Wrench your heart out
What’s the best level you’ve ever played in a 2D platformer? Maybe something classic like World 1-1 in the original Super Mario Bros., or the intro level to Mega Man X? Those fantastic examples of great game design that teach the player everything they need to know without telling them? Or maybe exploration is your jam, and you’re thinking back to your favorite area in Metroid Fusion or Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.
Doesn’t matter, you’re all wrong. The best level to ever grace a 2D platformer is the Dice Palace in Gunstar Heroes. It’s the most ridiculous level in a ridiculously good game. A roll of the dice can toss you into a sudden puzzle, a surprise boss fight (complete with absurd gimmicks) or just some strange, novel situation that only seems to exist to tickle the player with how odd and strange it is. It’s a level defined by constant change, surprise, and delight.
Iconoclasts is the Dice Palace exploded out into an entire game. It combines the expert game design of classic levels like World 1-1 with the exploration and puzzle elements of the best metroidvania games, but somehow never loses that incredible feeling of surprise and wonder. From start to finish, Iconoclasts is always throwing something new and strange the player’s way, and it is an absolute joy to discover what’s waiting at the edge of the screen.
Iconoclasts (PC [Reviewed], PS4, Vita, Linux, Mac)
Developer: Joakim Sandberg
Publisher: Bifrost Entertainment
Released: January 23, 2018
At its core, Iconoclasts is a pixel-art adventure with retro sensibilities. You take the role of Robin, a renegade mechanic in a world where that is a surprisingly dangerous (and illegal) occupation. It’s a silky smooth action game that feels great to the touch, seamlessly blending platforming exploration with classic 2D action, tasking the player to take on an army of tricky enemies and larger-than-life boss battles. It invokes a nostalgic wave of all your best memories of playing the SNES.
But that simple description can’t do it justice. Iconoclasts isn’t just another quirky throwback title the 16-bit era. Yes, it borrows from that aesthetic and makes nods and references to classic titles. But, it isn’t merely following in the footsteps of what has come before, it’s building on them. Creating something new and different in the process. Iconoclasts is the fruit of more than seven long years of work by a single creator. Joakim Sandberg built the world of Iconoclasts pixel by pixel. From the levels, to the menus, the cinematic trailers, and even the music, Sandberg did it all. This is his expression of how a 2D adventure game should be, and that creative focus gives the game a distinct and off-beat feel.
One thing that is evident from the moment the game starts is the love and care Sandberg has for the world and characters he’s created. The level of detail in everything from character art to backgrounds to even the menus is astounding. I can’t count the number of times I spotted some custom one-off sprite or animation (one of my absolute favorite things in pixel-art games) that is used once during a particular boss fight or cinematic and never seen again. It’s ridiculous. If you consider how every extra frame of animation represents tens of hours of extra work, all handled by one person, it’s surprising that Iconoclasts took just seven years of dedicated development. The game is filled with these maverick decisions and quirks.
Even the basic flow of the game is a little odd. Iconoclasts could easily be considered a metroidvania of sorts, as all the action takes place in large areas where your progress is gated by obstacles and puzzles. But it never feels quite the same as something like Metroid. The maps don’t stay static waiting for you to get the tool to solve them, they change here and there in odd ways, reacting to events. Some places you end up backtracking to quite a bit, some are visited once and seemingly forgotten. It’s a looser, freer take on the genre. Besides, there is just too much story for a 1:1 comparison. Metroid is quiet, lonely. Iconoclasts is chatty, a lively journey filled with other characters. Then there are the tools at your disposal.
Despite all the exploration and puzzle solving there is to do (and there is a lot of it), the number of upgrades you actually acquire is rather small. Instead of loading the player up with a few dozen toys, Iconoclasts gives them a few tools that do a dozen things each.
Take the stun gun, the default starter weapon you begin the game with. Any other metroidvania, you’d get some upgrade or replacement for it maybe an hour in and never look at it again. But in Iconoclasts, the starter weapon remains useful through the entire game. Its rapid-fire attack is often more suited for different enemy types than the heavier hitters. Its charge shot does double duty for solving puzzles. Not only is it used to knock away certain obstacles, the back blast can be used as a kind of quasi-double jump to access remote areas. There are bosses at the end of the game where it makes more sense to fight them with the stun gun than anything else.
Keeping this kind of versatility in mind is crucial if you want to find every secret the game has to offer. Scattered throughout every area are chests containing building supplies, craftable materials that can be turned into different “tweaks” when collected and assembled (essentially perks by another name). Getting to these chests can sometimes be fairly obvious – a few jumps here, an open door there – or absolutely maddening. I banged my head against the wall a few times trying to collect every single one I came across.
The tweaks themselves are nice, but hardly remarkable. They’ll offer handy bonuses like the ability to breathe a little longer underwater, or absorb a single hit without taking damage. You can equip three at a time, but every time you take damage, you lose the benefit of one and have to scrounge around for energy pellets to replenish it. Given how small some of the bonuses are, and how often I found myself getting hit (whoops), I didn’t pay too much attention to them.
