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The more I play, the less I like Iconoclasts

Heretical

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So many people have been looking forward to Iconoclasts for so many years – we wrote our first impressions of it in 2011! – that it’s dangerous to venture any opinions into the fray.

But I fear no danger. Iconoclasts, properly released after all these years, is fine. Kinda.

It’s wonderfully ambitious, an enormous sprawling 2D platformer that draws from metroidvanias and RPGs, vividly rendered in glorious modernised 16-bit-styled graphics. Your time is split between exploratory platforming, extensive chatting, and boss fights, as you set about learning about its peculiar authoritarian world and your part in the resistance against it.

You play Robin, a rebelling mechanic (to simply be a mechanic an in this world is rebelling), determined to break the so-called divine laws of the oppressing theocracy by exploring, learning and fixing that which is broken around you. Or so the plot says. In reality you’re doing lots of platforming gubbins, while tweaking your skills and gaining access to previously inaccessible with an upgradeable wrench. Along the way you encounter many puzzles, a big pile of bosses, and dozens of NPCs as you learn more about the One Concern, its acolytes, the pirates, and those just trying to live unaffected by it all.

There’s much to enjoy, especially when it presents decent puzzles that utilise the abilities you’ve garnered. There are times when you get to feel smart, as well as a quick learning curve which sees each new enemy type rapidly switch from a challenge to another mob you blitz as you fly past. But for all those moments, unlike Dominic in his review, I’m not wholly sold.

The real issue I have with Iconoclasts is that almost everything feels ever-so-slightly off, just a few degrees away from feeling right. The platforming for the most part is fine without being particularly noteworthy, but is frustrated by some odd design decisions. To pick one of many examples: picking up blocks improbably requires standing on top of them and pressing Up (not the smartest idea when you’re trying to jump up from them), and throwing them is a wildly inexact experience of just hoping they’ll land anywhere near where you need them. And far too often the game will demand prescient split-second timing, that you’ll only know you needed after watching yourself not do it. Also, the wrench, when used to grab floating bolts, too often demands micrometre precision where a more forgiving “you’re in the right region” would make much more sense. Instead you fall and must drearily start a climb again. That in particular is a constant nagging problem.

And goodness me, the boss fights are too often too scrappy. Some are fine, satisfying even. Others are a frustration not of difficulty, but of badly communicating what it is it wants you to do. To illustrate just what I mean, I’m writing this very sentence while in the middle of one such boss fight, and the game isn’t paused. It’s that simple not to die here, but a case of hitting enough buttons at enough stuff until I figure out what it wants me to do.

Then, yes, sadly there are those that are just too hard. One particularly infuriated me by demanding moves the game itself wasn’t fast enough to respond to (it madly disables jump while charging your electric wrench, despite requiring such a move), while at the same time signalling attacks so late that I find it physically impossible to jump before they hit. I got past it, but I didn’t enjoy doing it. To top it off, there are difficult boss fights that when finally defeated reveal themselves to be stage one of two. Arrrghhhhh. Failing the second means having to sodding well do the first again, and yeah, thanks, no.

The farther I got in the game, the more it seemed to lose its sense of direction. So often I found myself completely unaware what it wanted me to do next (and the pause screen prompts are as ambiguous as “Chasing agent Black, you’ve been looking for the forest tower”), either because a distant area that was previously blocked off was now mysteriously opened with no warning, or because the game had collapsed into a series of disjointed puzzle screens with opaque goals. Far, far too often I’ve been plugging away at puzzles, thinking that I’m making progress, only to find I’ve gone off towards another dead end with a reward chest containing yet another crafting item I’ve already got loads of – and I’ve nothing left to craft.

Seven reads later, I guess I understand...

There’s a very pleasing sense of humour. Within the platforming and chatting are some puzzles, and their mechanics are pleasingly mocked in the explanation. The first you encounter asks you to move an elevator up and down while a guy runs back and forth carrying boxes. You need to slot them onto the right shelves, but you’re warned that the carrying dude won’t stop at any point, just keep going whatever. Huh, I thought, that’s going to be hard to narratively justify. “Yeah, I do that!” he replies. Ah! Perfect. This pervades the game – it’s not necessarily fourth wall breaking, but a gentle self-awareness that prevents it from becoming pompous.

Sadly there’s something very leaden about the writing, where so many sentences feel like a task to get through. Lines like:

“I hope to die without unfinished business. My spirit lingering shouldn’t have to be a burden to my descendants.”

And:

“My mother recently died. I feel I must honor her so my thoughts drew me to this statue again.”

It’s a double-negative passive festival of clumpy ordering. (To explain, I’d write those as, “I hope to die with no unfinished business. I don’t want my lingering spirit to burden my descendants,” and, “My mother died recently, and I feel I must honor her. My thoughts drew me once again to this statue.”) In isolation you might think I’m being picky, but when almost every line is so awkward to parse, clicking through the extensive conversations starts to feel like a chore.

The more I played, the less patience I had for it. Levels start to require I fail in order to learn how to proceed, which can be fine in a game that always restarts you at the room entrance, but wearying when you’re dumped back at the last manual save statue multiple screens back. In fact, so poor is the saving that even if you complete a zone and move onto a new one, sit through cutscenes, then play a bunch of the new area, it will still restart you at the last statue in the last area should you die/the game crash before you find a new one. Since the game knows to put in a checkpoint before a boss fight, it’s bewildering there’s nothing there for the start of a whole new zone of the game.

And honestly, for all the reams of dialogue, I didn’t care a jot about its story. There never felt any great sense of purpose, any real idea what Robin was actually trying to do. Lots of opinionated people surround her, but it all feels like bluster interrupting actually playing.

I am, it says, a mere 31% through the game, after ten hours of playing, so this is a biggun. I’m clearly nowhere near completing it. I fear, with even non-boss enemies now proving an ordeal to get past, that it will soon escalate past my ability/patience levels. Which leads me to also assume that those who like their games to get brutally tough will embrace it.

There is, as I began saying, an awful lot to like about Iconoclasts. It puts far more effort into characterisation than you’ll see in any other metroidvania or platformer, and as the world unveils itself it’s unquestionably cared over. I loved that at one point I walked past a couple of NPCs who gave long/lat coordinates, which when I put them into Google Maps revealed a nice little reference to the game’s fiction. And I completely adore the art.

But for me, the more of it I played, the more I found it got in its own way. Its clumsy prose is a struggle to read, its difficulty spikes are aggravating, and the sense of being directionless is too all-pervading. I feel certain this will find its audience, and what a joy for them. But sadly, not so much for me.

Iconoclasts is out on 23rd January on Windows, Mac and Linux, via Steam and GOG.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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