Review: Iconoclasts (Nintendo Switch)
- Release Date (NA): August 2, 2018
- Release Date (EU): August 2, 2018
- Release Date (JP): August 2, 2018
- Publisher: Bifrost Entertainment
- Developer: Konjak
- Genres: 2D, Action, Platformer
- ESRB Rating: Teen
- PEGI Rating: Twelve years and older
- Also For: Computer, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Single playerLocal MultiplayerOnline MultiplayerCo-operative
What to expect.
Iconoclasts is a story-driven, jumpy shooty, action platformer rendered in vibrantly detailed pixel art. The narrative follows several core characters with genuinely engaging personalities across richly detailed pixel art landscapes, and explores several political and philosophical topics such as communism, theocracy, and the physical mysteries of their fictional world, all the while interweaving significant amounts of very believable character drama and intrigue.
A kick in the pants.
The game opens showing us our protagonist, a blonde girl of 17 years sporting a wrench-shaped ponytail by the name of Robin, waking up in her bed. Daughter to a recently deceased mechanic by the name of Polro, Robin has also taken up the spanner, performing freelance repair work for the nearby Settlement 17. Unfortunately, the ruling theocratic body of this world, known as the "One Concern", considers things such as private practice a sin, and Robin is placed squarely under the watch of their agents as they search for evidence of her illegal activity. "Ivory" is the primary source of energy in Iconoclasts' world, something which bonds matter together at the atomic level, and whose mining and distribution is controlled entirely by the One Concern. As of late, prices for this life-critical item have risen beyond the means of the common folk, forcing Robin's brother, Elro, to default to his sister's pro bono work in order to fix his family's heater.
After a minor domestic dispute between Elro and his wife over the dangers of asking Robin for illicit aid, they are discovered by the same agents of the One Concern who have been watching Robin, one of which is intimated to have a personal vendetta against Elro. Robin is roughly dragged away by the two agents and imprisoned, while Elro and his family are left to the mercy of the One Concern. Having put herself and her family squarely on the government's most wanted list, Robin finds herself desperately dodging the long, ivory tendrils of the law across a number of colorful locales, ultimately becoming swept up in a mystery concerning ivory, the One Concern, and the very nature of the planet itself.
The scene of a world synthesized.
Iconoclasts' art style is incredibly clean and finely detailed, with interactive foreground elements clearly defined from those of the background without sacrificing visual congruity. The general art style is something I would vaguely describe as "skewed geometry", wherein simple geometric shapes comprise most of the physical world, offset in some way either with respect to the perspective or to each other, while forming a cohesive symmetry in the overall composition. It's something I find works very well in the aesthetic sense, but it's also revealed to have relevancy to the plot later on.
Animations for characters, objects, and menus are varied and many, giving the sense that no opportunity was wasted to add a bit of character or expression to characters even when idle. Not only that, but they're keyed extremely well, making for very smooth movements which convey a clear sense of impact. Because they achieve this without being overly framed, the pacing of the game's micro-moments is not hindered in the least by overly-long animations, which is critical to their success. It's evident from the very start to the very finish that the game's creator is a very talented animator, and the proficiency he demonstrates lends each of the world's residents a large degree of character.
As far as the soundtrack goes, while Iconoclasts contained nothing I'd be compelled to listen to on its own, each track served to synergize with the overall locale or tone fairly well. There were one or two instances where I thought the music actually added a bit of depth to a scene that it wouldn't have had otherwise, and I might say that this is the most important thing a video game soundtrack can do. It's one thing for a song to simply parrot the emotions or vibes already being conveyed by the story, but I find it's better served in putting forth ideas or feelings the player might not have caught onto on their own. While I wish there was more of this, what is here is certainly serviceable and doesn't detract from the experience at all.