“But wait,” I hear you say. “If the tweaks are essentially your reward for collecting chests and you say they don’t really matter, why even bother chasing down all those chests in the first place?”
Oh my sweet summer child. I didn’t go after all those bonus chests because I wanted the power-ups. I went after them because it was fun. It’s fun to move around in Iconoclasts. It’s fun to experiment with different tools and abilities. It’s fun to spend time in its levels, learning all the hidden paths, tricky jumps, and secret nooks. It’s a joy to simply spend time in a world so expertly crafted.
And those levels? Not even my favorite part of the game. Nope, that would have to be the bosses.
Iconoclasts boasts a bevy of boss fights. Every time things seem to relax or flatten out, you can be sure some giant fire-spewing robot or super-powered government agent will burst out of the ground to wreck your day. I was secretly thrilled every time.
Instead of going on and on about them, I’ll just describe my favorite boss. It’s this ridiculous mechanical monstrosity that is one part malfunctioning generator and one part Azteca totem (yeah, I know). It’s a tag-team fight where Robin and her hot-headed pirate friend, Mina, are stuck on opposite sides of the room trying to tackle this jangling junkheap together. It’s a puzzle boss, so in addition to dodging shots and jumping around like normal, there are levers, gears, and wrenchable bolts on both sides of the room that need to be pulled, spun, and twisted in order to reveal the boss’ weak point. Robin and Mina must literally tag each other in to manipulate the room and the boss towards victory.
Just in the abstract it’s a great fight. A big honking puzzle boss that makes you control two characters at once? Sounds great. But it’s the little details that really sell it. The way the mechanical totem shakes and bucks somewhere between a goofy animatronic tourist attraction and a frighteningly unstable boiler. The way Robin and Mina double high-five each other when tagging in and out. The way the girls lazily lean up against the wall when they’re not in play, like they couldn’t be less interested in the exploding cacophony of arcing electricity and rocket hands around them. It’s magnificent.
And somehow, Iconoclasts never loses this pace. It keeps this level of creativity up throughout the entire game. Sure, there are more tag-team battles, but none of them work the same way. There are more puzzle bosses, but they all use entirely different mechanics. There are more hectic, bullet-hell-esque battles in store, but they never reuse a trick. It’s always new, always exciting.
Hell, there is one fight that is both a tag-team battle and a stealth puzzle at the same time. It’s a two-person, 2D platformer tribute to the fight with The End in Metal Gear Solid 3. Why are you still reading this? Go, play.
If Iconoclasts was just an offbeat, fresh take on the pixel adventure game, it would be more than worth your time. But that’s not all there is to it. There is something more to Iconoclasts, something angry and rebellious. A message that wants to get out.
Robin, the protagonist is a criminal. A lawbreaker. An unsanctioned mechanic in a world dominated by a tyrannical theocracy called One Concern. One Concern purposely maintains an iron grip on all advanced technology, knowledge, and most of all, the primary fuel source of the planet: a quasi-magical substance known as ivory. They won’t tolerate some random girl that wants to pick up a wrench and figure out how things work for herself.
But an unsanctioned mechanic running around making unapproved repairs should be the least of anyone’s worries. This is a world teetering on the brink. The moon hangs in the sky, broken and fragmented by some mysterious disaster. The ivory that sustains the population’s way of life is running out. Rations of the precious fuel have become stingier and stingier to those in the provincial settlements while the elites of the major city continue to slurp up every bit of juice that’s left to suck out of the dying planet. And like any good despotic theocracy, the One Concern is plagued with bitter infighting and sectarian divides that threaten to send society into a bloody civil war.
The cute pixel art and gorgeous animations belie a surprisingly weighty narrative. One full of mysteries, surprises, and occasionally uncomfortable questions.
Even the friends you meet along the way aren’t who you might think they are. Iconoclasts features a cast of interesting companions, allies, and rivals that seem like they could have sprung from the box art of any SNES RPG only to subvert your expectations. While they might outwardly appear to fit into the neat little character tropes we’ve all become accustomed to – the roguish thief, the frail psychic, the swashbuckling hero – none of them live up their stereotype. They all have their own points of view and opinions, and they don’t always align in a nice and pat way. They’re all flawed, damaged people, held back by something they can’t get over, and their individual arcs don’t always resolve these issues in the usual ribbon-and-bow way a fantasy adventure might. These are struggling people living on the margins of society. The ones who don’t fit in. The ones who aren’t the beneficiaries of the system, but the stepping stones used to prop it up. Iconoclasts might be a delightful action-adventure romp, but it’s also a look at oppression, what it’s like to live life outside the lines.
That’s where Iconoclasts lives too, outside the lines. Of its genre, its inspirations, and its expectations. It’s a delightful surprise, the kind that doesn’t come around often enough.
[This review is based on a pre-release build of the game provided by the publisher.]