Game Review: Iconoclasts


There is a terrible bait-and-switch at the heart of Iconoclasts, the long-gestating game from Swedish developer Joakim Sandberg. For the first 3 hours, the game does everything it possibly can to convince you that it is a bad game.

It got to a point early on where I dreaded even playing the game. I was stuck wandering around boilerplate environments solving simple puzzles in order to get crafting materials for extremely minor upgrades I didn’t need. The writing was a chore to get through, full of sentences that were unintentionally difficult to parse. I had no idea what my character’s ambitions were or why she was involved in the central conflict to begin with. I felt like I was a cog in a machine I didn’t understand, going through the motions the game was laying out for me for no other reason than to advance the nonsensical plot full of characters I didn’t like.

And then things changed. Right around its halfway mark, Iconoclasts systematically and excitingly removes the shackles that were holding it back. It is not a perfect process; the dialogue remains strangely worded, and the structural problem of puzzle rewards being meaningless remains. But the game grows into its own in a way that few games do. It becomes more linear and more focused. The story it is telling becomes more engaging. The characters become more fleshed-out and human, and their motivations and mistakes begin to mingle in ways that are often affecting and tragic. Iconoclasts suddenly shifted from a game I was loathe to play to one I had to finish as soon as possible. It dug its claws into me in a way that few games have in years. This isn’t to say that I came around on the game as a whole. I still think the beginning hours are a slog that I can only assume represent the original intention of the game’s designer 10 years ago when he started the project. But beyond the abysmal introduction, Iconoclasts stands as one of the most creative and affecting games I’ve played in this genre.

You play as Robin, a skilled mechanic in a strange world of religious dogma and shifting continents where hobbies are illegal. The world is running out of Ivory, a key resource, and there is a constant and unabashed sense of impending doom. This apocalyptic idea eventually solidifies into a series of exceedingly dramatic and interesting moments, but at the beginning it is easy to get lost in all the religious jargon and stilted dialogue the characters throw back and forth. Robin herself often feels like an empty vessel, with little stake in the events going on around her.

Once the cast of characters is fully introduced however (and there are a lot of them) and your motivations become clearer, the plot begins a steady acceleration that carries through the last 70% of the game. Boilerplate forest and desert environs evolve into electrified forests, corporate skyscrapers, and doomed cities, each of which tells a story through its visual design that is worth carefully absorbing. The generic deer and slime enemies that inhabit the first areas are replaced by a constant progression of fauna and machine that culminates in some of the most well-designed and impressive boss battles the genre has seen recently. Whether you’re fighting a possessed security system with the help of a friend or playing cat and mouse with an invisible pariah, the boss battles are almost assuredly some of the brightest stars of the show here.

The game is good about doling out new abilities at a steady clip. There is a nice progression to the puzzles that never results in the dreaded 4-ability puzzle room that tends to bog down puzzle games for me. Here, each mandatory puzzle is just tricky enough to require a bit of thought, but never complicated or difficult enough to feel like a major roadblock. The game is also good about designing enemies in such a way that the basic combat can feel like a satisfying puzzle just on its own. By the end of the game, enemies are changing or combining in ways that make you think on your feet just as much as any puzzle room. Add in a mid-game ability that both upgrades your firepower and lets you swap places with most enemies or puzzle elements and you have a tool nearly as satisfying to use as other game breakers like the upgraded gravity gun from Half-Life 2.

The true star of the show though is the cast of characters. By the end of the game I had an attachment to each one, despite the fact that there are probably at least 10 characters who impact the story in a major way through the game. The game often pulls the trick of having one character’s motivations suddenly and jarringly rub up against another character’s, often resulting in your own progress being changed in a major way. This can happen off-screen, or across a barrier, or a floor below you. It never once feels cheap or showy, and it resulted in some of my favorite moments in the game. There is very little mercy for these characters because the characters themselves have so little mercy for each other. Despite this, I felt impacted by each and every death or betrayal or plot turn. By the end of the game I actually felt incensed that, not only did one of my favorite characters not make it, it was actually me who had to seal his fate. It stung, which tells me that the obtuse writing in no way impacted my connection to these characters.

The masterful sprite work on display seals the deal. Each character has a very distinct look to them, and they all animate to fit their personality. Quiet environments contrast gigantic multi-part bosses that fill the screen. One boss fight in particular stuck with me more than the others, despite featuring little more than two characters facing each other on a snowy walkway. It’s worth playing just to see each of the bosses go through their motions and each of the characters react to the scenes laid out for them.