In terms of gameplay mechanics, Iconoclasts is relatively simple. In between story segments, the gameplay loop consists of traversing relatively small, contained biomes, defeating enemies, and solving puzzles. There are two basic tools you have in order to accomplish this, a wrench, and a gun with 3 interchangeable firing parts. In the beginning, the only available part is the stun gun, which features a high rate of fire, limited range, and homing shots that can pass through walls. Contrary to the name, the stun gun will actually entirely obliterate those who take damage from it in a flashy BANG as opposed to simply immobilizing them, so it serves as your default weapon. Progressing through the story, Robin will eventually find the concussive attachment, which fires grenades which explode on a timer, and the Usurper, whose charged shot can be used to swap places with many enemies and objects. While these do have their combat utilities, they're mostly used for puzzle-solving rather than outright scrapping. The wrench is a much more prominent an consistently used tool in her belt, however, as it's used to interact with metal nuts around the world. These nuts can have various effects on the set pieces around you, such as powering up a machine, opening a door, or sliding a platform, but it can also be used to swing through the air by grappling airborne nuts or to power across a zip-line once charged with electricity.
In addition, Iconoclasts sports an auxiliary mechanic in the form of items known as "tweaks." There are three slots available just underneath your health bar for these enhancements, which are constructed using upgrade materials and schematics, and generally serve as passive buffs. There is a catch, however, in that for every instance of damage that you take the rightmost tweak slot will "break", rendering it temporarily unusable. Each subsequent hit disables the next tweak in the lineup until all are broken. Collecting particles of ivory, which are emitted whenever and enemy is defeated, puzzles are solved, objects are broken, bosses change phases, or you ask the game really nicely, repairs the tweak. In this sense, there's incentive for the player to plan out not only which tweaks they wish to equip, but how to structure them in their slots so that the most valuable tweaks stay safe in the leftmost slot while fodder tweaks can go in the right.
Unfortunately, this mechanic is rendered almost moot by how imperceptible their benefits are. Iron Heart will protect you from damage once, where dying on even hard-mode is rare, Tool Assist improves your wrench's attack power, where the wrench is a poor damage-dealing option already and used mainly to reflect specific projectiles, Fleet Foot improves your movement speed, though not in any way I could notice, Breathless lets you stay underwater slightly longer, where only one is required once to reach a secret boss and the game provides three, etcetera. Even the tweak given to you for beating said secret boss, the most difficult tweak to obtain, is simply the ability to double jump, something already possible from the very start of the game by firing a charge-shot downward in mid-air. This doesn't enable a triple jump either, as shooting downward after a double-jump provides no boost. As a result, the system is a valiant attempt to add depth and uniqueness, but it ultimately fails to live up to its potential.
Tooth and nail.
Though these tools provided frame the possibility for a diverse combat system, the fights themselves are also things I feel never lived up to their potential. 90% the enemies in Iconoclasts functioned more along the lines of simplistic mini-puzzles than actual combat encounters, rarely making me think critically about my combat options or make clever decisions. Many baddies are designed to be destroyed with just one specific action, and are dispatched by the player as easily as simply realizing said action. Functionally, this makes every micro-encounter feel like a wall that asks you to perform a predetermined task, then yields immediately when you do.
Bosses fare somewhat differently, with many having multiple phases requiring different methods of attack and evasion, but they suffer from the same lock-and-key railroading, asking that you perform one specific action to open up their weak spot, and another to deal damage. This is illustrated most simply in an early fight against a pirate automaton where one must use concussion grenades to knock it onto a specific spot on the ground before it gets flipped over, allowing another grenade to be fired into the exhaust port. Compared to normal enemies, however, this is much less an issue, as avoiding attacks during these phases is much more involved and will take higher concentration on the behalf of the player. The issue is further mitigated towards late-game, when bosses finally begin to get more complicated with their attack patterns and more flexible with how one is expected to attack them, making them feel less like simplistic puzzles and more like a dynamic fight.
Lack of complexity and challenge aside, there are some sporadic telegraphing problems throughout the game, in which certain attacks don't properly indicate their timing or range before they're actually performed. As an example, one wall-mounted enemy will stop, pulse, and make a noise before firing a projectile, giving the player ample time to realize what is about to happen. Yet another bipedal automaton crouches slightly before suddenly erupting two walls of electricity twice your height quickly along the ground from either side, giving insufficient time to react if Robin is too close. This issue becomes yet more pronounced in bossfights, as almost every boss has a mixture of both fairly communicated and unforeseeable attacks. This lack of proper forewarning more often pushed me towards using a brute force method of tanking hits, unless it was my second time fighting the boss, having memorized all the tells. Playing through NG+ and being familiar with all of the bosses patterns, I can see just how fun they can be, but on a first playthrough mild frustration is all but unavoidable.
