Iconoclasts sure lives up to its name. As a Metroid/Castlevania Symphony of the Night-inspired game, it’s totally serviceable: you explore a large grid-based map and use new equipment to help unlock new paths that take you further into the world. But it’s the way that it approaches your development that really sets it apart from the rest of the bunch, since you don’t really build a gigantic arsenal all throughout the game, but rather, are challenged to make use of the few upgrades that you do get (and sometimes put together) in continuously trickier level design.
It’s easy to see why it spent so much time in development since its announcement back in 2007 — then called ‘Ivory Springs’ — and eventual retooling — and renaming to ‘Iconoclasts’– in 2011. From the very get go, we’re treated to some of the most beautiful sprite work, which is even more impressive considering that it’s pretty much a one man project headed by Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg, rivaling another gorgeous and long in development release that came out a while back, Owlboy. Like that game, Iconoclasts also sports a plot that takes itself very seriously and that sometimes gets in the way of the flow of the gameplay.
Taking place in a world dominated by a doctrine that forbids any sort of research or creation, you pick up the comically oversized wrench of Robin, a plucky young and quick to rush into action mechanic who’s just recently lost her father after he was executed by Concern, the religious organization in power. Things get complicated right away as she starts running into some of the grunts under the governing powers, who see her as an obvious threat just due to the fact that she’s a mechanic. As you further explore the world, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to Iconoclasts’ world than simply a battle against an evil and oppressive empire, especially so when some of the people you fight against turn out to be likeable, and the folks who are supposed to be good make it tough to bond with. Add to that a conflict over a dwindling vital resource called Ivory and you’ve got yourself a world class calamity to deal with.
Iconoclasts initially plays like your run-of-the-mill platformer under the influence of the old Metroid and Castlevania games, a metroidvania if you will – for as much as I still abhor the name, it’s become a staple for branding indie games – in so much as features a grind-based map that opens up little by little as you discover new ways to traverse the environment. But as mentioned before, that’s where it strays a little from the conventional formula, giving you more room to explore the few tools at your disposal and really squeeze all there is to be used out of them, instead of bombarding you with a bunch of one-time use thingamabobs that would otherwise languish in an overcrowded inventory screen.
Due to that design decision, a lot of Iconoclasts’ challenge rests on the shoulder of how well its map is put together, and in that sense, they’ve done a good job in providing a steady stream of increasingly difficult obstacles. Some levels can take more than a few minutes to beat, and if you’re anything like me (read: not good at reading environmental clues), some are likely to stump you good. And while I would have rather had more puzzles than combat scenarios throughout the game, the handful of boss fights proved to be challenging and fairly creative, even though a bit obtuse in how they are to be approached initially in some cases. Like during the fight against a digging robot in a circle-shaped tunnel that doesn’t really end when expected, instead forcing you taking an extra step that forces you to do everything over again in case you fail to truly off it for good.
Then again, for every good decision, there’s something about Iconoclasts that make it feel a little off. For instance, whenever you’re required to pick up a box for whatever task it’s needed for, you can only pick it up if you’re standing still on top of it and press up, which not only slows down the game to a crawl, but also makes it feel somewhat clunky do to how twitchy it can be. Same goes for the bolts you attach Robin’s wrench to in order to swing around while platforming, which require you to be right in front of them (er… to the left or right of them, since it’s a 2D plane) in order for you to connect to them. Thankfully, these instances don’t detract from the overall quality of the level design, but they help make the game flow by less smoothly than it could have otherwise.
Somebody way wiser than I’ll ever be once said that a true tool has more than one purpose, and that’s very much the case for Robin’s wrench. Not only is it vital for unlocking many of the doors standing in your way all around, it also comes in handy when fighting. By spinning it, you’re able to deflect attacks and even charge it up and zap enemies vulnerable to electricity after acquiring an upgrade. The same double use comes in play for the few guns that come to be in Robin’s possession, such as a grenade attachment that doubles as an explosive power source for moving platforms. There are even some less known uses for some of these that fans have since discovered, such as the much welcome ability to double jump by charging her shotgun in mid-air, which to, as far as I know, not something that Iconoclasts makes any mention of being an intended feature.
What Iconoclasts makes sure to mention, though, and many times, is its story. More often than not, it just stops all the action in order to have rather lengthy dialog scenes. Sure, you can usually skip them, but if you want to get through the game at a brisk pace while still trying to keep up with the story, it’s rather slow at delivering, even when mashing the confirm button and get the text to pop up as fast as possible. And even if you do manage to read everything, the writing in the game is so dense that it’s honestly a little overwhelming to keep up with.
For all the little faults that prevent Iconoclasts from being an instant classic, there are plenty of others that propel it well above the usual old school style indie game. I could’ve done with a smoother flow to the overall gameplay, but on the other hand, I did enjoy having to make do with the limited set of tools at my disposal. Even though I managed to get stuck more than once during my time playing, the times that I did so, the sense of accomplishment that came after finally overcoming them was fantastic. And heck, most of the solutions are cryptic enough to require more of an outside of the box approach and a little environmental observation. Clever design like that is to be commended. It’s the sort of thing that I always hope to find in puzzle-heavy games like Iconoclasts. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 10+ years to see what else its lone developer has got in his sleeve next.