I’m not gonna beat around the bush with this one; Iconoclasts is brilliant. It looks great, has a wonderful cast of characters in a weird-but-interesting world, and its gameplay is a fantastic blend of classic shooting and Metroidvania exploration.
I learned a new word too, during the course of reviewing this game. An iconoclast is somebody who opposes/attacks religious icons and images, believing them to be superstitious or followed in error. I’ve no doubt that Joakim Sandberg had this in mind when creating the story for Iconoclasts, given that the entire game is based around a totalitarian, religious government calling itself One Concern. This regime wants the monopoly on Ivory fuel, a resource that can be used to power almost anything it seems, and so One Concern decrees that only its own, licensed mechanics can handle any repairs or modifications of the world’s Ivory power sources.
You play as Robin, the daughter of a mechanic, who has secretly taken up her father’s wrench to help repair anything and everything for the local Settlement 17. Unfortunately, this has resulted in “Penance” destroying various homes in the region and killing those who have gone against the word of One Concern. And so, Agents Black and White arrive at Robin’s house to question her on this whole mechanic business. This is precisely where the wonderful characters come into play, as Agent Black especially is dripping with an understated charisma, while Agent White constantly vexes her by bellowing accusations at Robin during the scene. I found myself reminded of Final Fantasy VII’s characters and tone, such is the high quality of Iconoclasts’ writing.
In my experience, it’s quite rare to see a game like this with such a heavy focus on story and characters, but Iconoclasts handles its masterfully without skimping on the gameplay. In fact, I would say that its gameplay is among the best in the genre. There is such variety in every facet of the game’s mechanics, requiring thought and strategy to combine with muscle memory in order to progress through its ten hour campaign. Enemies require different tactics, with some being impervious to simple shooting, so you might need to slam down onto their head with Robin’s boots, or find a way to attack them from behind, or sometimes even use the environment against them.
Where Iconoclasts really shines is in its boss fights. One or two are easy enough, needing only a few dodges and a barrage of blasts from Robin’s stun gun, but most of them have specific strategies required to defeat them. A number of them had me really thinking how to get around their defenses, but the game often hints at their weaknesses. Sometimes it’s another character shouting something that gets the lightbulb shining over your head, whereas with others it employs that age old tactic of introducing a new mechanic in the run up to the boss fight. Whether you remember that, however, depends on you. Their designs are magnificent too, from the smallest battles to the largest, such as the large robot that tosses your platform up into the air while firing grenades at you, or the…actually no, I won’t give away anything else. That would spoil the surprise. Rest assured that every single one is different; hell, even seven or eight hours into the game, totally new mechanics were thrown into the mix, helping to keep things fresh. Each fight is a spectacle, some reminiscent of the action-packed insanity of Treasure’s classic Gunstar Heroes, much to my excitement.
It’s not just about the action and explosions, of course. Exploration is at the heart of any Metroidvania and Iconoclasts is no different. Each area offers its own unique challenges, whether it be the puzzles or the story beats contained within. Some of the puzzles are quite fiendish, but like the bosses they often use newly-introduced abilities to best them. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of “so that’s how you do it” when you discover the way to progress.
I loved exploring the world in Iconoclasts, as every new area offered an insight into the rich lore of the game world. I also loved those tantalising glimpses of future abilities, with areas just out of reach or unique items that you can’t interact with yet – a real staple of the genre. Unlike many other games though, you’re rarely stuck in one area for long. The level design is intelligent enough that you’re always shown the way forward, even if you’ve forgotten it, and a quick glimpse at the map or a chat with a nearby character will usually remind you of your destination. With that in mind, I am amazed that the game continued to just keep going, yet still left me wanting more after the credits rolled at around ten hours. Its pacing is perfect.
It’s easy to see why it took seven years to make, as the level of detail is astonishing. The pixel art is vibrant and evocative, with each area feeling part of one big, crazy-ass world. Every character looked unique, with the main characters especially memorable in their design and animation. From Agent Black constantly worrying at the bridge of her nose to ease her headaches and Mina’s temper constantly getting the best of her, to Robin herself, a silent protagonist (aside from one or two moments when you’re asked to make a dialogue choice in the story) with the expressiveness of a Pixar character, everything in Iconoclasts looks and sounds like it belongs.
It’s not without its flaws, as there are one or two frustrating difficulty spikes later on. A new enemy is introduced in one of the final areas, with no apparent way to defeat them, and when they accompanied more agile, powerful enemy types it got real difficult, real fast. That said, I only died a handful of times during my playthrough, the level of challenge was balanced well enough for the most part.
The story itself belied the visual style and tone, during the first few hours. It felt quite lighthearted and comical early on, only for something quite horrific to be shown, catching me off guard. While not exactly a fault with the game’s design, it nevertheless conflicts with the beginning of the game, though it did signal a shift in tone that remained for the rest of the story. Perhaps this is more a signal of how easy it is to miss age ratings on digital games (Iconoclasts is a PEGI 12, just for reference) than anything else.
With its fantastic cast of varied and unique characters, coupled with a constantly evolving storyline that offers so much entertainment and a surprising amount of emotion and heart, Iconoclasts is a game that simply must be played. Even if you’re more about the gameplay than plot, Konjak has you covered thanks to some stunning level design and those cracking boss fights. It will take your hand and pull you along for an exciting adventure, and you won’t want it to let go.
Gorgeous pixel art
Great level design
Fun and varied boss fights
Story and overall tone are sometimes at odds
A few odd difficulty spikes