There are games that become better the more you play them, gradually snowballing into brilliance from an underwhelming start point. Iconoclasts isn’t one of those games. No, this is one of those games so consistently and predictably prone to egregious missteps that the cathartic act of pointing out its flaws is more entertaining than actually playing it, and there’s sadly a lot to talk about in that regard. I’m not merely talking about the various bugs and glitches this game is prone to, either, but basic mechanics designed in inexplicably unfriendly ways and then never fully explained to you. Iconoclasts has no time to provide you with basic details about how to actually do things! It does, however, have time to regale you with the story of numerous writer self-inserts with a martyr complex and a passion for bursting into dramatic soliloquies despite main character Robin being a silent protagonist (and Mary Sue for the game’s cast of lowly martyrs to bend over backwards trying to appease) who has done nothing to invite them. A book could be written about the numerous meandering, intermittently functional conversations that at first seem to exist solely to create needless drama, but quickly pivot to take on a confessional tone. It’s ironic for a game that pushes oppressive-religion themes so vigorously to eventually devolve into what appears to be a self-pitying writer vicariously self-flagellating using their stand-ins, denying anyone real closure or redemption because everyone is written to be deserving of punishment. At the end of the day, though, it just makes me tired. This game is draining in all the wrong ways.
I don’t intend to be mean to Robin
Calling Robin a Mary Sue isn’t an adequate way of describing her outside of her relationship with the other characters, because she’s honestly one of maybe two characters I could stand. Sure, she’s heroic and perfect, but so was Crono in Chrono Trigger, and so on with numerous other silent protagonists throughout the years. Really, it’s the deficiencies of the other characters that reflect negatively on her, as their wide-eyed fawning (coupled with a tendency to use her silence as a springboard for ignoring personal space and dramatically overstating their personal problems) is the only real problem I have with her, and that’s not really a “her” problem at all. The supporting cast drags everything down here, and I don’t even know where to begin with them. Have you ever known someone who was addicted to drama and determined to make you feel bad for them no matter what? That’s the cast of this game, and combined with a main character who can’t protest and the absence of a redemptive character arc for anyone apart from Mina (and even she has some huge lingering issues left unresolved at the end of the game), later story developments begin to feel a bit like torture porn. Considering how many characters have identical ways of describing their worthlessness (“I’m a pile of crap, I’m useless, you should throw me away so that you can be happy,” etcetera), this starts to transcend those characters and turn the entire game into a giant pity trip.
If you think that’s harsh…
I fully recognize how damning a lot of the things I’ve already said are, but going into detail could be construed as a spoiler for what we’ll generously be calling Iconoclasts’ story, and a review is no place for spoilers. However, I did include a spoiler section in my last Iconoclasts progress log that includes screenshots and videos backing up a lot of my complaints, so skeptics should check that out.
Is SJW a type of sandwich?
For those unaware, “SJW” is short for social justice warrior and is now used as a paranoid catch-all term for anything vaguely resembling political correctness. Now, I’ve seen some suspicion that this is one of those games that turns out to be little more than an excuse to make a political statement about something (often in the form of lesbianism as an end twist), but that’s simply not the case here. I mentioned Mina earlier, but didn’t explain who she actually is, so let me fix that a bit while explaining why you might see the “SJW” label thrown around. Basically, Mina is part of an anti-government rebel faction who worship procreation and their ancestors rather than what everyone else worships (which isn’t very well explained for the vast majority of the game). She also happens to be a lesbian. This isn’t something that’s hit on a bunch, though. In fact, I didn’t even realize she was a lesbian until something like halfway in. This is possibly the only topic in the entire game that’s actually approached with the subtlety required to believably depict it.
That’s not to say that Mina is written well, though. She’s every bit as prone to self-pity as the others, and the constant descriptions of her as attractive but smelly stop seeming like an amusingly unnecessary side note before long, and instead start to look like the writer cramming their weird fetishes into the game. The number of people who comment on her smell is truly dizzying, and it’s a bizarre distraction.
I hope you like figuring things out for yourself
Iconoclasts’ gameplay is pretty simple at first, with Robin being able to jump, shoot, and ground-stomp enemies like in a Mario game. Then she gets a wrench, and this expands things by allowing her to latch onto bolts both to swing from (for platforming purposes) and screw in (for opening doors, mostly). The wrench is also a melee attack, and holding the button causes Robin to spin it in a way that can be used to reflect certain projectiles. By the end of the game, you have three different gun modes (six, technically, since each mode has a charge shot with different gameplay uses) on top of that, and the ability to electrify Robin’s wrench by spinning it.
