By Josh Speer / February 9th, 2018
|Publisher||Bifrost Entertainment, DANGEN|
|Release Date||January 23rd, 2018|
|Genre||Metroidvania, Puzzle Platformer|
|Platform||Steam, PS4, Vita|
|Age Rating||T for Teen – Blood, Mild Language, Violence|
I honestly hadn’t heard of Iconoclasts until right before it released. Thanks to a few of my Twitter followers, I discovered its existence, and thanks to the flashy trailer, I became interested enough to investigate. I quickly found it was the latest from Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg, known for his Noitu Love series of games. While I wasn’t a huge fan of that series, I respected his work, and loved his detailed retro art. So when I found out that Iconoclasts was a hybrid Metroidvania with his trademark art style and a focus on complex combat, I was intrigued. So I took a chance and blindly picked it up, hoping it would be worth my time.
It’s obvious from the get go that Iconoclasts is inspired by many classic games, though it still feels original. It has that je ne sais quoi which many classic games share. If I had to name a few titles, it’s a mixture of elements from Cave Story, Mighty Switch Force, Shantae, Mischief Makers and several Treasure titles. If that didn’t get your attention, then you might also be interested to hear that Iconoclasts offers a frank discussion and analysis of the dangers of religion. At first these references are easy to ignore, but it becomes more and more clear that this is a recurring and central theme of the game, as is how religion and blind dogma can get twisted and warped into something monstrous. The religion in the game is called the One Concern, and it’s a pretty obvious mirror to Christianity. They hold onto power through their stranglehold on an exotic fuel source called Ivory, which powers all machinery and also affects organic material in unusual ways. The plot tries to help the player look at religion with fresh eyes, and question what faith truly means in a world ruled by iron adherence to arbitrary laws. This is a world where most people are rewarded for doing only what they’re told, whereas thinking for yourself is seen as dangerous rebellion. Into this is thrust our hero, Robin, a young girl mechanic who has her sights set on defying the One Concern and helping others.
Much like many other videogame heroes, Robin never speaks one word throughout the game. Instead, she displays a wide range of emotions through body language, such as exasperation or fear. You wouldn’t think so given the heavy focus on religion, but Iconoclasts is also a game with a lot of humor. Sometimes it’s black humor, but there are many other times I laughed out loud at its antics, especially when Robin interacts with the varied cast of colorful characters. Every one is distinct, from the Agents to the Isi Pirates, and even the game’s villains have personal reasons that define and motivate them, even if they’re not immediately clear. This balance between humor and drama makes this a rare treat, and that’s before we even get into the fascinating gameplay mechanics.
Although the game is nominally a Metroidvania, it also has a strong focus on puzzle solving. I can already hear some of you groaning, but it’s very well done. All of Robin’s moveset doubles as puzzle solving tools, such as using her wrench to ratchet open doors, firing rolling bombs to trigger switches, conducting electricity to activate mechanisms and much, much more. What impressed me is how the game constantly forces you to think outside the box, as it gives you new tools on a regular basis to offer more complex solutions. Some of the puzzles are head-scratchers, but I didn’t encounter any that were impossible or that infuriated me. Many of the harder ones involved precise timing and getting a full picture of the layout of the puzzle room. A good rule of thumb is that if you encounter a puzzle you can’t figure out, come back to it later, since there’s a good chance you lack the proper ability to solve it. As for the combat, it starts out pretty basic, just shooting your gun and jumping around, but it becomes more and more nuanced. Later in the game you’ll be firing shots, dodging fire, switching between weapons and deflecting attacks seamlessly. Which is important, since besides the combat and exploration, Iconoclasts also hosts utterly fantastic, over the top boss battles.
It’s no exaggeration to say that several of the bosses found in Iconoclasts are some of my favorite in all my years playing video games. There’s more than twenty of them, and they all offer a heady challenge. Many are crazed and colorful machines, though there are also organic bosses which are truly tricky (avoiding specifics because of spoilers). The first few bosses in the game only give you a small taste of what truly awaits you, as the bosses later in the game are wild and over the top. A couple of my favorites involved deflecting grenades into a mechanized helicopter and facing off against a giant buzzsaw-laden worm mech. Oftentimes boss fights are just as much about puzzle solving as they are about combat, and several involve a supporting character that will assist you, such as Mina with her rifle or Royal with his psychokinesis. Best of all, the boss battles never get stale. Much like the rest of the game, they are constantly introducing new elements and keeping you on your toes. There’s only one that I got stuck on, a battle involving a giant ice cube, and that was my own fault for not paying attention. So if you are a fan of crazy combat, Iconoclasts more than delivers.
I need to spend a little time quickly addressing another facet of the game that, while important, is also optional. Throughout the game Robin will find materials that she can use to craft what the game calls Tweaks. These are modifiers that either give you a passive boost, such as preventing damage from one attack, or give you new abilities, such as a dodge roll. You can equip a few Tweaks at a time, but what’s interesting is that damage interferes with them. For example, say you have a Tweak that allows you to swim longer underwater. If you take enough damage, it will be rendered temporarily unusable. To make this more fair, every time you kill an enemy or break an item, you’ll be rewarded with energy that refills your equipped Tweaks. It’s a very interesting system, and one that adds even more nuance to a game utterly dripping with it. It’s nice that you’re given the tools to play the game the way you want, and it even gives replay value if you decide to play it differently on another playthrough.
Though I touched on it earlier, the visual style of Iconoclasts is truly impressive. Not only is the game colorful and attractive, it also makes smart use of visual cues to tell you important details, such as when to deflect an enemy attack. There are plenty of disparate environments in the game to keep things interesting, from sandy caverns to electric forests to pitch dark ruins. Honestly, it was hard for me to believe that one man created all of it, which says everything. On the audio side of things, the game is equally well made, featuring tracks that convey adventure, drama and, most important of all, an air of breathtaking mystery. The soundtrack does a fantastic job of immersing players in the strange world of Iconoclasts, and you’ll find yourself unwilling to leave.
All in all, I was truly impressed with Iconoclasts. I spent 11 hours playing through the game, and that’s without even finishing all the side quests or finding all the deviously hidden chests. It’s not often an indie game comes out of nowhere to surprise me, but that’s just what it managed to do, proving itself a new indie gem. If you have a PS4, Vita or Steam account, go buy it. It’s easily the best indie I’ve played so far in 2018, and one I highly recommend.
Review Copy Purchased by Author
Bifrost EntertainmentIconoclastsIndieJoakim SandbergKonjakMetroidvaniaplatformerpuzzle