Iconoclasts Review

After nearly a decade of development, Iconoclasts – née The Iconoclasts – is finally out in the wild. A solo project by Swedish developer Joakim Sandberg, Iconoclasts is a superbly bright and punchy 2D action platformer, and an overt homage to the cheerful sprite adventures of the 90s. Nevertheless during its long gestation we’ve seen a myriad of similar games tugging on those same nostalgic heartstrings. Can Iconoclasts stand out amongst them?

You play predominantly as Robin, an upbeat mechanic with a tenacious habit of helping people and napping whenever possible. Equipped with her trusty wrench and stun pistol, Robin immediately embarks on an adventure escaping and battling an oppressive regime known as the One Concern. In this world mechanics are exploited and detained, and it’s easy to see why they’re so obsessed with capturing Robin and ending her escapades when her wrench is effectively their kryptonite.

The visual style in Iconoclasts is absolutely sublime; the animation in particular is consistently brilliant throughout the entire game. Robin exhibits a lot of character through her pixel animations alone, and even with repetitions I found myself cracking a smile. This carries over to the menus too, where the confirmation option typically reserved for a simple yes or no finds itself instead an enthusiastically nodding or shaking Robin head. These little touches are scattered throughout Iconoclasts and never cease to be charmingly joyous.

Right off the bat controlling Robin feels fantastic. Basic movement and platforming controls are tight and fluid, while combat is handled using Robin’s satisfying ground slam and basic equipment. the wrench acts as a melee weapon and can parry certain projectiles; whereas the stun gun can fire charge shots and alternate modes, such as grenades. These two main tools can be upgraded through the story, but as Robin’s two main combat tools also double as platforming and puzzle solvers, Iconoclasts clearly intends for the player to master these limited tools. Robin herself can also be upgraded and customised using collectable tweaks, for example increasing her breathing capacity for swimming, movement speed or attack damage for an advantage in various contexts.

It’s a shame that these abilities can sometimes feel quite cumbersome to use. Navigating swing jumps with the wrench requires pixel perfect precision which can be fairly frustrating at first and feels at odds with the relative ease of the jumping and platforming controls. Later on when the wrench gets an electrification upgrade, the player is required to press and hold the wrench spin twice to activate it – a minor niggle but nonetheless adding to the unsavoury nature of such a primary tool.

Thankfully Iconoclasts features a variety of puzzles and platforming beats and doesn’t rely too much on the wrench. There’s a certain fluidity of rhythm to Iconoclasts’ gameplay and combat almost feels secondary at first – the blaster autoaims to ceiling placed critters – however as the game progresses enemies and bosses appear which take a degree of strategy to overcome and there’s still plenty of challenge in the encounters.

Many puzzles work on strategy, reflexes and timing, and they’re satisfying to solve, even if you get stumped now and then. Not all are perfect and a couple fall foul of videogame tropes, such as objects resetting when accidentally going off-screen into the next area. There’s certainly plenty to master within Iconoclasts’ systems, however, and notably a structure refined for speedrunners; It isn’t always explicit with regards to possible manoeuvres and exploits as it was fairly late in the game when I discovered a double jump of sorts, which I won’t spoil. I will let on that the circle button climbs ladders faster – you’re welcome.

One of Iconoclasts’ main attractions is clearly its boss battles, of which there are quite a lot and punctuate the game regularly. These are invariably visual showcases and often perfectly encapsulate the 16-bit legends where its inspiration stems from. There are over 20 in total and as such are a bit hit or miss. The best are always the ones which involve using an accumulation of skills, however too many appear to rely on a single gimmick or a new element entirely. How much this will affect your enjoyment will depend on how bothered you are by these types of boss battles.

It’d be easy for Iconoclasts to rely entirely upon its gameplay and style to sell it, yet surprisingly the story takes a pronounced centre stage. There are cutscenes, dialogue sections and story beats, but rather than being half-baked or tacked on; these are fleshed out, with lots of NPCs and various characters are given decent arcs and personality.

Iconoclasts is aptly named, featuring a swathe of characters determined to free themselves from their religious oppressors. The enforced status quo is quite clearly grim, and the explored themes such as language and ideology are well managed, and the resulting narrative is often quite dark. Iconoclasts tries to tell a lot of story and as such buckles a bit under its own weight, but this is ultimately hampered by the inconsistent writing. At times the dialogue can be gruellingly difficult to parse, and a rigorous edit would have been hugely beneficial. One particularly egregious dialogue scene felt like enduring a school nativity based on a Metal Gear Solid 4 codec conversation.

But then the writing will go ahead and surprise or make you laugh; the moments where Robin receives actual agency and can respond to situations are excellent and there are moments of genuine wit and good writing. Iconoclasts shows itself to be self-aware of itself and of industry tropes it both employs and subverts.

One of the absolute highlights for me personally, the audio design in Iconoclasts is tremendous and perfectly accompanies the dazzling visuals. Whether it’s the simple but pleasing patter of footsteps or the raucous explosiveness of the boss fights, the sound consistently delivers where it needs to. There’s also a thoroughly enjoyable soundtrack featuring different themes for various levels and bosses which doesn’t ever overstay its welcome, even when lingering on a stage for a while.

There are also plenty of stages – Iconoclasts is a fairly lengthy game and whilst the path through stages is quite linear, there are plenty of secrets to find, although even without attempting to find everything you’re still looking at a good dozen hours to finish the story. Completionists and speedrunners will find a lot more mileage, but there’re also difficulty modes for those eager for a straight-up challenge. On PS4 it’s also cross-buy for Vita, and the game is perfectly suited for Sony’s oft-shunned handheld.

What’s Good:

  • Incredible presentation and animation bring characters to life
  • Tight and fun platforming
  • Charming audio design and OST
  • Frantic and frenetic boss battles
  • It’s on Vita!

What’s Bad:

  • Inconsistent writing can be gruelling
  • A few questionable design choices
  • The gimmicky boss battles fall flat
  • Main tools can feel finicky and cumbersome in some situations

Perhaps Iconoclasts just tries to do a bit too much of everything, which is stunning considering it has come from a single person’s creative drive, which is so compellingly impressive. A decent edit of the script, fewer bosses and puzzle repetitions, and the rest could have been refined even more. Seven years ago Iconoclasts would have blindingly stood out on its artstyle alone – as it indeed did when announced, but now it has to compete with a plethora of other captivating 2D pixelart games. Luckily for Iconoclasts that, despite its flaws it still stands tall amongst its peers, both recent and its contemporary forebears.

Score: 7/10

Version Tested: PS4 Pro, Vita