Wot I Think: Iconoclasts
Just needs a few bolts tightened up...
It's an odd experience to have followed the development of a game for almost a decade, only to have it blindside you. Iconoclasts, the slow-cooked passion project from prolific developer and highly talented sprite-artist Joakim 'Konjak' Sandberg might look like your average Metroidvania-type platform adventure at first glance, but that's not the whole picture.
Konjak cites semi-obscure Genesis/Megadrive game Monster World IV as his primary inspiration. That's not a game I've played so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Thankfully, I came away very pleasantly surprised by Iconoclasts' unconventional flow and strange story.
While Iconoclasts does share many of Metroid's core concepts, and borrows much of the movement feel of Metroid Fusion, the closest overall point of reference I can offer here is Cave Story, with a greater focus on puzzle-solving. While backtracking is sometimes required, and there's no shortage of secret areas tucked away in distant corners of the map, Iconoclasts is a largely linear platform adventure punctuated with creative and challenging set-piece boss fights, and with relatively little combat in-between.
Most rooms are, in effect, self-contained puzzles, often built around some aspect of the most recent upgrade or gadget that you picked up, and enemies are frequently used more like puzzle pieces than something to brawl with. While your progression is primarily gated by what tools you pick up in the course of the story, there is a secondary 'tweaking' mod system, allowing you to equip up to three extra perks.
Tweaks are usually minor improvements like being able to take one extra hit in combat, or letting you hold your breath just a bit longer in underwater segments. These are entirely optional, and while you can scour the maps for secret areas containing the resources needed to craft additional tweaks, once you've found three that match your play-style (dodge-rolling, faster wrench charging and one extra HP for me), there's not much reason to hunt for secrets other than the joy of exploration itself.
What came as no surprise was the high density of boss battles, having played Konjak's previous action game, Noitu Love 2. While you’ll be butting heads with a variety of humanoid foes, fans of spectacle will be rewarded with multi-segmented, multi-phased robots and monsters aplenty, each with multiple attack patterns to memorise with their own tells, letting you really learn each fight given a few tries.
There is perhaps a little too much randomness in the bosses, with attacks seemingly being chosen by the roll of a die, and some projectiles having entirely arbitrary trajectories. But as long as you can tolerate the occasional shock death, the bosses are consistently fun to fight, and mechanically my favourite part of the game. While generally well checkpointed, a couple of the larger fights will have you re-do the whole thing from scratch, but given their often puzzle-like nature, the earlier phases should go by far quicker and easier on return attempts anyway.
The largest surprise for me was just how story-focused the game is. You'd never guess it from the retro platformer boilerplate opening (a loud noise awakens our heroine, prompting her to explore her Green Hill Zone-esque surroundings), but Iconoclasts escalates into a remarkably complex sci-fi tale of clashing ideals and allegiances in a very strange world that's coming increasingly unglued.
While I don't want to spoil anything of note, I will say that the initial setup seems designed to lull the player into a false sense of security. Slowly building up character motivations and providing pieces to the overall greater mystery of Robin’s world before switching gears for a hard tonal shift into the final act, and a series of encounters that left me feeling breathless and grimly satisfied when all was done.
Set in a world that doesn't seem quite right, you play as Robin, a young freelance mechanic. This is a problem, as the world is ruled by the One Concern, a high-tech theocracy that run almost every aspect of their citizens lives, including assigning them jobs. Those who step out of line are left to face 'penance', which largely involves being locked in your home with an angry, bladed robot monster that erupts from the ground below - a divine force, in the eyes of the Concern.
The Concern's primary goal seems to be the harvesting of Ivory Fuel, a mysterious substance that seems to do everything, give or take, and their will is carried out by the Agents, seemingly invulnerable trenchcoated soldiers with strange powers and larger-than-life personalities, making them an especially fun bundle of antagonists.
The characters are a broadly likable bunch. While some come off a little long-winded (monologuing just a little too long), almost every named character has a coherent personality, with some interesting story arcs. Many characters - not just antagonists - find themselves at odds with Robin and her friends' goals, but the story creeps ever onwards despite their best efforts to stall or redirect it, and surprisingly few characters get the outcome they were hoping for.
My favourite character was easily Agent Black, the most frequently recurring villain of the game. Driven as much by world-weary pragmatism as anger, her story arc is buoyed nicely by some pleasingly snarky lines emphasized by fantastic incidental sprite animation; it's not often that anyone in a platformer has a specific animation for pulling themselves to their full height so they can look a taller character in the eye. That kind of attention to detail is visible the whole game through, in everything from character animations to tiny incidental background details. Konjak's primary focus as an artist is clear, and the game is never anything short of lovely to look at.
While the art is consistently brilliant, a few other creative aspects of the game don't quite hit the same high notes. The music is pleasant enough background accompaniment when playing the game, but I cannot for the life of me hum a single melody from the soundtrack. A few pieces end up feeling more like meandering MIDI loops, and perhaps the soundtrack as a whole overuses synthesized clanky metal noises, even if it does fit the theme of the game. Similarly, while the story itself is well told and dense with pathos, the script could use a little pruning in places.
This is a meaty game. Playing on Harder difficulty (the higher of the two initially available, and what I’d recommend experienced platformer fans pick), I took about 12 hours to reach the end, albeit skipping most of the secret-hunting and missing out on a pair of (excellent) optional boss fights. Sadly, unlike some of Konjak's earlier games there isn't much unlocked after your initial completion. Aside from scouring the map for a higher completion ratio, all that awaits post-credits is a basic New Game+ mode (you retain your tweak modules and crafting resources, but lose everything else) and Challenge mode, which is the same as Normal mode, only you die in one hit.
Unless you plan on speedrunning the game, Iconoclasts has relatively limited replay value. Still, in the end Iconoclasts wasn't quite what I expected, but I greatly enjoyed my time with it, and would recommend it to any platformer fan. Now I've had some time to digest it, I don't think it'll be dethroning Cave Story as the solo-developed platform adventure king, but it comes pretty damn close, and I've a feeling that the final third of the game will stick with me for a good long while, too.
Iconoclasts is available for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam for an RRP of €19.99/£17.49/$19.99.