Iconoclast is an alright video game
(Note this review contains very minor spoilers about late game encounters and abilities.)
I just finished up Iconoclasts. I didn’t find all the collectibles or seek out much of the optional stuff, and likely won’t. Not because I hate the game, but I’m just done with it. My fear before this game came out was that I would feel that same way towards it that I did 2016’s Owlboy. That it would be a game with stunning pixel art visuals but be otherwise unremarkable to not-that-good. Fortunately that is not the case at all.
The characters of Iconoclasts are great. I hate a lot of them and think they make bad decisions, and that’s what I like about them. They aren’t perfect people. They don’t have all the information and are trying to do the best they can. These characters are mature to an extent that is still uncommon in video games.
I just wish, Robin, the main character, wasn’t silent. She has personality through colorful animations and a few player-chosen lines, but still has the weight of a silent protagonist. There are scenes where multiple characters are talking about her right in front of her and it’s just awkward that she won’t actually chime in. Especially since that would resolve a lot of the tension between the cast.
Visually this game is beautiful. Each area is alive with personality and unique charm. The characters are animated and expressive. The game is just so bright and colorful. The set pieces are large and detailed. It’s really an incredibly achievement in pixel art. It’s quite the spectacle and worth experiencing just for the art alone.
That said, with how polished the visuals are, I found a lot of the game’s design to be jagged. The level design and controls are particularly the game’s weak points. There are some things it does that are very clever and laudable. For example, when walking towards an area where you need to crouch and crawl under, the game will do this automatically without the need to press down. That’s a great little thing that feels good.
However, then there are parts where you have to shoot diagonally to activate a switch. Your first weapon cannot aim diagonally and instead locks on to the nearest enemy in whatever direction your pressing. I didn’t even realize that the other two weapons I found could aim diagonally until I was nearly done with it. For the most part, the game doesn’t make use of diagonal aiming outside of some very specific parts. The problem with this is that if you are aiming diagonally then you’re also moving horizontally. This is rarely conducive to the goal.
One part in particular requires you to roll a grenade through a hole and up a slope to hit a switch. You have to jump to be able to even shoot into the hole. It’s placement means you can’t be up against the wall and have to sort of jump at it. It’s super fiddly and I could only get it working by chance. Much later in the game I went back to that location out of curiosity and realized I was supposed to aim diagonally while jumping to achieve the task.
Iconoclasts is littered with these little sections where it doesn’t explain itself well enough. It doesn’t position things so players can figure things out easily. Often times the level layout prevents the actual solution from working. The amount of times I said to myself “Well what the hell do I do here?” were more than I would have liked.
The part of the game that really embodied this particular issue was a part before the final boss where it introduces an enemies that are covered in this blue goo. They cannot be damaged in anyway. One of abilities you have lets you switch places with enemies. It doesn’t work on everything, and doesn’t lock-on or shoot through walls the way the default gun does. The room where you encounter these foes is hilly with a lot of angled floors. It took me forever to be able to even hit the first blue goo enemy with that ability. The first few times I tried, it missed though graphically the shot looked like it should have hit. Coupled with an earlier scene that very clearly teaches you that there are things you just can’t switch with, I just assumed that wasn’t the solution. Then spent a good 5 to 10 minutes trying to figure something else out. It turns out that you have to be very specifically lined up with them to get that ability to hit them.
Figuring out the actual solutions to any of the instances above was frustrating. And not the good sort of frustrating where you feel clever and accomplished afterwards, but the bad kind where you feel like the game had lied to you. I feel that these areas could have been better designed to “nudge” the players to the solutions.
Let’s talk about the controls for a bit. This game uses redundancies for a lot of it’s controls. For example, you can press R2 or Circle to use your wrench, or Square or R1 to shoot. It’s generally a pretty good addition for a game that doesn’t need more controls, but I would have liked to see more controls. You only have one button to cycle through your weapons. For the majority of the game this isn’t an issue, but once you get more than 2 weapons it’s a bit annoying. A button that locks you in place so that you can aim more easily would have been welcomed. Being able to hit select to bring up the map would have been a nice-to-have.
This is a minor complaint though. The game does have some nice control options. Outside of choosing between Xbox or PS4 style buttons, you can also fully rebind the controls. Including the d-pad! That’s something that not all indie games allow and it’s really great they made sure it was a feature.
The one system in this game that I never really understood was it’s tweak system. Tweaks are passive bonuses that get switched off if you take damage. They range from increasing movement speed to stuff like allowing you to perform a dodge roll with a certain button combo. You can equip three, and the blueprints and crafting materials necessary for them are the chief reward for exploration.
My main problem with them is that they can be switched off. If you’re like me, you’re going to take some damage. Each time you take damage, regardless of the amount, one of your tweaks will shut off. They do so in the order you have them equipped, so there is a bit of planning that can go into that order. But the fact that they get switch off at all makes their usefulness questionable. Especially considering that their effects are often so minor that they’re barely noticeable.
During big boss fights, you will usually gain the energy back to switch them back on. And you can stack multiples of the same type. But all and all the whole system feels sort of vestigial.This is unfortunate since the game’s reward for exploration means that you’ll be attaining crafting materials for abilities that aren’t really necessary or helpful. Once realizing that, I just lost all desire to explore the world completely.
Reading about some that I did not seek out sound a bit more helpful or alluring than what I found from just playing through the main game. Still, I feel that this system could have been better implemented or refined. Even if it was as simple as “you can equip three and they can’t be turned off.”
Iconoclast is generally a good game that could use a bit more fine tuning. I feel most people will enjoy it well enough. It’s certainly worth picking up for its characters and art alone. I didn’t touch too much on it’s actual story in this review, but it does a decent enough job in that department. There’s a few pacing issues, but it’s otherwise fine. I would say if you’re on the fence about this game, then maybe wait for a sale. If you’re the type to get easily frustrated, then maybe just watch a LP. Despite my criticisms I’m absolutely interested in seeing what this dev does next.