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Iconoclasts feels like a classic. It’s brimming with callbacks to an older era of games, but with an updated look and style. It’s an incredible feat that Joakim Sandberg (aka Konjak) was the sole developer, artist, and composer on this game, because it achieves such a high level of polish.
Ten years after Sandberg embarked on his development journey, he and publisher Bifrost Entertainment are debuting the game on January 23 on PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. I played it on the PS4, and though I don’t often partake in platformers, I found it to be thoroughly charismatic and visually stunning with solid gameplay. Its boss battles are frenetic, challenging but not impossible, and its puzzles are clever and make good use of mechanic protagonist Robin’s trusty wrench.
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What you’ll like
Rich world and narrative
Iconoclasts is that rare platformer where story, not actions, takes the lead. The narrative felt tightly constructed and meaningful, hitting emotional beats that I expected but still managed to surprise me with how evocative they were.
You play as Robin, an outlaw mechanic who flouts official edicts by picking up a wrench to help people. In this world, the planet’s government is both cult and dictatorship, a theocratic ruling body called One Concern that claims divinity and threatens citizens with heavenly punishment if they should sin. And one of the big taboos is taking up a job that hasn’t been assigned to you.
Iconoclasts’s science fiction setting comes with plenty of its own distant-future jargon — Ivory, for instance, is a precious substance that is used to fuel everything in the world. Penance is some mysterious force that strikes people down in their houses if they should go against One Concern. And the enigmatic Mother and the occasionally referenced Starworm are powers on high that pass judgment and make rules based purely on ineffable mystic reasons.
Though we don’t get too much of the world’s lore, enough of it is there to give Iconoclasts depth and make the characters’ actions matter. You glean the reasons and consequences of the war of ideologies and basic survival between the renegade pirates and the sovereign One Concern. You meet folks from various strata of society. Even the way the world looks has something to do with the dystopian story. It all comes together for a satisfying narrative with substance.
Terrific aesthetic and presentation
Just by looking at the screencaps, you can already tell that Iconoclasts is beautiful. It looks fantastic, popping with bright colors and textures. Each zone has its own unique personality, populated with geometric trees and plants. The characters themselves feature charming details as well. For instance, our plucky protagonist Robin’s hair is actually shaped like a wrench.
When you wander through the neon shocks of blue and purple grass in the electric forest and swim past the snaking right angles of coral and gem tones of the underwater pirate city, it really feels like exploring a wondrous alien world. And you’re accompanied on your journey by an energetic soundtrack that never gets tired and fits the occasion. One of my favorite moments is when you learn more about One Concern’s purported divine providence and the music cues up, filled with an eerie reverence and solemnity.
Battles and bosses
When it comes to mechanics, Iconoclasts doesn’t screw around. To solve puzzles, you’ll tighten bolts, grind gears, and zip across electric lines to reach new areas of the map. The puzzles are intuitive, the battles are challenging, and progress is immensely rewarding. In other words, the game feels fantastic.
I don’t frequently play platformers, and Iconoclasts reminded me of how fun they can be. Even though I died while traversing a few of the treacherous dungeons as well as during a few of the boss battles, the gameplay was addictive enough that I immediately wanted to take on the challenge again. It never felt like a chore, nor did it talk down to the player and hold your hand.
I played Iconoclasts on Standard mode, but there are different difficulties for those who are looking for a more challenging experience. After beating the final boss, you unlock New Game Plus mode as well as Challenge mode.
What you won’t like
Iconoclasts’s emotional core is about faith and personal choices. Though it largely succeeds, and some of the characters are real standouts — Black, for instance, embodies tragedy without melodrama — it can also be a little heavy-handed. These characters are supposed to be flawed, projecting their own insecurities, needs, and desires onto Robin, who never speaks throughout the game nor expresses displeasure at being spoken for.
Robin serves as a source of hope who somehow emerges in a world that’s downtrodden with ecological, financial, and spiritual ruin. She’s a counterpoint to the people in her life who urge caution and self-preservation. However, some of these characters are just grating. In particular, I had a hard time sympathizing with Robin’s brother Elro and the divine progeny Royal.
Even though the game was really pushing for me to feel the emotional brunt of what Elro has gone through, I found him to be selfish, stubborn, and unapologetic about both. Similarly, Royal’s arc was unappealing and I felt that he never showed any actual growth as a character.
This is a bit of a minor gripe because it doesn’t happen very frequently. However, I really just didn’t care for playing as some of the other characters in the game. For most of the experience, you’re fleet-footed Robin, pressing ever forward against whatever challenges that may lie in wait. But occasionally, you’ll have to take control of the pirate Mina, whose arsenal is a lone shotgun that she uses as both a range and melee weapon.
I don’t mind Mina as a character, but playing as her felt sluggish. You can’t dodge attacks right after you fire a shot because of her reload animation, which I found frustrating — though I admit that perhaps that was done on purpose as one of her quirks. The toughest sell for me was that you don’t play her often enough to get really good at her style of combat, which made her segments feel incidental and not terribly fun to play.
The game isn’t a perfect narrative experience, but to me, the story comes second to the gameplay in a platformer. And the mechanics in Iconoclasts are fantastic. I always felt like I had enough information, and searching for solutions to puzzles in the beautiful environment felt like an adventure. I could easily see this game becoming a beloved retro-inspired title, much like Shovel Knight.
Most impressively, Iconoclasts evokes nostalgia without feeling derivative. It hits a lot of character tropes, but it manages never to feel stale thanks to fantastic visuals, a memorable world, and solid gameplay.
Iconoclasts is out on January 23 for PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. The publisher sent us a code for review.
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