Sometimes, there are things you wish to review, but the expectations set by the topic itself make it difficult to reciprocate equal treatment. There have been plenty of games in the past that I’ve come to cherish, games that showed that luscious glimmer of spirit I saw prior to experiencing it. As a reviewer, these are the things I write for, in order to experience that same enthusiasm and passion for the creative process. It can be rare, for a chap as cynical as I, to let that feeling override the mental process. You don’t think about how much something means to you after the fact—you just know.
Iconoclasts is a game I’ve known about since its initial release back in early 2018. I knew nothing about it prior; surprising considering the history of its sole developer’s place in the indie game scene. At that point, I just saw the cover image, the “metroidvania” genre, and the gorgeous pixel graphics. It looked like a great game to review, just three months into my tenure with KeenGamer. I never received a review copy, and with time, I eventually forgot about it. This may have been a blessing.
Just about a week ago, I was looking through the Nintendo Switch eShop for deals on various titles in celebration of the company’s E3 presentation. Scrolling through the list, my gaze stopped on Iconoclasts. An instant recognition occurred in my mind, recalling “that time I tried to get that game to review.” On sale for $12, it was between Iconoclasts and Child of Light. I chose the former (obviously), partly because Child of Light takes up a shit-ton of storage space.
Allow me to start this review by elaborating on what I incorrectly expected Iconoclasts to be. A colorful action-platformer with a carefree story and fun characters. Tons of different mechanics, power-ups, and perhaps some RPG elements. A straightforward, perhaps mildly compelling story about some simple moral lesson. “Don’t be a dick.” That’s always pretty good. Playing through the game past a certain point, I laugh at how unbelievably naive I was going into it. Some for better, some for worse.
To cut to the chase, the best part of Iconoclasts is its story. An absolute bombshell upon finishing is that I came to cherish the story above all else—aesthetics and gameplay be damned. The vibrant cover images are an ugly facade: this game is gray and dark. Deeply philosophical and generally vague, it reminds me of the sophisticated chaos of great JRPG storylines. It doesn’t need to make complete sense as long as it’s compelling. (Note: There’s a fine line.) With me, I was initially turned off being given loads of information all at once, with tons of dialogue to wade through. Patience is a virtue, as everything began to piece itself together in a coherent manner that painted a lovely picture of “Wow, this dude said some interesting things! Digest that how you will, audience.”
In a word, it felt “mature.” Not in the sense that it’s exclusively for grown-ups or because it was dark or serious. It was mature because it doesn’t kick the player into any specific direction. No condescending dribble about what’s high and mighty compared to all else. Events occur, people react, and history continues forward. Just like reality. Everything feels wonderfully objective, though with a subjective flair of personality from a wide range of characters with different perspectives.
And the characters! Oh, readers, some of the characters in this game are truly wonderful. Not all are built equal, as is through some inconsistency in importance and screentime, but those shown and/or discussed at adequate lengths are fairly fascinating. Mina, Agent Black, Royal, Mother, Elro, and those that make up their personal connections serve as great motivators for justice, revenge, or whatever else. The story is fascinating, but the heart of Iconoclasts remains in the characters that make it all function. Their payoff, whether good or bad, was never something that had me rolling my eyes. Some hate dialogue in video games. If video games were written like this, I’d probably grow bored of games without dialogue. (I almost am!)
What adds to the drama of the story, the emotional outbursts of the characters, and the initial appeal of the game is the design. I am in love with good pixel artistry—anyone who reads my blog or follows me on Twitter knows this very well. To say that Iconoclasts has good pixel work is kind of like saying Toby Fox makes good music. I said before that I instantly knew this was a game worth playing from the artistry alone. It tends to be that way, especially with indie games. But heed my words: This game’s pixel art is better than I initially thought. At a standstill, it’s already very good. In motion is where it pops! To see these characters jump and flail around and express their emotions and, at times, achieve feats unthinkable to humanity is awe-inspiring.
It’s one thing to read the dialogue of a deranged person, it’s another to see that character banging their head violently against a wall while saying so. There’s so much expression in this game that oozes such small details that make fantastic visual storytelling. It’s the work of someone who knew exactly what they wanted to convey—every emotion, every movement, every line, meticulously pinpointed until everything reached its peak. I have all the god damn fucking respect in the world for the developer, Joakim Sandberg, for making this game on his own, which took up nearly a decade of his life. It paid off splendidly. Everything worked impressively well, and the insane amount of detail was not lost on me.
With the parade of superlatives out of the way, let’s get to something that’s a little more up in the air, which comes down to gameplay. Indeed, for some, this may be the dealbreaker for Iconoclasts; more traditional players will likely not get as much out of this as I, someone who values narratives in video games, did. This is not meant to be a condemnation, only a warning for those who have read up to this point and expected a big, shiny “10/10” to grace this review. It is not so.
