It’s not often that platformers tell good stories. That’s why I wanted to like Iconoclasts, the new Metroidvania platformer by Joakim Sandberg, that’s been getting tons of stellar press. The game should have been a slam dunk for me. I’m a sucker for any game featuring a woman protagonist, funky art, and emotionally complex narratives.
In the end, though, I couldn’t finish Iconoclasts.
The main reason being that the gameplay frustrated me so much that I had to give up on extracting the game’s nuggets of storytelling.
First, though, let’s break down the reasons why so many of us were looking forward to Iconoclasts. Since most platformers use 2D art and character sprites, and dialogue isn’t usually voiced, players sometimes struggle to connect with the storyline. However, this indie title promises to put the story on an equal level with the gameplay mechanics. It’s been in development for seven years, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
As the player, you take control of Robin, a young woman who lives in a world where being a mechanic – an unlicensed one, anyway – is a crime. Only mechanics who have been approved by the One Concern, the rules-loving state religion, can use a wrench. Robin doesn’t have a license, but she wants to help people. As Robin, you end up on the run from the government, along with some unexpected allies. It becomes obvious right away that the game isn’t just about a cute girl with a wrench – it’s about civil war and abuses of power, both political and personal.
Pretty heavy stuff for a platformer, right? Unfortunately, Iconoclasts couldn’t deliver on those ambitious storytelling goals, because the gameplay got in the way every few minutes.
Gameplay mechanics are the most important part of a platformer. If they aren’t tuned just right – if the levels are too easy, say, or the boss fights are devilishly hard – it’s easy to piss off players. Iconoclasts has fun puzzles and a decent combat system, but boss fights are so common and so difficult to solve that these encounters derail the story.
I don’t just mean that the enemies are too hard. They’re tough, but what would a game be without some high-powered enemies in need of strategic whacking? Iconoclasts’ problem is that there’s only one way to defeat many of its bosses, and the game only sometimes drops clues about the way to strike them down. When it does drop clues, they’re often hard to follow.
Here’s an example: I was fighting my way through an underwater pirate base when I came across a passel of enemies that looked like cucumbers, fought like AT-AT walkers, and were impossible to harm with normal attacks.
They stopped every few seconds to launch bombs out of a hatch, and I thought, “Ah! I am supposed to hit those bombs back so that these death vegetables explode!” Which is what I tried to do for the next half-hour. Finally, exhausted, I looked up a walkthrough. (I try not to use walkthroughs unless I absolutely need them. I needed one here.)
As it turned out, I was right – but the hit box for angling the bomb back into the enemies’ hatch was so small that I’d gotten the angle wrong every time. I was enraged: that the hit box was so tiny, that there was no other way to defeat these creatures, that I was battling an army of green robot dicks and gaining no ground.
So here’s the thing: I didn’t finish Iconoclasts, because it wasn’t fun. The longer I played, the more irritated I became. If I had finished Iconoclasts, it would have been the gaming equivalent of hate sex.
I also hated putting down the game, though. The vivid colors and cheery visual design only sharpened my feeling that something was very wrong in Robin’s world, and that she needed to solve every puzzle so that she could put her community right. I was also intrigued by the relationships Robin was building with Royal and Mina. However, real character development was peppered too thinly throughout the game for me to really care about anyone but Robin and her killer hairdo.
It kills me to give a thumbs-down to a game that’s been in development since 2011. I get the feeling, though, that Joakim Sandberg might have gotten too bogged down in the minute details of the game that was supposed to be his masterpiece. As a result, Iconoclasts is difficult to work through.
If you’re a platformer/Metroidvania fanatic, then Iconoclasts might be your cup of tea. However, plenty of platformers have better, more intuitive game mechanics than Iconoclasts, which is why I can’t recommend it (no matter how much I wish I could).