Indie Wonderland: Iconoclasts

A few hours in

Okay, well, so. Some of the things I predicted happened as predicted. Others, less so.

It turns out that the Agents have incredible superpowers *and* an army of disposable mooks.

From there on, I met some people.

Lasting friendships were formed, probably.

And some events happened.

I have no idea what this is, or why, but it *might* be vulnerable to stun shots and missiles!

And, er…

Let’s just say a lot of twists and a lot of turns kept going on at all times.

I’ve played Iconoclasts for… ten hours, at time of writing. I don’t know how far I’m in, but I oscillate between ‘this seems like it’s reaching a climax soon’ and ‘wait, what just changed everything again?‘. My last save put me at about 41% total completion, but I don’t know how much of that is Core Game and how much is Weird Secrets. I didn’t fully complete Iconoclasts, is the thing I’m getting at, nor have I seen the end of the story. I want to, and I tried, but… Well, anyway, that’s what later weeks are for.

I do want to complete Iconoclasts, which probably works as a one-line impression summary. It’s a very well-made game overall: It has a gorgeous audiovisual aesthetic, a great approach to storytelling and worldbuilding, and fun and varied combat/platforming gameplay. I have some issues with some of the extraneous gameplay systems, but even these are generally less ‘real distractors’ and more ‘niggling blemishes’. From a holistic perspective Iconoclasts is a real fun experience, and I honestly expect I’ll be going back to finish it later on. If only to see where the story’s going this time.

For those in the know, this is the latest ‘wait, what the hell’ moment I experienced.

I actually want to start with the storytelling first, because I think Iconoclasts‘ writing and narrative are the strongest and most praise-worthy part of it. The character writing in particular is one of the two things that really stuck with me: Iconoclasts consistently manages to present interesting, rounded, well-written characters. Mina, Elro, Royal, the Agents… All of them come across as real. Which means not just that they have interesting character arcs, but that those arcs have twists and dips and problems that results from the characters being who they are. Mina in particular sticks to mind as a character who gets into problems of her own making, who lets her temper get the better of her and fights with friends and loved ones and runs off to avoid having to confront the realities of her own actions. That’s interesting, that makes for good storytelling. There are big story beats and unexpected surprises galore, as you’d expect, but so much of the story is driven by people being people — not just the mayor players, but the smaller and bit players as well.

Turns out being aware of your own flaws can’t always stop you from living them.

But even more impressive than that is the overall storytelling and world-building, which manages to be intriguing and interesting despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that it’s mostly a slow, between-the-lines affair. Like…

In a different Iconoclasts, by a different develop, I could easily imagine a five-minute cutscene at the start of the game explaining things like the world, the One Concern, Ivory, the pirates, and all their interrelations, as a way of setting the stakes and getting the player involved from the word go. That’s not an invalid approach, and done well it can be interesting in its own right. But Bifrost Entertainment’s Iconoclasts starts with nothing: Nothing except a girl, a house, a stun-gun, and a weird noise. And then it slowly starts doling out bits and pieces as you play, often as a direct consequence of play. When you get back home after the first boss, the Agents are waiting for you, and you learn a little about the Concern’s general life rules. Visiting Settlement 17 shows you how salt-of-the-earth people live under those rules, and what happens when they’re broken. You learn about the Isi pirates and their particular lifestyle when you’re taken to their underwater base. The Concern’s more pressing motives are revealed as you sneak around their air vents. And so on, and so forth.

It’s an approach to storytelling that’s less storytelling and more scavenger hunt. It comes from a remarkable assumption of player empowerment: For pretty much any important story element Iconoclasts assumes that you actively talk to NPCs and work the basic things out for yourself, then demonstrates things more overtly to drive the message home, and from then on believes that you got that part, so now it can stop explaining it and instead start building on it. There are… some places that have more overt lore-dumps, by which I mean I’ve found one NPC early in the game that can tell you some in-universe church backstory. But for the most part, you learn the world as you live it. Writing a story to actually allow a player to do this is no mean feat of pacing and tension-building and consistency, and Iconoclasts pulls it off with aplomb.

