The last few years have been kind to the pixel art platformer, as the likes of Shovel Knight and Owlboy reinvigorated a stagnating genre with humour, deft puzzles, and often surprising storylines. The latter’s protracted development time ultimately served it well, and so is the case with Iconoclasts — a game seven years in the making, proving that a single developer’s drive and focus can elevate a title beyond all reasonable expectation.
What makes the game truly shine is the care that has been taken with every facet. The colourful graphics may evoke Mega Drive games of old, but a closer inspection reveals the intricacies of each character’s animations. You may not notice the subtle expression changes or tiny body movements, but they burrow into your subconscious and build a compelling and instantly recognisable cast of misfits, heroes and villains. The music, similarly, may sound like generic chiptune fare to begin with, but a surprisingly large range of tracks — as well as refrains for individual characters and bosses — turn into enjoyable earworms which never outstay their welcome.
The story is another matter entirely. From the outset, a dizzying series of names, organisations and relationships are hurled at you in medias res, and while they evolve and are expanded upon over the course of the game’s twelve hours, you may initially struggle to understand what is happening. Your mute main character, Robin, is a mechanic in a world which is being leached of its natural resources by a theocracy known as the One Concern. Led by an all-powerful Mother and Father, the organisation is removing precious liquid, known as Ivory, from the planet in order to create super-powerful individuals and further their agenda. Any act of assistance to the populace outside of the Concern is considered blasphemous, resulting in a “penance” being delivered to the guilty parties — usually the destruction of their property, or the forfeiture of their lives. Elsewhere, a group of pirates called the Isi and a rebel group inside the One Concern called the Chemical Contra are working together to try and overthrow the dictators.
If this feels like a lot to take in, it is. Joakim Sandberg, the game’s creator, has packed the narrative so densely and with so many allegories to the current state of our society that it’s often hard to see where the metaphors stop and the game’s story begins. This is an unapologetic analysis of the dangers of idolisation and the self-inflicted destruction of our planet, posing as a videogame. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, or indeed, funny. Robin is joined on her quest by a rogue pirate and an ostracised member of the ruling class, and their interactions are a delight thanks to a sharp script with a great ear for dialogue. It’s touching, sometimes tragic, and always sincere. If you find yourself feeling sorry for the bad guys on occasion, you know a story is doing something right.
While the aesthetic is the bread and butter of the genre, the puzzles elevate Iconoclasts to another level entirely. Armed only with a wrench to begin with, your quest involves little more than opening doors and destroying monsters. Robin soon acquires a couple of different weapons which are more often used to solve problems than kill things. Whether it’s manipulating electricity to power doors from a distance, exploding crates under lifts to create platforms to hop across, or spinning cogs to gain access to previous areas, your skills evolve as the levels do — and kudos should be given for including swimming sections which don’t immediately want to make us rage quit. The maps owe much to Metroidvania, but the focus on problem-solving is such that the experience feels utterly unique, and returning to a district to utilise your shiny new toys and access previously closed off areas never feels like a chore.
The fruit of those discoveries is usually a box containing an elemental material which can be used to create Tweaks at crafting tables. As the name implies, these are minor modifications which can improve Robin’s abilities slightly, such as moving a little faster, doing slightly more wrench damage, or holding your breath underwater for longer. While this is the only type of upgrade that you’ll perform in the game (there are no health increases or masses of different tools to discover) it’s disappointing that Tweaks feel almost superfluous to the gameplay, and you could reasonably complete the game without using any of them.
Robin’s skills may not improve, but the basics of Iconoclasts’ level design cleverly build on the four tools you pick up, and each of their secondary functions provides a different outcome when they’re charged up. A primed bomb gun unleashes a missile to trigger remote switches, while your wrench can spin and electrify nearby pylons later on in the game. Cycling between them requires a single button press, but we found that even with such a limited selection of items, timed puzzles or areas where you need quick reactions can often lead to controller-smashing fury if you haven’t got the right thing selected at the right time. This isn’t necessarily a fault of the game, but the difficulty level yo-yos from periods of breeziness to being truly punishing.
Nowhere is this more apparent than during boss fights, which have to be some of the most ingeniously designed encounters we’ve ever seen in a 2D platform game. They start off small, but scale with your tools and your skill level, until you eventually find yourself fighting massive creatures while juggling multiple weapons, trying to hit weak points, dodging annoying grunts, and keeping an eye on signposted attacks. If anything, boss fights have almost too much going on at once, and trying to isolate your goal in defeating them from the masses of visual candy on screen is often a challenge in itself. Yet, the game never penalises you too hard; checkpoints are regular, scenes can always be skipped to get back into the action immediately, and while some enemies look almost undefeatable, this is due to the vast and varied series of animations they’ve been given. Eventually you’ll spot your opening, and victory is all the sweeter for it.
Some titles of this ilk may focus on crafting a story or designing intricate puzzles in their game world, but Iconoclasts decided to dive head first into both and the result is one of the most unique platforming experiences we’ve had for some time. It isn’t perfect — even with seven years of development we were still hit by one game-breaking bug, and the amount of backtracking you need to do would have been served better by more obvious visual clues to the next location, or a fast-travel system which doesn’t rely on you knowing what colour an area is in order to warp there. Robin’s movement is responsive and natural, but the collision detection for the wrench is a bugbear at times, where judging the exact distance to latch onto a nut can be the difference between progression and a lengthy trip back to the start of the screen. The story is enjoyable, though by the end we still weren’t entirely clear what the underlying message was — however, a New Game+ mode lets you revisit the game with your knowledge of events, which may help you unpick some of its more complex themes.
Regardless, Iconoclasts is worth playing for its smaller elements — the tender moments of character development, the fiendish puzzles, and the ridiculous boss fights. It’s brash, bold, and totally distinctive, and a game that will take a wrench to your heart, if you let it.
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