When one usually thinks of an extended development cycle, they usually think of big budget projects that get continuously reworked. However, as we have seen from title such as Owlboy or Gang Beasts, it can sometimes take awhile to finish even smaller releases. Such is the case with the 2D side-scroller Iconoclasts. Developed solely by one Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg, the title has been in the works since 2010, with several name-changes in between its announcement and launch. Even as social media lets us follow developers in increasingly more personal ways, it can be easy to forget just how much effort and time any project can take.
In the world of Iconoclasts, society has been taken over by the sinister religious entity known as the One Concern. Led by the enigmatic Mother, citizens are kept in line by a strict military force and a group of agents who have been infused with Ivory, a powerful energy source that is as volatile as it is rare. With only a select few allowed to handle Ivory, amateur mechanic Robin has to constantly put herself in danger just to be able to do what she loves. When the One Concern finally comes for her, she must work together with an unconventional group of allies in order to escape the omnipresent organization. Oh, and on top of all that, the world is going through some seismic changes that seem to spell that the end days for the planet have arrived.
Going into Iconoclasts, I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much from a story perspective. Perhaps, that was for the best, though, as I was genuinely taken aback by where the tale goes over the course of the game. The colorful art style belies the frequently grim depths the story manages to reach. From pirate friend Mina’s fractured home to turncoat Royal’s clashes with the One Concern, there’s more going on here than you would expect. It’s also hard not to recognize the real-life parallels to the world of the game, specifically the oppressive religious regime and the eroding atmosphere of the world. While more destructive in the story of the game, both of these trends are alive and well in the world today. It gives the story an extra oomph of impact that elevates it above other efforts. I do have some issues with the plotting, specifically a few lengthy exposition dumps that pop up and the resolution of some of the One Concern Agent arcs felt rushed, but most of what is here resonated with me in a way that I was not expecting.
I hesitate to call the game Metroidvania-inspired, although it does borrow a few staple elements. There’s a sizable map for Robin to explore, as well as plenty of secrets buried within the walls of the world. However, unlike most titles in the genre, Iconoclasts doesn’t rely on backtracking as much as others do, which is a welcome treat here. That’s not to say there isn’t some backtracking, but you only have to do so a handful of times, and once you’ve unlocked the fast travel system after a few hours of play, it becomes rather trivial.
While exploration is important, the game is more focused on two different things: battling bosses and solving puzzles. Starting with the more exciting of the two, there are over 20 boss battles, although the scope and importance of each one varies greatly. Some of them are of the mini-boss variety, but every face-off against a powered-up One Concern Agent brings a unique challenge to the table. Whether it’s a stealth focused showdown in the jungle or a team-battle against a giant concrete cat, each major boss battle kept me on my toes. There are smaller enemies throughout the world, of course, but the most memorable moments the game features all come from these battles.
As much affinity I have for the structure and variety of boss battles Iconoclasts features, I was less impressed with the actual combat engine of the game. Robin has two main types of attacks: her firearms and her wrench. At the start of the game, you only have a stun gun, but over time, you’ll unlock others, including a grenade launcher. She’s at her best when it comes to using the wrench, though, which not only has power, but also gets some powerful upgrades. That’s all well and good, but there were times during the game where I felt the aiming system wasn’t up to the caliber it needed to be. The directional aiming is extremely limited, which makes hitting specific targets more challenging than it needed to be. My issues with the aiming were further amplified during the handful of sections you take control of Mina, who’s shotgun has a wider arc, but is both slow and only capable of moving in one direction at a time. It’s not game-breaking by any stretch, but the title would have benefited from a more flexible system.
The power-ups Robin acquires during the game are not only helpful in combat, but also play critical roles in the puzzle solving aspect of the title. One of the great things Konjak achieved with Iconoclasts was how he was able to craft puzzles that require you to make use of all of your powers. It starts out simply enough, with a majority of them just relying on Robin using her wrench to open doors, but eventually you’ll be using electrified grenades to trigger switches, while using your matter swapping gun to teleport past a guard. And despite all of the facets some puzzles have, I found myself overwhelmed by any of the major ones I came across. That didn’t stop me from feeling accomplished when I successfully navigated a multi-pronged riddle, though.
Taking into account that it’s mostly the work of a single man, it’s impressive just how nice Iconoclasts looks. It sports a colorful retro style that not only taps into retro nostalgia, but also manages to feel surprisingly modern. The character sprites look beautiful, and each major section of the world is designed to feel completely different from the other. I also really liked the character designs, both of Robin’s band of allies and the assorted One Concern Agents out to get you. Each one looks unique, and even if they only show up for a brief amount of time, they manage to leave an impression. The modern retro theme also extends to the soundtrack, which is a standard-ish chiptune soundtrack, but still fits the mood of the game.
The biggest strike I can level against Iconoclasts is that it doesn’t always stand out in a super-crowded genre. It doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, as what’s here is your standard 2D platforming action. Of course the flip-side to the lack of innovation, is the fact that what it does do here is done extremely well. Outside of my issues with the aiming, the controls of the game are tight and precise, while the puzzle-solving aspect rarely boils over to frustration. The solid gameplay combined with the engaging story and gorgeous look of the game make this years-long effort one of the first great games of 2018.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us.
While Iconoclasts may not reinvent the platformer, it does do the basics of the genre extremely well. When combined with a resonant, engaging story and colorful style, the title emerges as a great example of the power of one man's persistence and vision.