That’s a whole lot of possible attacks to juggle, and the problem is that Iconoclasts frequently puts you in situations where only one of these attacks works. That turns encounters against new enemies into a mess of trial and error as you desperately cycle through every attack you have, trying to figure out the one way to actually damage them. This is true of bosses, too, who often rely heavily on gameplay gimmicks. I’ll get into the boss fights and miscellaneous gimmickry in more detail later, but for now, what’s important is that it’s difficult to know exactly what the game wants you to do at any point because of its poor direction. This extends beyond just the fights, too; the signs and characters that teach you how to use new moves don’t ever go into detail about important specifics, leaving you to figure out these details for yourself. I went through all of my screenshots, and not once did anyone explain that electrifying the wrench causes Robin to emit light. That would have been super handy to know when navigating through pitch-black tunnels. Another example: when playing as Mina, you have to figure out for yourself that she’s incapable of crawling for some inexplicable reason. She has to slide instead, and this gameplay switchup is used once in the entire game. And another: Robin can’t grab ladders until she reaches an arbitrary point on them, even if her jump height allows her to visibly reach the rungs. Awkward mechanics that are never adequately explained to the player are the norm rather than the exception in Iconoclasts, and that’s not good.
Gimmicks are the enemy
Early in the game, you’re faced with a stealth sequence of sorts. It’s not too bad, especially considering how many worse gimmicks await toward the end of the game, but it’s the first time I started to feel that Iconoclasts didn’t really understand its own limitations. What you’re trying to do is sneak through a vent, waiting for the noise of the soldiers below to mask the sound of your movements. You’re never told how much noise is enough, however, and there’s no spoken dialogue in the entire game, so it’s easy to assume that normal conversations suffice. Especially since no conversations are happening when you first enter the room with the vent. But no, normal conversations aren’t loud enough to mask the vent sounds, and you instead have to wait for the big laughter speech bubbles. As seems to always be the case in Iconoclasts, what the game expects and what it’s reasonable for a player to expect are worlds apart, and this is just one of a handful of atrocious, ill-conceived minigames. There’s also a stealth sequence against an invisible enemy, chase sequences where foreground art obscures enemies (leading to occasions where you get hit by something you can’t see while trying to platform higher), fights where you have to screw in bolts instead of attacking, and dozens more examples of poorly communicated and designed encounters that ultimately began to elicit little more than exasperated sighs from me. Again, this game is tiring in all the wrong ways.
Even the boss fights where shooting an enemy causes their health to go down (which is only rarely a given) are prone to gimmicky stupidity. One boss has a move where she dashes toward you and lowers your health to bring you within a blow or two of death. It doesn’t appear to be possible to dodge this, so you have two options: destroy some enemies who drop health (and you have no way of knowing that they drop health on your first fight attempt) every time she uses this move, or make it through the entire fight without getting hit by any other move. Other bosses are invincible and you’re stuck avoiding them while doing busywork. One has you damaging a little glass box, and of course you have to figure out that the only move capable of damaging the top is the stomp attack. Not even the wrench spin that worked against the sides works on the top. It feels purposefully unintuitive.
Bugs and problems
Some people have complained about game-breaking glitches and such, but I was lucky enough to avoid any of those. I did encounter some things like Robin becoming invisible until she took damage, but most of the problems I encountered were intended features. Things like enemies plopping up onto blocks that are thrown on top of them, which seems harmless until you realize that the same mechanics allow patrolling enemies to sometimes teleport up blocks to reach you. Then there’s the inconsistency of cover; one area has mines that shoot projectiles, and these can be avoided by ducking behind a box. An enemy who shoots an explosive from the other side of the box can hit you, however, because that makes total sense.
Pretty graphics, okay music
If there’s one thing about Iconoclasts that I can praise without reservation, it’s the graphics. At no point did it feel like the artwork was phoned in, and the sprites are all very colorful and full of personality. This can sometimes be a problem during boss fights since everything stands out so much that it’s hard to see small cues for how to proceed, but that’s not a graphics flaw so much as a boss design flaw. Then there’s the music, which is perfectly serviceable. Honestly, the only track that I really liked was one that played while leaving a moon base toward the end of the game, but I also only disliked one track. The rest is just there. Lastly, there’s the sound effect audio panning, which has been, currently is, and will forever be a bad idea. The short version is that being on the left side of an area causes Robin’s footsteps to be panned left, while being on the right causes them to be panned right. This doesn’t match up with the camera since it’s constantly following her, and it became such an irritation that I started using a single speaker that mixes everything to mono.
Directional audio in 2D games is a plague.