Alongside combat, there's a bit of exploration to be had, though it's quite limited by the linearity of the story line. Provided in the start menu is a grid-based map which marks the locations of treasures, save points, and sidequest destinations. This map fills in as you explore the environment, though as the game is so story-centric, you'll have very little opportunity to do so. Robin is periodically whisked away, in often grandiose fashion, from locale to locale without warning or ability to return immediately, making exploration seem disencouraged. There is a system of warp points by which you're able to return to previous locations, but that comes so late in the game that it almost feels like exploration is end-game content instead of a core feature. Even if you do try to probe your environment before the next event, you're more than likely going to be met with nothing but impasses requiring later items to progress, further stifling the idea of player-driven pathfinding. When you are able to explore, however, the environmental puzzles presented lack complexity, being able to be solved upon first sight and leaving the time engaging with them mostly spent on physically solving the puzzle rather than mentally. This simplicity in all three elements, combat, puzzles and exploration, does eventually get mitigated as the game progresses, but it was only at about the 5-hour mark, halfway through, that Iconoclasts started to feel like an actual game rather than a story with minor button prompts.
As something of an aside, I wish the game allowed you to play as the multiple characters who join you throughout your adventure as they all have their unique abilities. It would have been a thrill to switch at will between Robin's gun, to Mina's shotgun, to Royal's mystic power over ivory, to Elro and his family's sword, but while their portraits appear in the corner of your screen indicating that they're party members as they join you, the game never gives the option to switch freely. Though just a hunch, I suspect the mechanic was planned at one point but scrapped for time, as there are multiple instances in which control shifts to Mina for a short spell. While a welcome change, Mina functions essentially like a slower, clunkier, more limited Robin with no tweaks, ability to switch weapons, or attack in mid air.
The story it wants to tell, and the characters it wants to tell it.
In roughest honesty, it seems as though the combat and exploration are used more as packing material to deliver the story than as foci of the game. Luckily, the narrative itself excels in many ways and manages to be an intriguing ride from start to finish. The writing is wry, witty, and sharp, while also providing serious drama when necessary as well as managing some genuinely heartwarming moments. It's specifically in the character writing, however, where Iconoclasts really starts to shine. Each of the major supporting cast is likable, hateable, and believable all at the same time in their own ways. Take Elro, for example: right from the gate we see a very organic dispute between himself and his consternated wife unfold uncomfortably in front of Robin. Through what we see become of Elro and his kin, I can describe him as a level-headed man, an absolute badass, kind and caring, deeply emotionally broken, iron-willed, utterly craven, a fiercely loving brother, a hero, and an obstacle. I deliberately chose descriptors which would seem at odd with each other to illustrate that these characters are detailed yet believable; at odds with themselves yet still consistent with their personas through their writing.
Elro in particular is both my second favorite character and my most despised, even beyond any of the antagonists, and it's because the game's writing blossoms through showing the uncomfortable situations in which these characters must act, exposing their weaknesses by challenging them. Mina is a hot-headed, self-reliant person who must deal with a deeply narcissistic, guilting mother with a victim complex by whom she is emotionally manipulated, as well as the subtly implied pressures of being a lesbian in a society which, while ultimately loving and accepting, exalts the act of procreation and proliferation above all else to a religious degree. Royal is a sensitive lover of nature's beauty with an oversized ego but an earnest sense of justice and innocent chivalry, who must contend with the challenging of his views of himself and his station. General Chrome is a grounded yet deluded intellectual with a savior complex and a penchant for philosophy, whose earnest, affected ideals point unwaveringly towards what he sees as the divine good. I could continue with more specific analyses of many characters, but not while avoiding spoilers.