There’s a post on Rock, Paper, Shotgun by John Walker which details some of the complaints he had as he continued playing through Iconoclasts. I’d recommend giving it a read if you were curious about having more details on what I’m about to discuss or have played the game yourself and want a more “negative” opinion. In it (and I’ll paraphrase), he discusses the trajectory of his enjoyment of the game as he continues forward with the story. As it gets bigger and bigger, he tends to enjoy it less than when the story was more of a backdrop to the gameplay. Additionally, he discusses other details about the game, including certain button inputs and the vague puzzle-solving elements, which add up to create a hit-or-miss experience.
To some degree, I agree with some of his complaints. At four hours in (the game took me about ten hours without trying to 100% it), I was considering whether to put this game along my all-time favorites. I was infatuated with the aesthetic, the intriguing story, and the busy level design. After that point, my own trajectory began to dip, as well. Levels began to feel more cramped and harder to traverse through, especially with backtracking being so prevalent. The gameplay mechanics, while still varied, still felt a little too sparse. And, as Walker said in his own piece, there are definitely instances of the game being too vague with progression.
Videogamedunkey, Youtuber and game critic extraordinaire, once described the phenomenon of the “Metroid Moment” in a video review of Metroid: Samus Returns. Essentially, he describes it as
total horseshit a moment in a Metroid title that makes vague insinuations of how to progress by having the player experiment until they’ve exhausted all options. That aggravating feeling of loss, encapsulated by an unchanging screen and a grinding halt of progression, is something that occurred in Iconoclasts a few too many times for me. Combining this with the backtracking and occasionally complicated means of defeating enemies makes for a time-consuming burn. Let’s just say “The Tower” and I were not good friends.
On a more succinct basis, the way the game functions, what it requires of the player through button inputs, and the conveniences of modern accessories all work splendidly. A quick complaint can be made of the requirement to be on top of blocks in order to pick them up, but this was more trivial to me than Walker. Much of the gameplay mechanics, including gunplay, wrench-twisting, and different abilities, are mostly intuitive and easy to master, something not all games can say. I was totally comfortable with the way the game functioned and what Robin, the central character, was capable of at any point. Sometimes I wish there was a little more to her arsenal, though the consistency of upgrades was enough to make up for it.
What felt a tad underwhelming were the action elements of the game… on one end. With Iconoclasts, there are two major aspects of action: enemy combat and boss battles. Boss battles are awesome. I absolutely adored going through all the different means necessary to get a baddie’s weak point open or going toe-to-toe with a narrative-important character. All the different ways Sandberg implemented unique strategies and gamestyles to suit a specific boss was immensely riveting. The only true complaint was the boss that implemented autoscrolling as a side effect. Replaying autoscrolls because you died three times because you missed the timing to open a door is beyond brain-destroying.
Enemy combat is a lot less exciting. Early on, when one doesn’t have too many options and capabilities, it can be a decent means of entertainment. Later on, when puzzles and narrative take precedence, it starts to feel a little in-the-way. Enemies aren’t as clever, become too easy, or are otherwise too armored to take on. For one such enemy, there’s a baddie with a big shield that throws explosive grenades that skirt the ground in front of it. One cannot damage this dude unless they hit their back. The only issue is that most of your weapons cannot arc overhead, only aiming straightforward. If you jump over the baddie, it will immediately convert horizontally to face you again. This makes one’s only choice an unreliable bomb launcher weapon, which actually hits this specific enemy once every four or five tries, depending on one’s skill. This ends up being far more annoying than fun. And there are a few enemies similar in this regard!
My trajectory for Iconoclasts trended downward for a good portion of the middle parts. Thankfully, it shot back up near the end, saving what would’ve been a disappointing end to a great start. Even so, when the game began to focus more on narrative and puzzle-solving, combat felt more of a nuisance than anything. And for a video game, this may prove concerning for traditionalists out there. On that note, Iconoclasts is far more of a puzzle-platformer than it is a Metroidvania. That is something worth mentioning for those going into it.
One final complaint revolves around the typical expectations set for a Metroidvania title: item acquisition percentage. There are treasures to find and items to collect that one can use to craft little twerks to add to one’s gameplay. Faster move speed, increased attack power, more time to hold your breath, etc. That said, does that sound motivating enough to go out of your way to find these treasures? It doesn’t really for me. I’m somewhat of a perfectionist, so if I see a treasure, I try and get it anyway. Even so, the reward is never really worth it. Sure, the twerks are nice to have, but one can easily go through the game without them. On the basis of a Metroidvania title, this is pretty lackluster.
My word count shows 2,000 words written, so it’s about time for me to wrap this up before my head (or yours) explodes. Where Iconoclasts really shines is through its complex story, amazing pixel artistry, and chaotic boss fights. The level of detail is amazing, the creativity is so impressive that it’s borderline overambitious, and the presence of soul cannot be overstated. Love is a clichéd term people use to describe the motivation put behind creation, but I genuinely believe that nothing other than love gave Iconoclasts life. Issues persist, some more awry than others, yet the positive benefits shine brighter by comparison.
I will remember this game for the rest of my life, and it embodies everything about what the video game medium could be that I adore and sincerely dream for.
Final Score: 8/10
For more reviews on this topic, be sure to check out the associated archive.
Thank you for your time. Have a great day.