Iconoclasts Review: A Beautiful Metroid-Style Platformer in a Bizarre World

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Clashing with icons, plots, and clever puzzles.

Iconoclasts has one of gaming’s most literal titles in quite some time. See, while it plays a lot like a contemporary 2D Metroid sequel, it breaks up its exploration and puzzle-platforming with a surprising amount of story. The plot involves an oppressive religious organization, a race for vanishing natural resources, and a small band of people who dare to defy the edicts of the figurehead who controls the word. You — or rather, your protagonist, Robin — must rise up to defeat those religious leaders. Clashing with icons, in other words.

Well, I think that’s what happens, anyway. It’s a little hard to say. Iconoclasts does many things well, but its biggest failing comes in its muddled storyline. A lot happens in the space of the 12-hour running time, and the plot throws new characters and opaque terminology at you at a rapid-fire pace from the moment you arrive on this strange alien world and pick up Robin’s outsized combat wrench. You encounter the ruling theocracy’s elite agents straight away, and both they and the people who live in fear of their cruel power speak to one another (and to Robin) in a dense stream of jargon that presumes a great deal of familiarity with the nuances of this society.

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While perhaps realistic, the script’s refusal to offer an easy entry point for outside observers creates an unfortunate barrier to enjoying Iconoclasts. It doesn’t help that, as a 2D action platformer, Iconoclasts never really gives you the opportunity to get to know this universe they way you could in a proper role-playing game. Within the first couple of hours, Robin finds herself attacked, captured, shipwrecked, and reluctantly adopted by a lawless community. You barely have time to catch your breath, let alone make sense of key terms like “Concern,” “Mother,” or “Ivory.” Most of these things do come to make sense over the course of the adventure as Robin becomes drawn into the conflict, but the first half of the campaign feels a lot like picking up a TV serial drama midway through the third season. You just have to roll with it.

Iconoclasts is one of the most intricate exploratory platformers in recent memory.

Once you do get rolling, though, you’ll find in Iconoclasts one of the most intricate (not to mention visually stunning) exploratory platformers in recent memory. It draws heavily on the latter-day Metroid games to present you with a more-or-less linear adventure that incorporates a moderate amount of backtracking and a whole lot of puzzle-solving. Most of your progress through the world involves solving contraptions: Doors, moving platforms, electrified rails, destructible blocks, and more.

The level design manages to be even more intricate than that of last year’s Metroid: Samus Returns, and to Iconoclasts’ credit, it does a better job of giving its interlocked mysteries room to breathe than Samus Aran’s most recent adventure did. Portions of the quest can feel like slow going indeed as you struggle to puzzle out how to reach a goal… but once you unravel it you’re rewarded with a change of pace, usually an inventive boss battle or a low-friction jaunt across the world.

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What makes Iconoclasts especially interesting is the way it builds its puzzles from a small handful of elements. Robin possesses all of her basic skills right from the outset: A gun, a wrench, and the ability to team up with partner characters. You’ll quickly find the wrench to be the real M.V.P: it works as a melee weapon, deflects enemy projectiles, ratchets open mechanisms, conducts electricity, and even works as a makeshift grappling hook. Robin’s other tools are important, yes, but the wrench is essential.

You’ll quickly find the wrench to be the real M.V.P.

From these fundamentals, a huge array of clever and often challenging puzzles and conflicts emerge. You add new variations to your skill set along the way, such as the ability to generate and throw electricity, but unlike in most games of this type, Robin doesn’t grow dramatically in power over the course of the adventure. She equips better guns and her wrench unlocks new capabilities, but she never gains the ability to perform super jumps or boost her health with massive upgrades.

That’s likely why the upgrade system here is called “Tweaks” – it’s every bit as truthful-in-naming as Iconoclasts itself. Tweaks allow you to apply modest modifiers to Robin’s skills to, say, absorb an extra hit, swim underwater for a few extra seconds, or hold an electrical wrench charge longer, but none of them shift the balance of the action dramatically. And while these effects stack, you can only activate three at a time, which means Robin’s core skill set remains more or less constant from start to finish.

While some people may find this undermines one of the fundamental pillars of the Metroidvania genre — a constant, steady curve of character empowerment — in this case the divergence from the norm works in Iconoclasts’ favor. It makes for puzzles and challenges that build on one another from area to area. In other words, it’s not so much that Robin steadily improves but rather that you must improve your knowledge of how to use her existing skills in ever-more-complex ways. Your critical thinking capabilities level up as you play, not Robin’s combat prowess.

You improve your knowledge of how to use her skills in ever-more-complex ways.

The multi-layered puzzles that fill the world of Iconoclasts downplay twitchy action in favor of methodical, screen-by-screen advancement. Some of the more intricate areas can take an hour or longer to unravel, in part because they tend to be light on hints and clues. As often happens in games like this, in Iconoclasts you can easily slam into what appears to be an impenetrable barrier to progress, and that can be frustrating. But as always, that satisfying burst of clarity upon solving a vexing puzzle always makes the moments of befuddlement worth the pain.

It helps that Iconoclasts tries to keep things varied. While you’re always working with the same set of tools to interact with the same basic in-world mechanisms, each area has its own distinct vibe. Slinking methodically through service corridors between elevators in a tower feels completely different from making bold leaps and wrench-swings across a canopy of foliage in the jungle, even though both settings involve opening a lot of one-way doors and maneuvering platforms into position.

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The bosses go a long way toward keeping things interesting, too, in that each one plays out a little differently from the others. One battle may see you using Robin’s wrench to ping-pong energy balls back and forth in a duel lifted straight from Zelda, while the next could have you zipping along energized rails in order to stay ahead of a tunnel-boring machine larger than the screen. Some battles (and even a handful of standard action sequences) require Robin to tag-team with her companions, and there’s an anxious thrill the be had in learning how to wield new weapons and devising tactics on the fly while making sense of each boss’s ever-shifting array of powers. There’s as much of a puzzle element to many boss encounters as in any other part of Iconoclasts, but they match the need for mental acuity with a call for dexterity as well.

Iconoclasts features some of the most gorgeous traditional 16-bit-style pixel art in years.

To sweeten the overall package, Iconoclasts features some of the most gorgeous traditional 16-bit-style pixel art I’ve seen in years. Its world is rendered with a unique geometric visual style, which eventually turns out to have a story explanation rather than simply looking cool for cool’s sake. The cinematic sprite animation in Iconoclasts, meanwhile, ranks right up there with the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics on the original PlayStation. The characters may be tiny sprites, but they’re depicted with tons of personality.

From the very outset, Iconoclasts clearly aims to dismantle video game clichés: Robin plays the role of plucky upstart living a do-gooder existence in defiance of the law… only to bring down grievous consequences upon the people around her as a result of her chaotic-good alignment. I suppose you could think of the story as one more layer of the puzzles Iconoclasts expects you to unravel, as it takes sudden and unexpected swerves to the very end.

The Verdict

Iconoclasts’ combination of clever Metroid-inspired design and lush art offers more than enough incentive to stick with it, even when the ambitious plot doesn’t always connect. This is a strange, complex game that – refreshingly – doesn’t play quite like any other work in the genre. Iconoclasts offers a welcome reminder that they don’t all have to play the same way.

Editors’ Choice

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