This person has like, four things you can ask them about.

Iconoclasts supports this neat engaging storytelling with practiced, smooth combat/platforming gameplay. We’re basically in Metroidvania-towne here: The Iconoclasts world consists of a number of (colour- and sound-coded) sub-sections, that you traverse either by plot demands or because you want to. Each biome has its own enemies, its own puzzle focus, and its own selection of optional paths and puzzles, many of which you need particular powers or upgrades to reach. You need the wrench to get into Settlement 17, you need a galvanized wrench to break the blocks in the electrified forest, that sort of thing. Major upgrades (and major free travel possibilities for that matter) are generally gated by story progress, meaning Iconoclasts is primarily a linear adventure broken up by side paths.

Honestly, maybe combat/platforming isn’t the best descriptor. Iconoclasts is more of a spatial puzzle game with combat elements. The big question of each area tends to be ‘how do I get from point A to point B’, often operationalized as ‘where can I find the key to open this lock’ or ‘where is the bolt I need to wrench to open a path’. Some platforming is involved, but think less of hyper-precision platforming and more of broad-strokes ‘where am I supposed to jump’. You’ll be asked much more often to find the movable block to put next to the thin hole in the rock so you can crawl through it, than you’ll be asked to make a pixel-perfect jump. So maybe let’s not say ‘platforming’ per se — let’s say ‘exploratory movement through challenging physical space’. Yeah, that’ll catch on.

Similarly, combat is neat and interesting — and it has a much more cerebral bent than most heavy-combat-focus games. I do really appreciate that many different enemies require different approaches: Some enemies are only vulnerable to the stun gun, some enemies require a wrench hit, some enemies can only be ground-pounded, some enemies have locational weak spots or need to be lured into environmental obstacles. It keeps the battle game fresh every time you meet something new, or go somewhere unexpected. The actual fighting is generally fairly straightforward: The stun gun shots auto-target, as does the stomp jump (to a degree), and enemies that require timed blocks or parries generally signal their stuff fairly obviously. I’m not saying the combat-focused boss fights aren’t hard, because they are. But traversing the normal spaces, combat is generally less of a life-threatening issue and more just another obstacle you have to deal with — albeit a more mobile and aggressive one.

And even the boss fights are almost always much more a puzzle than a straight-up slugfest. I don’t think I’ve seen any boss past the first that wasn’t more complicated than ‘shoot until dead’.

I’m not wild about everything. For instance, I’m well-documented as not being a fan of the kinds of secrets where you have to rub up to all walls to tell which ones are and aren’t invisible — and boy howdy, there’s a lot of that here. It’s alleviated a little by a map system that at least tells you if there are items hidden on the areas you’ve already discovered, and Iconoclasts has some clearer visual secret tells than other games. So I’m willing to accept this is a decent implementation of a system I just don’t like.

I’m less lenient about two other things. First, I’m annoyed by Iconoclasts‘ strange ‘party’ system: Whenever other major characters are traveling with Robin, their portraits show up in a dedicated UI element in the top right. And… that’s pretty much it. The assorted characters otherwise do nothing: You don’t use them to solve puzzles, you don’t interact with them except in cutscenes, you can’t ‘switch’ to them, they don’t provide bonuses. The game just continually reminds you they’re there, for no reason at all.

Like so.

This is indubitably my lesser of the two issues, and an incredibly nit-picky complaint in general, but… it’s just so strange to me. I’m almost willing to believe that a fuller party system was envisioned, just not implemented. You wouldn’t just make a UI element like this for nothing, would you? And then there’s the fact that Mina, at least, has her own full set of moves and controls… which you learn in the various boss fights and dedicated sections where you play as her. While I’m okay with a system like this not existing, or maybe never having been envisioned in the first place, the weird window remnant could honestly have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Look at me, nerds, I’m a pirate now!

My more significant quibble is with the crafting and Tweaks systems.

This nonsense.