While each of these characters are detailed and sympathetic, I'd say that Elro and perhaps Royal are the only characters to go through any strong degree of an arc. Every character's personality is revealed to the player slowly throughout the course of the game, deepening one's understanding of them as time progresses, however aside from those two, most don't change very much. Perhaps simply by way of the game's brevity, many are lacking a turning moment, a personal climax which shakes them to the very core of their characters and causes introspection and readjustment. Still, the way these characters bounce and play off of each other serves to propel the plot forward while also providing interesting situations, so the overall experience is not so affected by their absence.
For as much depth as the supporting cast receives, little is left for our protagonist, Robin. She plays the role of the silent protagonist, only having minor speech options appear every now and again, which ultimately don't affect anything. We're told by other's descriptions of her that she is kind, gentle, caring, tenacious, brilliant, and all, however this is very much a case of telling-not-showing, as she doesn't demonstrate many of these qualities outwardly. In fact, the few times she does end up with dialogue options, they tend to come across as either limp "uhms" and "errs", or irreverent remarks, even when the question is of a serious nature. This makes her unintentionally seem like she doesn't care much about her friends or the troubles of the world, even as the story tries to frame things otherwise.
How it all fits together.
As for the overarching narrative, while it succeeds in building up a complex world of strange physics and interesting politics, breeding many questions and theories in me as I played, most threads seem abandoned in the end and left to dangle. In fact, the entire climax and resolution of the story seems to pull elements completely from the ether, unrelated to just about anything we'd seen previously, and culminates in a way that seemed so much like someone waving their hands and saying 'eh... and then everything was great and the world got fixed and everyone lived happily ever after, goodbye.'
So many elements and plot points that seemed as if they would be core components of the story are dropped like a baby onto a tile floor, and many of the questions so expertly built are shuffled beneath the carpet. Why do those seeds react the way they do in ivory? What is the ancestral vessel? Where did ivory come from? What changed the structure of the world and why? What are planet spines? What are those blue not-metroids that attach themselves to organic matter? Why does 'He' care about the planet's sources of ivory? What is the function and significance of those who are destined to be mediums to 'Him'? These answers are left entirely to speculation, but sometimes even that is preferable to the answers we are given. One question regarding the nature of the one known as 'He', the one revealed in the game's final moments, is so bizarre and unrelated to the story that I felt it would have been significantly better had the question simply never been answered at all.
There is definitely just a bit more here than meets the eye, though it took me a second playthrough to pick up on some of the subtle hints that the story was putting down. Even going through it again, the process feels more like theory-crafting than understanding, as there are few concrete answers given to core plot lines in the narrative. All of the questions posed above seemed completely without answer on my initial playthrough, but only because the game presents information in a way that's too distantly fragmented to click. By the time the meaning of one innocuous comment is made clearer by further information, enough time has passed for the original comment to have slipped completely from the mind. The way Iconoclasts tries to present its world is something I appreciate greatly, in that it's a wonderful departure from the hand-holding lore-dumps that plague the beginnings of other games, trusting the player to parse simple information from natural context, but there are multiple plot lines being drip-fed in pieces all at once, and the time difference between each critical piece is too great to keep it all in my tiny brain. It was only by looking through screenshots of strange comments, taken at the time because I felt significant, that I was finally able to put anything major together, and even then I'm unsure of my "conclusions". I feel that having information be restated at more key points throughout the course of the story would have gone a long way towards mitigating this problem without coming across as pandering.
Even with the knowledge of a second playthrough, however, there are many aspects and even characters that are introduced right at the very end which seemingly come from nothing at all. Further, the few things clarified by another go at the story are far outnumbered by the things that feel completely unexplained. It lacked a resolution that felt natural to the threads it wove throughout the story, and it seemed like a forced ending.
The road to 100%.
The map tracking your missed secrets, the upgrade-gated nature of many early-game collectibles, and the presence of a percentage meter tracking how many things you've missed in an area seem to beg the player to eventually find all of Iconoclasts' secrets. Taking the game up on its offer, I fully explored every area, found every material, crafted every tweak, completed every sidequest, and fought the two secret bosses. While the act itself is not something I would classify as feeling terrible, I definitely wouldn't recommend doing most of that for a few reasons. Firstly, each area has but one warp location, being the only place you can warp from or to, meaning there will be a lot of empty walking through areas just to reach one material in a secret wall you may have missed. Moreover, each of the sidequests are never anything other than delivery quests, so it's functionally similar to simply going to fetch a material. Secondly, the only things that hidden chests give are materials, and sidequests only dispense tweak schematics. With materials only used to craft tweaks, and tweaks being such a minor mechanic in the game, the reward for end-game exploration is mostly just the satisfaction of seeing a 100% complete game file with a star on it.
