Video games are one of the most complex forms of entertainment to create, whether done with a handful of people or a company of hundreds. As you can imagine, this simple observation is especially true when tackling a project solo — a commendable accolade only a revered few can claim. (Daisuke ‘Pixel’ Amaya of Cave Story fame comes to mind.)
Enter: Iconoclasts. An indie passion project ten years in the making, everything from graphics to gameplay was lovingly crafted by one-man band Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg. At first glance the game borrows many of its core concepts from classic Metroid titles. Its vibrant 2D pixelated world offers fast action gunplay, backtracking through bustling biomes, and enough exploratory based treasure tracking to keep Captain Toad himself on his toes. Yet those brave enough to push through the seemingly familiar waters of bounty hunters past will find this heart-wrenching indie darling deserving of a top spot amongst the platforming elite.
RIOTS AND WRENCHES
Set in a world ravished by oppression, players don the grease covered kicks of silent protagonist Robin, an unlicensed mechanic in a world where such practices aren’t just frowned upon — they’re punishable by death. Serving as judge, jury, and executioner is the corrupt theocracy known as One Concern, who have no qualms letting anyone who steps out of line be pummeled to the pavement by angry, bladed robots in the name of ‘penance’. Defiance in her heart and trusty wrench in hand, it’s up to our maiden mechanic to battle through the bureaucracy and save both her family and the world from impending damnation.
As you can probably tell from that brief summary alone, Iconoclasts places a much greater emphasis on story and scripted dialogue than similar games in the genre — which is either a good or bad thing depending on your platforming pleasures. While most Metroidvanias are content being drowned in silence so the environment can spin their tales for them, Iconoclasts takes a more scenic approach to storytelling that could put a Dostoyevsky-sized novel to shame.
With its newfound emphasis on story tightly woven into every fiber of its being, the game’s greatest strength lies in the emotional investment placed on its characters. Everyone you meet during your roughly 12 hour rebellion is inherently charming — even the evil ones! There’s a surprisingly dark story buried beneath all those pretty pixels, with powerful themes of grief and futility seeping through almost every NPC interaction that’s hard not to sympathize with.
That said, the storytelling itself can be a bit convoluted and difficult to follow at times, especially during the opening hours when long-winded conversations and unfamiliar jargon presume players already have extensive knowledge of the game world and its many societal nuances. Though just like with any good book, those who stick with it long enough will find themselves hooked on one of the most dramatic narratives the Metroidvania genre has to offer.
GEARING UP FOR ADVENTURE
Complementing Iconoclast’s gripping story and excellent character development is one of the most exhilarating exploration-based platformers I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing — despite adopting a more linear structure in line with contemporary Metroid titles. Progression through its pixel perfect world involves using your arsenal to clear paths and solve environmental puzzles. Each of the game’s beautiful backdrops, from sandswept deserts and moonlit forests to scientific laboratories buried deep beneath the sea, are brimming with hidden secrets to discover and materials to collect.
You’ll want to leave no stone unturned when seeking these valuable resources too, as they’re needed to outfit Robin with Tweaks — Iconoclast’s system for buffs and abilities — via numerous workbenches scattered about the game world. True to their name the effects are subtle, usually offering little else than small boosts to physical characteristics like wrench attack strength, health, or time spent holding Robin’s breathe underwater. As such they do little to change the flow of combat and exploration when compared to, say, the fully customizable charms of Hollow Knight, but I never found that to be a problem given the game’s focus on skill and precision based platforming.
Speaking of precision, the combat system in Iconoclasts controls like a dream. Our heroic handy-woman comes packing an arsenal of deadly tools for sending those pesky religious fanatics flying. Outside common blasters and concussive missiles Robin’s ruthless with a wrench — each swing of its mighty metal proving no match for the sinful skulls of her enemies. Its versatility goes beyond mere melee accolades too. Deflecting projectiles, ratcheting open mechanisms, conducting electricity — these are just a few of the added perks possessed by your buddy in bludgeoning, each one more inspired than the last.
The same courtesy can be extended to the game’s many blood-boiling boss battles. Unlike traditional juggernauts of the genre, felling them requires strategic use of both brawn and brains, each one proving a perplexing puzzle of its own — whether speedily wrench riding along the rails of a giant mechanical centipede or slowly knocking a bionic gunslinger back into a pit of spikes. The best of the bunch have you tag-teaming between both multiple phases and playable characters to expose a series of weak points.
A MECHANICAL MASTERPIECE
Iconoclasts is a well oiled, mechanical marvel of a Metroidvania. While some kinks in storytelling syntax rust up the gears, the tightly bolted gameplay mechanics, riveting narrative, and iron-clad puzzle platforming secure it firmly in the pantheon of indie icons, especially Switch owners seeking a lefty loosey twist to the familiar formula.
Robin for Smash, anybody? Who could resist that adorable wrench-shaped bun of hers.
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System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: August 2, 2018
Categories: Action, Adventure
Publisher: Bifrost Ent.
Developer: Joakim Sandberg