It goes a little bit like this: Robin has access to three (at first?) ‘Tweak Slots’, where she can equip a variety of upgrades. You craft these upgrades using materials that you find in the optional, often puzzle-locked chests throughout the world. Upgrades vary in power and impact: Lesser ones give you a little more health, or more breath underwater, while major ones can significantly change your gameplay options, like giving you a dodge roll or meditative powers. But, here’s the trick: Your equipped Tweaks can ‘break’ during combat, losing functionality right to left as you take hits. You repair these by collecting Ivory cubes from defeated enemies, or from breaking statues throughout the game.

Pictured in the top left: Two of my tweaks, broken and in the process of getting repaired.

Now, I get what’s intended here: Player-chosen upgrades allow for an individualized play styles, crafting materials are an incentive to track down hidden treasure chests, and Tweaks breaking in combat provides incentive to not get hit, and adds a layer of strategy to ordering tweaks left to right — which one goes first. But in practice, I just… don’t think it works. First off, the fact that all Tweaks are optional means the game can never assume any player necessarily has any level of Tweak — it’s fully possible to overlook or ignore them entirely. No boss fights or main puzzles can be designed with Tweaks in mind.

Second, while I’m not opposed to the interplay of finding materials and crafting Tweaks, I can’t help but experience that all the cool major Tweaks seem to require the single rarest ingredient, Ivory Oil. I’m a decent treasure hunter myself, I try to hunt down and find obscure treasures and puzzles, and I’ve found two Ivory Oil over my entire career — if I’d written this review yesterday of today, it would have been one. That’s enough for two major Tweaks, or maybe one, if I wanted the Dodge Roll one. Meanwhile, I’m positive drowning in the other three crafting materials, which right now I can only use for duplicates of upgrades I already have and don’t want more of. Yeah, I can see how it might be cool to have three ‘breath room’ upgrades for the underwater areas. I just don’t care. The options that I have don’t feel meaningful, and the options that I want feel arbitrarily out-of-reach.

And third… I get the rationale behind having Tweaks break, but it just ends up being busywork. It’s neither fun nor interesting to have to deal with broken Tweaks. Particularly since saving at a statue doesn’t repair them. But breaking small statues does, and small statues respawn when you leave and re-enter an area… Can you see the optimal strategy starting to form? There’s even a major Tweak that literally has as its function ‘allows you to sit still for a minute or so to repair other Tweaks’, and the fact that that’s both in the game and seemed an appealing option to me should tell you how much the Tweak-repairing is busywork in disguise.

Also, the UI for re-ordering the Tweaks isn’t great — you’d expect that to be more comfortable, given it’s such a part of the gameplay day-to-day. But nope.

I have to stress here that these issues are just that, issues. They annoy me while playing the same way a too-large dollop of sour cream on a single bit of taco annoys me. I’m still mostly glad that everything is here! It’s just visibly not optimal. There are ways I could enjoy this taco more, even if overall I’m still enjoying it. Similarly, my above complaints don’t detract from the fact that Iconoclasts is really good: The storytelling is exceptional, the gameplay is neat and engaging — and have I mentioned the incredibly audiovisual variety of the world yet? I feel maybe I haven’t done that enough.

Not only does it look real pretty, each place has a fitting unique soundscape as well. It’s great world design.

Final thoughts

What more is there to say about Iconoclasts? It’s gorgeous, it controls well, it has interesting puzzle-based platforming and combat with maybe a few quibbles, and I genuinely want to see where this story keeps going. I just climbed a mountain!

Different mountain, sorry.

If you’re into platforming, bright colours, weird stories, and well-written characters with hopes and drives and flaws that actually inform the story, Iconoclasts should come highly recommended. It’s well worth the twenty dollar asking price for the sheer amount of exploration, puzzles, story beats, and general proof of loving work that it represents. If you like your combat harsher or your platforming unforgiving, you might not find much of that here — but for an all-around good time that may or may not involve saving one or more worlds, Robin’s the wrench-wielding gal you want.

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Jarenth once had a wrench himself. It wasn’t gold nor electrified, so that’s one strike against the real world. Tell him about cooler tools on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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