There is one sidequest, however, which involves Leticia and the fighting of an optional boss. Gaining access to the boss only requires traipsing to a series of 5 locations in a specific order, but unlike with the chests, Leticia will be there each time to feed you bits of an interesting fable. The quest culminates in a climactic and surreal bossfight at the bottom of the sea, which not only provides an interesting conclusion to Leticia's story, but also gives a lot of clarity regarding ivory and the agents of the One Concern, critical and interesting information that adds depth to the main storyline that one would not be privy to otherwise. While I'll say that everything else should be skipped, I'd recommend going out of your way to find and complete this bossfight for that reason.
How does it feel on the Switch?
Whether in docked or handheld mode, Iconoclasts runs at an absolutely flawless 60 fps, with not a single drop, dip, hitch, or hiccup in sight. This, I believe, is actually a critical element in how punchy and polished animations appear in-game, as keyframes can be properly spaced apart at a more granular level with 60 fps than 30. Of course, movement and enemy tells are much easier to read at 60 fps, and the whole experience is just that much easier on the eyes. In handheld mode, HUD and UI elements are scaled perfectly, not appearing too large while also being perfectly easy to distinguish on the Switch's screen. In fact, all of the pixel art fits beautifully and crisply into the Switch's 720p screen, with all characters, obstacles, and enemies being clearly visible, withcolors appearing just as vibrant as on my TV. Because I found the handheld experience so comparatively perfect, I opted to play the entirety of the game in this mode, only popping it into the dock to test that the game didn't explode on me, or possess another such glaring problem I could have otherwise missed. It did not explode, for the record. As far as Switch ports go, I consider this the gold-standard by which every other game should follow, and I wish every indie game could be so well adapted.
+ interesting narrative with unique lore and political/philosophical commentary
+ rich, multidimensional, believable characters
+ finely detailed sprite work
+ vast amounts of minor animations give life to the world
- many attacks lack proper telegraphing
- lack of sufficient challenge, even on hard mode
- complexity of gameplay mechanics ramps up far too slowly and never reaches potential
- story never explains core aspects and plot points, instead pulling an ending from the ether
Environments are extremely detailed, visually and structurally distinct, and sport a very pleasing geometric aesthetic. Character designs are similarly great, and animations are punchy and smooth.
It's a valiant effort. The mechanics, both wrench and gun upgrades, try to construct a diverse combat system and a rewarding world to explore, but it falls short of its potential. The puzzles are too shallow and simple to hold much interest, and it takes until the halfway mark for combat and pathfinding to begin to feel engaging. Nothing felt terrible, but it definitely missed its mark.
This game sports a NG+, and chances are you're going to need it in order to understand the entirety of the game's narrative. Still, the only difference is that you keep your previously crafted tweaks, so further understanding of the story is just about the only reason to go through another playthrough.
out of 10
(not an average)
Iconoclasts has a genuinely interesting story, told in a way which is too obtuse to come across well. It also leaves quite a lot on the table without properly explaining things. Its characters are charming, lovable, believable, detestable, and sympathetic all at once, and watching them go through the events of the story can be captivating. Unfortunately, it takes Iconoclasts about halfway through before it begins to even feel like a game, and while the gameplay progresses a bit more from there, it still never reaches the heights I think it could have. At just 11 hours for the main campaign, it's something I would definitely recommend to anybody looking for something to dig into without much time commitment. Also recommended, start the game on hard mode; normal leaves things much too plain. I definitely believe that if the game's creator, Joakim Sandberg, ever places himself in the directorial and lead writer positions of a small development team, all of the depth that the gameplay and exploration elements were sorely lacking could reach their full potential and then some, creating something absolutely great.