robin takes it upon herself to operate as an illegal unlicensed mechanic to help her village when it needs repairs. But, as these things usually go, the feds eventually catch her in the act and deem her an enemy of the state, forcing her to go on the run and eventually get tangled up in a conflict that could doom the entire planet.
I should point out the plot summary I just outlined only sums up the events from the first hour of the game, not just because I want to avoid spoiling anything, but also because that’s really the only time that the plot made sense to me. Iconoclasts is many things, but it is not a good storyteller. Throughout its twelve-hour runtime, plot points and intriguing mysteries get dropped or left unanswered. The pacing has a bad habit of flip-flopping between going pedal-to-the-metal and melting-molasses-on-a-winter-Wednesday. And things happen so abruptly and unnaturally for the sake of moving the story along that every plot point may as well have “and then…” stuck on the end of it.
That said, while the overall plot is probably the weakest thing that Iconoclasts has to offer, I was still invested in its characters and setting thanks to the game’s astounding quality of writing. It was genuinely surprising to find, hidden underneath the muddled storyline, deep and fascinating characters, each with their own backgrounds and motivations that influence their actions as events unfold. They’re damaged, they’re flawed, they make mistakes and they all deal with them in different ways. Hell, the game even points out on a number of occasions that Robin’s kind and helpful nature is just as big a flaw as the other characters’, thinking she needs to help everyone, even if it means putting herself and the people she cares about in harms way.
On the gameplay side of things, Iconoclasts follows the Metroidvania style and structure pretty closely. As such, it doesn’t seem to add anything brand new or noteworthy to that particular well-trodden formula of platforming and exploration. But with lack of formula innovation also comes the tight and carefully considered design that makes Iconoclasts so satisfying to play. Controls are tight and responsive, levels are crammed full of rooms of challenging and brain-bending puzzles, and combat has a fantastic sense of impact and force as enemies squish and explode like fatal fireworks. I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of that wonderfully metallic “klong!” of a projectile being parried back at an unsuspecting enemy.
Robin’s move set is also delightfully neat and tidy, introducing her starting arsenal of a short-range gun, a melee wrench attack, and a stomp-jump to squash enemies within the first fifteen minutes. And once you’ve figured out the ins and outs of those moves, you’re pretty much set to take down a corrupt religious dogma. Not because they’re the best abilities, mind you. Instead, the small handful of upgrades and new weapons you’ll receive throughout the game are extensions of those starting moves. And it serves to give this great feeling when you have the knowledge that, right from the get go, you have all the tools you need.
And then there’s the boss fights. Just… phwoar! These are definitely the high point of Iconoclasts for me. The game is chock full of these things, each one more bombastic and exhilarating than the last, changing up not only the gameplay style but also occasionally the actual winning conditions. You’ll have the standard “beat their life bar to a pulp” style battles against mechanical monstrosities, sure. But then others involve be epic, explosive chase sequences, or puzzles that require you to tag-teaming with another character to find hidden weak points. It’s a rare and delightfully strange feeling for me to see a giant monstrosity crash into a room and audibly shout “Aw hell yeah!”
Iconoclasts is by no means a perfect game. But it also doesn’t feel like its trying to be one either. It’s a game that feels confident in its identity. It knows exactly what it wants to be: a fun, beautiful and tightly designed game that takes cues from Metroid Fusion. And it absolutely nails the mark. Every part of the gameplay from platforming to puzzle design has been refined to create an experience that just feels great to play. And with exhilarating boss fights and fascinating characters with emotional arcs added on top of all that, Iconoclasts stands out as one of the biggest surprises to start 2018.
Beautiful and fun as all hell. It may have some small flaws, but there’s so much to keep you playing, you’ll barely even notice them.
Writer: Tristan Venables
Editor: Joseph Diskett