Review: Iconoclasts (PS4)

This post is part of Metroidvania Month.

Iconoclasts has just been released on Nintendo Switch, one of the many Metroidvanias released this month, so now seems like a good time to post my thoughts on the game. It was released to critical acclaim at the start of the year – The Guardian nominated it as one of the best games of 2018 so far – and I’ve been playing the PS4 version over the past few months. But the fact that I put off finishing it for ages is a good indication of my mixed feelings for the game.

Iconoclasts is chiefly the work of Joakim Sandberg, who spent around 8 years making it. It’s clearly been a labour of love, and tells the story of Robin, a mechanic who finds herself going up against the religious cult that rules her planet. This cult, led by ‘Mother’, has banned citizens from using or fixing technology and has been draining the planet of ‘Ivory’, a white substance that powers their machines and can give their Agents special powers. But leeching Ivory from the planet has caused untold problems. It’s an intriguing set up, and the story explores its ramifications thoroughly – a bit too thoroughly to be honest, but more on that later.

The graphics are gorgeous, and the colours really pop from the screen. The animation, too, is beautifully vibrant – there’s a real energy in the way Robin throws herself around. But although it looks cutesy and colourful, the script is anything but, and the game goes to some dark, even brutal places on occasion. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

The game has been described as a Metroidvania, and indeed it follows the basic format of finding upgrades and then using them to access further sections of the game. But there aren’t that many upgrades to find: I counted three in total, not including the basic spanner and blaster you gain at the start. The vast majority of things you discover are either blueprints or one of three types of material that can be combined to craft ‘tweaks’. The blueprints provide plans for new tweaks, like the ability to hold your breath underwater for longer or to move a little faster.

You can equip up to three tweaks at a time, but to be honest, they barely make any difference to the gameplay. Sure, being able to hold your breath for a bit longer makes the underwater sections slightly easier, but most of the time I barely noticed what tweaks I had equipped. In the end I just equipped three tweaks that let you absorb one hit without taking damage and left it like that for the rest of the game – that particular tweak seemed like the only halfway useful one.

This basically means that there’s little point in hunting down the many treasure chests, since they mostly contain crafting materials for tweaks you don’t really need. In fact, I gave up looking for items towards the end, since finding a treasure chest was simply an exercise in disappointment. “Oh, more technium. Great. I suppose I could use it to build another tweak I won’t use…? ho hum.”

But part of this disappointment is because I went in expecting Iconoclasts to be a Metroidvania – and it’s not, really. It’s more like a narrative platformer, with a heavy emphasis on the narrative. There are numerous characters, some of whom join you at various stages of your journey, and they talk A LOT. There are frequent points where everyone stops for a chat – sometimes the dialogue is funny, and Mina in particular gets a few lines that made me chuckle, but often it descends into the kind of agonised philosophising you’d expect of an enthusiastic student in their first year of university. The script happily employs 20 words when one will do, and by the end I was just skipping through the pages and pages of dialogue while barely reading it. And above all, the characters are all inherently unlikeable, bar Robin, who is thankfully mute. This is a problem when it comes to investing in the story – I actually found myself wishing the plot would kill my companions off.

That’s not to say the game is bad. There are some really ingenious puzzles and fun fights, and the Tower level in particular was excellent. That one involved scaling up and down an edifice, activating different lifts in sequence to try to get to the top, while being periodically attacked by a powerful samurai-type dude. You’d often pass rooms you couldn’t reach and had to work out how to get to them, and the payoff at the end was great, a really creepy sequence in a theatre.

But for every great bit of game design, there’s an equivalent annoyance. Many sequences involve swinging using your spanner, but it seems hit and miss whether the spanner connects with the swinging nut, resulting in many frustrating falls. And there’s a really bizarre design choice whereby you can’t enter narrow passageways that are waist height. You can crawl into passages at ground level, or jump, grab onto a ledge and crawl into narrow passages that are above head height – but trying to enter passages that are just slightly above the floor is a complete no go. There are lots of puzzles that involve manipulating the environment so you can enter passageways like this, for example by moving a box in front of them to climb on, but there’s just no logic behind why you can’t get into them in the first place.

And the levels themselves are quite a mixed bag. Some, like the Tower, are intricate and interesting, but others, particularly towards the end, are pretty much left to right crawls. Indeed, the story takes over towards the end, and I found myself mostly walking from one conversation to another.

All in all, Iconoclasts is a real mixed bag. The start is fantastic, but a few hours in I found myself getting frustrated with it, and only came back to finish the game reluctantly. John Walker over on Rock Paper Shotgun did an excellent job of detailing the game’s many flaws, so I highly recommend reading that for a thorough article analysis of why Iconoclasts doesn’t quite hit the mark.

There’s a good game here, but it’s marred by inconsistency and a heavy-handed story, not to mention a tweak system that doesn’t really work. I can’t help but think that Iconoclasts could have done with a decent editor to strip out the excess weight and amp up the things that work really well. Solo development can result in some truly unique individual visions, but sometimes that vision could do with another pair of eyes to point out the flaws.

Iconoclasts is available for Switch, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac and Vita. We reviewed the PS4 version.

Disclosure statement: Review code for Iconoclasts was provided by Bifrost Entertainment. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.