Iconoclasts (2018, PC)

By William Shakesman & Seinfeld Dakimakura / January 25, 2018

Iconoclasts isn't good. While it may have the appearance of being well produced, it's hard to not feel that those efforts lie almost entirely in surface level aspects. Iconoclasts is a game that has somewhat satisfying movement, vibrant pixel art, cool effects, etc., and deserves notice for such, but this is about as far as our praise will go.

   It's difficult to be concise about the problems Iconoclasts is plagued with as there is such a huge variance between them. It feels like a game that underwent many iterations, and instead of confidently embracing one, a messy cluster was settled upon instead. Part shooter, part puzzler, part platformer, part brooding drama, Iconoclasts fails to elegantly combine these aspects and instead presents a game where none of these aspects shine.
   So it's beautiful, it's bouncy, it's full of energy... except in the parts involving playing. You look at this and you think it is a gun-slinging, wrench-swinging action metroidvania and it just isn't. It's a puzzle game. Even on hard the enemies are so boring and easy you can just shoot through them or damage-tank the ones that make you stop and do a time-wasting dance to hit their weak spot. The only thing you're doing is solving puzzles and, while the game uses its metroidvania-style maps decently to spread these out, it doesn't feel any better than Shantae. Everything feels like busywork: hop here, flip the switch, oh the platform extended so you could flip another switch, now you can fire the gun to open another platform to reach the next switch, now you gotta loop all around the giant room because the next switch is on the opposite side. And so on... and heaven forbid you care about collectibles because somehow they found something even more worthless than +3 Max Missiles: the tweak system, a collection of almost insultingly awful and boring perks which are the only things your collectibles go toward. You can spin your wrench a few frames longer yaaaaay.
   So a majority of the game in Iconoclasts is puzzles. It may not be how the game was marketed, but that's how it plays. Every upgrade functions first and foremost as a new means of solving a switch puzzle. The problem with this is that these puzzles don't combine new elements in a compelling or interesting way. Getting an electricity attachment for the grenade launcher doesn't mean that you solve problems in a new way, it just means that you have a new type of switch you can shoot. This alone isn't egregious, but to be frank it's pretty boring. Where Iconoclasts transcends from boring to annoying is the fusion of these elements with the combat and platforming sections. It is very often in Iconoclasts where a puzzle is made "more difficult" by having an enemy, or a bed of thorns placed to punish failure. These additions never make a puzzle more interesting, they frankly just make them fucking annoying to deal with, especially given that the rewards for the optional puzzles are almost never worth it (see tweaks analysis coming up). There is also a very frequent issue with the puzzles in this game where the primary source of difficulty is from elements being communicated poorly to the player. We haven't once had a cool "A-ha!" moment from the puzzles in this game. Puzzles made us familiar with the "well that was bullshit" feeling more than anything else. On a related note, the minimap has outright lied about whether we can access rooms from above or below, making some of the exploration-based puzzles terrible to experience. (The Tower, notably. Rooms that need to be accessed from below saying they can be accessed from above, etc. etc.)

