There’s more than enough examples of fascist dystopias in video games now. Few though, are as colorful, and interesting as the one depicted in Iconoclasts.
Mostly a Metroidvania-type game, Iconoclasts puts players squarely in the engineering shoes of the protagonist, Robin. Robin lives in a world run by a sinister religious entity known as the One Concern. A world where everyone must stick to assigned jobs, and as a result, stick within their own level of society. If a job is performed by an unsanctioned party or person, then the penalty is very severe. Of course, it’s not easy to afford the help required for certain tasks if you live below the poverty line. The focus of all this is a powerful commodity known as Ivory. It gives people inhuman levels of power, and has clearly been the source of staggering levels of corruption.
Robin doesn’t want that though, she likes to fix things, even though she’s not supposed to. Her friends and neighbours are thankful for her help, but fearful for the consequences should they be found out.
Somewhat inevitably, things do go sideways for Robin, and she soon finds herself embroiled in a battle with the authorities that takes in exotic locales and ludicrously dramatic antagonists along the way.
Oh and the moon is broken. So things aren’t going great all round.
Robin’s main tasks involve solving puzzles to access new areas and acquire new tools to open up even more areas. To help with this, Robin has an oversized wrench that can turn bolts to open barriers and create platforms. It also doubles up as a handy melee weapon and as you go, it gets upgraded to do new and fancy things.
The wrench is accompanied by some hefty peacekeepers. Robin first acquires a blaster, but as with the wrench, bigger and better things come along to deal with greater threats and obstacles. A grenade launching gun can be used to clear paths and take enemies out for instance.
The upgrades Robin acquires during the game are not only helpful in combat, but also play critical roles in the puzzle solving aspect of the title. One of the great things one-man development team Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg, achieved with Iconoclasts is how he crafted puzzles that demand you to make use of all of your powers. A majority of them just rely on Robin to use her wrench to open doors, but eventually you'll be using specialised ammo to trigger certain switches. Or an upgraded wrench to reach new heights. The net result of this is that later puzzles can feel intimidating and occasionally frustrating (thanks to some control issues). Yet that never once stopped me from feeling utterly satisfied when I successfully solved a complex, multi-tool puzzle. It might get tricky and long-winded, but the payoff is always good enough.
It’s a shame then that combat is a touch hit and miss. It never truly feels as satisfying and weighty as it perhaps should be. It mainly comes down to the fact that the aiming of weapons and the wrench is slightly off. That’s not a huge crime in itself, and is largely tolerable as issues go, but bloody hell, it does lead to some unintended moments of sheer frustration.
The aiming auto locks for guns, but there are occasions where you have to put yourself in unnecessary danger in order to line up a shot. A bit of refinement could have really elevated Iconoclasts to a higher plane.
The gameplay in Iconoclasts grumbles are offset massively by a game world that is a delight to be in. The game’s retro-inspired visuals are simply gorgeous, with some breathtaking 16-bit-styled animation that evokes Metal Slug at its best. The background story of a world ruled with an iron fist as different parties fight for a foothold.
There’s intriguing villains, conflicted pirates, and untrusting outsiders, and in among that motley crew of a cast are some surprisingly affecting character arcs and story beats. There’s a depth to the world-building and storytelling in Iconoclasts that I can’t say I expected, and I’m genuinely pleased that it’s there, because it makes Iconoclasts feel much more like a game with something to say than its pretty exterior and occasionally wonky mechanics let on.
On top of that is some delightful comedic moments, the best of which poke fun at the mechanics without missing the point. It all adds up to a game rich in character, and while Iconoclasts may not be the greatest game of its type mechanically, it truly has enough going on its world to allow for a good share of forgiveness.
It’s disappointing that Iconoclasts falls just short of what it could be, but I feel it does just enough to stand out in a genre with some high-tier quality examples. That it is the work of one man also puts things into perspective. It certainly must contribute to how personal aspects of the game’s story feels.