Developer: Konjak (Joakim Sandberg)
Publisher: Bifrost Entertainment, DANGEN Entertainment
Platform: Windows 10
After almost 10 years of work Iconoclasts was released into the world. Primarily created by Joakim Sandberg, or Konjak, this metroidvania game sees you following Robin, a mechanic in a world where religion drives the political climate. A religious cult known as the One Concern hold dominion over the surface world and exact harsh punishment upon any who do not proscribe to their stringent, self serving ideology. While players assist Robin on her own quest, they’ll find a host of upgrades that allow for progress forward, as well as more in depth exploration of previously visited areas. There are also passive abilities called tweaks that players can craft and equip. These tweaks provide a number of small bonuses that can enhance certain aspects of Robin such as the amount of damage her melee attacks do, or increased resistance to damage. All in all, Iconoclasts offers exactly what you’d expect from a metroidvania game, with a few new twists to keep things interesting.
Right out the gate Iconoclasts makes an excellent impression visually. Every area in the game has dense pixel art, which makes for a vivid landscape to explore. Extreme levels of detail have gone into every background, foreground, character, and enemy giving Iconoclasts a visual style that almost appears as if it isn’t pixel art. The meticulously crafted landscapes help to convey information pertaining to each area, while also making them feel bigger in size and scope. Caves look expansive with sprawling tunnels in the back drop, while religious iconography is plastered throughout the walls of key settlements of the One Concern. The results of this are a visually stunning game that communicates information about the world to players who take the time to absorb all of the surrounding elements. While it doesn’t aid the gameplay, I found the artwork to be one of Iconoclasts’ strongest features because of how it was utilized, and how striking it was to take in. It really can not be understated how good the pixel art in Iconoclasts looks.
In addition to how good the visuals in Iconoclasts are, I also found the puzzles to be quite enjoyable. The following comes with the caveat that for the first couple areas within the game most of puzzles are quite simple. However, once players push past the opening hours Iconoclasts launches into having a number of more thoughtful challenges. The reason for my enjoyment with the game’s puzzles came from many of Robin’s abilities being wholly unique to Iconoclasts. Traditional mobility skills like double and wall jumping aren’t on offer, instead being replaced by other abilities that the game’s bosses and environments are built around. I won’t get into specifics to keep things spoiler free, but I found the host of original upgrades refreshing as many metroidvania games tend to rely on what are tried and tested like the examples previously stated. Furthermore, having Iconoclasts entirely designed around utilizing these power ups in various challenges across the entire game made aspects of how players move through the levels drastically different than other similar games. The culmination of this was a refreshingly original set of mechanics and puzzles.
Finally, along with the art, and puzzles I really enjoyed the world of Iconoclasts. Of the various story elements I felt the world was best conveyed. Many of the One Concern controlled areas strongly convey what a dystopia the game world is. Cameras are perched on every corner watching the streets and citizens with razor intensity, waiting for them to falter so that punishment can be enacted. Religious iconography is plastered throughout buildings, and appears to influence the culture of Iconoclasts’ world. Some live devote lives of fear where they worship studiously to avoid penance from the One Concern, while high ranking officials within the church are treated almost like celebrities among the people. It’s a very unsettling backdrop made even more ominous by the implications of corruption within that can be found throughout the main story. For this reason I found it quite compelling to learn about the planet that Iconoclasts takes place on.
I have one massive sticking point against the entirety of my time with Iconoclasts and that is how it plays down exploration in favour of a linear, story driven experience. While it may not be a problem for all, I found it fairly disheartening how unrewarding it was to actually comb through each of the game’s areas. All of the reward chests contain materials that can be used to craft tweaks. While this has the potential to feel rewarding, the tweaks themselves are mostly underwhelming and not at all needed to finish the game on the standard difficulty. Outside of a few tweaks I didn’t find many of them to be particularly useful, which made going out of my way to collect all the resources feel like a waste of time. I naturally found enough resources to construct all the tweaks I was interested in while going through the story, which made the extra effort feel especially unwarranted. I found this to be a real shame because exploring every inch of the map and combing for secrets is one of my favourite aspects of many other metroidvania games, but it didn’t feel gratifying enough to be worthwhile in Iconoclasts.
Secondly, in conjunction with the lack of incentive for players to explore, Iconoclasts also doesn’t often provide the opportunity to survey the game. Iconoclasts is so focused on telling its story that it drags players to new areas, preventing the organic exploration that would see players using Robin’s new abilities to further traverse older areas. I found myself wanting to backtrack and comb for secrets at several intervals in the game after gaining a new ability, but I had to go out of my way to do so. Finishing one area usually leads into another as the story marches forward without providing moments for the player to branch out and explore. This keeps the pace of the story on track, but it felt like a missed opportunity to integrate more opportunity for players to delving into the nooks and crannies of Iconoclasts. The combination of both the brisk pace forward, and a lack of gratification to the exploration made it feel under developed and resulted in me not enjoying it all that much.
The other personal preference I have when it comes to metroidvanias is in how the story is delivered. I prefer when games build up their world through visuals, and Iconoclasts relies quite heavily on exposition. Characters constantly spout dialogue to explain something about what’s going on when a visual approach could have sufficed. For example, the One Concern are incredibly brutal in their punishment of those who have committed cardinal sin and nary a thought is given when persecution takes place. Several examples of this are shown throughout the game, but it is usually accompanied by a mountain of exposition explaining what happened, despite Iconoclasts clearly conveying what happened through visuals. It frustrated me that Iconoclasts did such a good job of communicating visually, but then felt the need to over explain itself after the fact.
While I had some gripes with how Iconoclasts design directly impeded with exploration, I still enjoyed it and would recommend it to fans of metroidvania games. The time and love that was put into the game shows with how gorgeous all the pixel art is, as well as how many original ideas are worked into the environments, puzzles, and boss fights. In combination with an eerie world that is genuinely compelling to learn about I found Iconoclasts had more ups than downs. Despite my apprehensions toward Iconoclasts, I had a good time playing it and existing fans of metroidvania games likely will too.