   But the bosses? Well they're cool. They're easy but they all have real energetic gimmicks to them. One is carried out EXACTLY like a puzzle from the main game, except it's actually fun because the fact that there is a boss in the middle of the field gives it some intensity sorely lacking from the rest of the game, but again, the puzzle-centric design tends to show in these more than the action you'd expect. Boss fights also suffer the same communicative issues as puzzles mentioned earlier. We've had cases of bosses giving off explosion particles on hit, only to later learn that we weren't damaging them at all. Boss fights are also very willing to throw in new mechanics at irrelevant times, like spamming you with notifications that Mina has a shotgun when it isn't immediately relevant.
   The pace at which you're given new gear and upgrades is disappointingly slow, especially given how little they actually change the mechanics. The lack of movement options makes platforming and exploration a total slog. It feels as if the game is afraid to give players any movement options for fear of puzzles not being solved in the intended way.
   Tweaks as a system are baffling and annoying. They're not important enough to have any weight on your completion of the game, but they feel as if they exist to curb mechanical intrusions. The tweak to charge your electric wrench is a perfect example. Without the tweak on, a full wrench spin is about one tick too short of charging the wrench. It completes in one spin with the right tweak though. Getting the "spin duration up" tweak isn't a fun or meaningful change to our character. It feels like a feature that should've just been there already. Additionally, some of the most desirable tweaks are heavily gated for no discernible reason, such as "run speed up". It almost feels like the game doesn't want us to have fun at times.
   Combat is a total bore, as most engagements are won by sitting and waiting to spam attacks, or using the exact same tactics over and over. Enemies aren't used in interesting and new contexts, they serve exclusively as annoying roadblocks to pad out game time.
   The environmental design is very poor. In-between story setpieces, you are very frequently thrown into "generic tile-set cave" or "generic tile-set desert". There is very little consideration for how any of the environments are part of the world, with the exception of the story setpieces. Even in the story ones, environments lack specificity and are just uninteresting tile sets for the most part. I don't buy that the pirate base is this lab/living quarters for a bunch of renegades when it feels more like a random sequence of hallways than anything else. Towns and settlements don't feel likes towns, they feel like houses slapped onto a grid.
   This is part of what creates an essential divide between how a majority of the game is played, and how the story is told. I'm not huge on the term, but a lot of people label this as "ludonarrative dissonance". The mechanics in Iconoclasts feel entirely irrelevant to the narrative being explored. My engagement as a player with the world of Iconoclasts doesn't inform my understanding of the narrative, the world, why anything works etc. etc. Compare this to Gekka no Yasoukyoku, where each environment is a memorable component of a magical castle that justifies itself without explanation.

   And then let's get to the plot. The author worked alone on this game for nearly a decade and it shows... as in he worked without an editor. The game aims for the Doukutsu Monogatari tone, juxtaposing cutesy, bleak, violent, and horrific, and it doesn't work quite as well here. It's against the religion to be a mechanic but you insist on doing so anyway, the inquisitors find you, you're on the run, meet someone who is kinda nice working for the religion, shack up with some pirates who have their own religion, get subject to a girl's mommy issues for more screen time than we spend establishing any of the previous religions, there's magic star oil, there's mysterious magic seeds, moon chunks falling from the sky literally destroy sinners... It doesn't stop with this.
   Most egregious of these all is the writing. To be frank, the writing is pretty insufferable in this game. While the moment-to-moment banter is alright, the game will constantly derail itself as often as possible to exposition-dump uninteresting lore and racial/cultural drama. We don't think we're the only ones so tired of seeing racial allegories being slapped on to titles so that we can pretend characters are more multi-faceted than they are. The racial and cultural tensions feel wildly insincere and half-assed. It got to the point where we wanted to skip a cutscene if we saw Mina talking. The writing feels more focused on angsty shouting and squabbling instead of any ideological confrontation. It feels almost patronizing how unspecific this drama is. If you do decide to play Iconoclasts, our sincere advice is to literally skip every dialogue scene as fast as possible. The drama presented is woefully non-concise, insincere, and worst of all boring.
   "I know you were just nearly killed and escaped a variety of new evil guys by the skin of your teeth and just met our new culture for about 45 seconds and we represent the only resistance to the baddies, so let's acclimate you to us by having a shouting match with my mom about what an awful smelly daughter I am! That's surely more interesting than everything else that's happened. Glad my drama is the only thing that matters to you considering how many of your townsfolk were murdered 30 minutes ago!" #matureindiedramaFTW
   Long story short, the levels are busywork puzzles, the combat is a snooze outside of bosses, the plot is too dense, and stupid to boot, for a minimalist silent protag story. It utterly failed to make us interested in any of the dozen mysteries it leads with, and it's not like the mechanics have any reason to draw you into playing it except maybe the promise of the next exciting but flash-in-the-pan easy boss sometime in the next 20 minutes after you flip 30 more switches.

To find out more about the "indie" scam read The Myth of Independence and our unrivaled and infamous library of scathing "indie" game reviews, Introducing the "Indie" Scene.