I am infinitely relieved that I continued on past Iconoclasts’ unsatisfying beginning. I don’t think, even in retrospect, that it is well designed or exciting. Iconoclasts would have been absolutely incredible if the beginning matched up to the quality of the rest of the game. Though the game as a whole doesn’t reach those heights, I still cannot recommend it enough. I can’t think of the last time a game grew on me this strongly, and I’m glad I stuck around for the entire ride. You can truly feel the creator’s love for the medium and for the stories he is telling in each quiet moment of reflection and each bombastic boss battle. I’m as glad as he is that it finally came out.

9/11


My favorite game of all time is Metal Gear Solid 3. I’ve played through it again and again, and my love for it is further cemented after every playthrough. Metal Gear Solid 3 is a deeply flawed video game. It suffers from pacing issues, a bad camera, and a story that’s often difficult to follow let alone enjoy. Iconoclasts is similarly flawed. It features a mess of a story, an underdeveloped progression system, and even worse pacing issues. But dammit, I love Iconoclasts.

My opening moments with the game were pondersome. To begin with, the visuals are a standout here. We’ve seen pixel art used before in numerous indie titles, but Iconoclast‘s style stands out among the crowd in three main respects: quality, variety, and vibrancy. It doesn’t appear that the developers were trying to emulate the graphical style of any particular 8 or 16-bit console and, as such, they let themselves run wild with the art on display. They play with a variety of effects, color pallets, and animations to provide a game that visually pops in most places. The music is also deserving of note. The opening song is great. The music overall runs the gamut from good to fantastic, but it does loop often. Thankfully, with the overall quality of the music here, the repetition is slightly easier to overlook. Movement feels quick, snappy, and responsive. The attacks and movement both look and feel polished to a mirror sheen.

Iconoclast‘s opening moments had me thinking that it was going to be a very solid addition to the metroidvania genre, but calling the game a metroidvania is almost doing it and the genre a disservice. There’s a map showing separate rooms and save areas, there are different biomes for different locations, and you develop your arsenal of weaponry and abilities along the way, but the similarities largely end there. Iconoclasts is a story-driven puzzle-intensive action adventure. If you would’ve told me that going in, I probably would have never played it in the first place.

I often find I cannot judge a game by its genre labels or tropes. When things began kicking off, I would be remiss if I said I was having a great time. I wasn’t. Movement and combat felt great, but there just didn’t seem to be enough of it. Areas felt sparse, challenges felt too easy, and screens were often punctuated with scenes of verbose dialogue that were often irrelevant. A mythos is established, but it never feels like anything new or inventive. It’s surprising that a setting almost straight out of a JRPG ended up in a game like this, yes, but it doesn’t initially do anything interesting or inventive to differentiate itself from countless other fictional settings. I spent the majority of the first half in conflict. I saw what the game could be, and it kept falling short of that mark. Eventually though, things began taking a turn.

Iconoclasts not only began to meet the mark I felt it could reach, but it began to consistently exceed it and leave me surprised and impressed. When clumsy character introductions and mundane setting building get out of the way, the story makes way for charming character interactions and impactful moments that are immensely enjoyable. The gameplay stops feeling easy and sparse and it begins throwing challenging puzzles at you that are legitimately fun to solve with the new tools it dishes out at a perfectly steady pace. Boss battles go from easy bullet sponges to intriguing and varied puzzles. The pacing stops sputtering and begins to find its footing. Some of the pacing is next to masterful with some quiet moments that punctuate bombastic boss battles. Nearly everything feels like it’s beginning to click and fall into place about halfway through. However, there are problems that persist throughout the entirety of the game. The writing is still rough around the edges with some obtuse wording. The progression is still woefully inadequate. You craft marginal upgrades from a short list of options. After seeing what’s offered, it largely does not feel worth it to explore forks in the road as the only thing you’ll come across is a chest containing one of four crafting materials. The game is far from without its faults, but so much of it gets so good in the closing moments. I am immensely grateful that I stuck with it until the final sequence.

It’s curious how I was completely blindsided by Tucker’s initial mention of this game. The lack of attention surrounding Iconoclasts is strange to say the least. It could be chalked up to any number of factors: low marketing budget, unrecognizable developer, or a lack of mainstream appeal. It cannot be due to a lack of visual appeal or polish, as the game has both in spades.

I came away from Iconoclasts pleasantly surprised and very impressed. While the first couple hours tried their best to disinterest me, I only began to love the game more as it went on. Just like Metal Gear Solid 3, Iconoclasts is not a perfect video game. I cannot say that I would recommend it to everybody, nor can I say it is deserving of a perfect score or even close to it. I love this game because the excellent moments it provides far outweigh and justify the initial hardships I had to endure to get there. I cannot say that will be the case for everyone that plays it, but there is one thing I can say: Iconoclasts is a game that would be enjoyed by many, but will only be played by a few. That is an immense tragedy.

8/11