Iconoclasts is a side scrolling exploring platformer eight years in the making; the passion project of Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg, who sites a passion for the Genesis/SNES era of gaming. The first take away from Iconoclasts is that Sandberg has clearly invested their time in invoking that feeling. But what looks like yet another indie reviving its creator’s favorite era of games has a whole lot more going on underneath the adorable exterior, and it is quite surprising.
Players take on the role of Robin, a young aspiring mechanic with the primary character trait of wanting to help people with whatever they need. The world she lives in is one controlled by a government force that assigns careers to its citizens, though that actually seems to be based on passion and/or talent. However, for some reason (hint hint) no one actually wants her to follow that path. Despite that opposition and the law in her way, Robin still grabs her giant wrench and goes out to help those she can get to.
Quickly, she finds herself caught up in major world events involving conspiracies, an energy crisis, superpowered enforcers, and some cool upgrades. In a lot of ways, that sounds more or less like a game you’d actually see on the Genesis two decades back. Even so, the level of polish on display is far superior to a lot of those, and even other genre entries released these days. Iconoclasts has the feel of a game that has indeed been in development for years, and prioritized the right stuff. Jumping, landing, grabbing ledges, and over all traversal of Iconoclasts’ world is incredibly satisfying. Falling off or missing a jump because of a poor hitbox is simply not an option here, even if you try.
That polish extends out to the game’s character design and animations. Konjak has created lively and recognizable characters, who let their personalities show through various cutscene animation and combat scenarios. There’s a certain cartoon-esque feel to these characters, giving the impression that you could see them in a series on Cartoon Network believably with little to no alteration. Combined with a peppy and upbeat score, that feeling of a spirited early 90’s era of gaming fills your heart.
Or, it does, until you actually play it and Iconoclasts quickly takes of the facade; presenting a story of religious extremism, abuse, trauma, authority, and the loss of faith.
Robin’s world is ruled by a authoritarian regime, with its justifications rooted in a religious order led by a single prophet figure. All law enforcement is militarized, though petty crime doesn’t appear to be a thing. Instead, it’s indicated the world’s law enforcement exerts punishment for people’s sins via “Penance,” which only manifests in the game as the destruction of that person’s home, and the deaths of all those inside. All of that is established within the game’s first hour, and throughout the game Iconoclasts’ makes it clear that subtlety is not its modus operandi.
From the perspective of a former Evangelical Christian, seeing a game very clearly take on a sort of questionable mentality in such a direct way was surprising and refreshing. Other games have definitely attempted a similar approach-Bioshock Infinite immediately comes to mind-but often take a hand waving approach to tackling the very clear authoritarian streak that comprises a lot of variants of Western Christianity; choosing to create an exaggerated version and then pivot their actual stories as soon as possible. Frankly, I expect the same out of this year’s Far Cry 5; which makes both the backlash from right-wing groups and the excitement of escapist violence from left-leaning ones seem misplaced to me.
But Far Cry 5 and Bioshock Infinite are both first person shooting games and I feel there’s a certain desire to not entirely alienate a certain subset of that audience. Iconoclasts isn’t, and uses that veneer to drive the point home with a sledgehammer while drawing players in with atmosphere and gameplay that has always had underlying complicated themes but also often keep them subtle.
Cutting that subtlety means that some of Iconoclasts can be a little too on the nose. That means the gameplay has to do some heavier lifting; and it is mostly up to the task. Robin’s primary weapon is a large wrench that she spins around in a full circle as a melee attack. The wrench is also used as the primary means to solve the various puzzles across the world’s regions. Often this comes in the form of Robin needing to crank bolts to access new areas; but getting to those bolts are the challenge. Robin is also armed with a stun gun and eventually a couple of other projectiles that also function as other pieces of the puzzles. These are particularly cool, as they can be charged to have a secondary ability that are fairly neat utilities. Particularly a small grenade launcher becomes invaluable both to some complex puzzles and a whole lot of the combat.
In other ways, there’s some less valuable aspects. Robin can modify her skills with “tweaks.” They are crafted with materials that are found in the nooks and crannies of the world and then Robin can equip three at a time. The trick is that as Robin takes damage, these modifiers crack and stop working until they can be repaired using raw material picked up from breaking idols or defeating enemies. It’s an interesting enough concept as the tweaks cover all kinds of different modifications, but they are incredibly fragile. Taking any sort of damage once will crack one immediately, meaning outside of playing perfectly you will very rarely experience the full potential of the changes. It does lend a certain level of tactical planning to things, but outside of the few that help with traveling the world, you won’t enjoy many of them very long; especially in boss fights. Bosses are pretty clever, as most take the form of puzzles themselves instead of just being showdowns, but the first times through will result in tweak cracking damage and often a couple of deaths as you put things together. A couple are particularly awe-inspiring, but several are a little too frantic to figure out in your first couple of goes.
Thankfully, conquering a boss pretty much always leads to a reward in the form of more story and character interaction, which is where Iconoclasts really shines. Seeing these disparate people interact and often butt heads over beliefs and the conflicts at hand is compelling. The story itself unfolds at a tantalizing place, never afraid to reveal things or push the narrative forward while still encouraging players to keep going. The cast is decently diverse both in story and in background; between devout believers and the broken to queer ladies of color who happen to belong to a society that actually worships the family, there’s a lot of text to cut through and the cast wears it well. Alas, as a silent protagonist, Robin doesn’t get afforded that same depth. Instead, the rest of the cast has to either tell us what her personality is or we are left to try to infer it through slight details in cutscenes. Given how much isn’t left to subtext throughout the game, it’s somewhat strange to leave so much of Robin’s characterization up to it; especially when it ends up becoming a pillar of the game’s ending.
This is an ending that still stands strong, however. The story is very much about the dismantling of harmful behaviors that fundamentalist thinking can motivate; but it is also very much about building beyond that and finding better answers. For some, those answers might be walking away while others choose to fight back. In the middle of all of it, even glimmers of new versions of faith and belief are forged.
Iconoclasts isn’t perfect, the ambitious ones rarely are. Even in spite of those missed long shots, the ones it makes are more than worth the adventure. It confronts a dense and relevant subject head-on and with a level of nuance not afforded to those unafraid to take things far enough. All while being surrounded by tight gameplay, gorgeous art design, and some fascinating characters. I’ll be tying a string around my finger to remember this one towards the end of the year.
Developer: Joakim Sandberg
Publisher: Bifrost Entertainment
Platform: PS4, PC (Reviewed), Mac
Release Date: January 23, 2018
Copy provided by developer