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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (382)

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Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5
Evoland Legendary Editi... 4.5/5
Evoland 2 4.5/5
Burokku Girls 2/5
Finding Paradise 4.5/5
To the Moon 4/5
Marvel: Ultimate Allian... 2.5/5
Valley 4/5
Satellite Reign 3/5
The Fall of Gods 3.5/5
Even the Ocean 3.5/5
Asterix & Obelix XXL 2:... 3/5
Valkyria Chronicles 4 5/5
Ninja Gaiden ( Shadow W... 1/5
Super Mario Land 2.5/5
The Messenger 3.5/5
Super Mario Land 2: 6 G... 2/5
Super Mario Maker 2 3/5
Pillars of Eternity II:... 4/5
Sundered 3/5
Iconoclasts 3/5

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Iconoclasts   PC (Steam) 

She’s a Lady    3/5 stars

Sometime around 2008, I learned about an Indie game project called “Iconoclasts.” It was, according to developer Konjak’s website – a developer, I need to mention, that consists of a one-renaissance-man team named Joakim Sandberg – a story-rich 2D Metroidvania with gorgeous hand-draw, hand-animated visuals, which would explore the nature of oppressive religion. All of those things are directly in my wheelhouse, plus I wanted to be supportive of a project by a fellow Swede.

So I waited, and waited, and waited some more. A decade later in 2018, “Iconoclasts” was finally done and released on Steam and PSN, before receiving a Nintendo Network port a few months later. With great relish, I purchased this word-of-mouth Indie diva during the Steam Autumn Sale in 2019 at a far smaller discount than I’m usually willing to accept, just because I had so much faith in the game.

Unfortunately, like the characters in “Iconoclasts,” my faith was ultimately misplaced, as, like so many other divas, “Iconoclasts” proved itself to be beautiful on the outside, but ultimately hollow in the middle.

Presentation
Joakim Sandberg’s main claim to fame is as a digital artist, and it truly shows in the presentation aspects of the game. “Iconoclasts” is absolutely gorgeous, with detailed, multi-layered environments; cute, eye-catching characters (indeed, Mr. Sandberg once said that you’ve done a poor job with character designs if your customers can’t masturbate to them), and gobs of animation and detail. As a sprite-based 2D sidescroller, “Iconoclasts” doesn’t rely on any cutting edge tech or canned engines, but is entirely hand-made, with excruciating detail. Every aspect of the game’s visuals positively exude personality, with so much detail on-screen that it can be hard to keep track of everything that’s going on.

Audiowise, “Iconoclasts” is likewise old-school, with MIDI-style and chiptune-style tunes making up its soundtrack and plenty of retro bleeps and bloops to accompany the on-screen happenings. It’s particularly noteworthy that the main character’s steps each make a blooping noise, and when the player controls an allied character during a handful of gameplay segments, these blooping footsteps change pitch.

Technically, “Iconoclasts” is also rock-solid, with nary a glitch or crash to be found, native Xinput support, and a clean user interface. In general, the fact that this game spent a decade in the works really shows, as nothing in the presentation feels rushed or incomplete, but instead makes the game appear polished to a mirror sheen… at least on the surface.

Story
Writing, on the other hand, does not seem to be one of Joakim Sandberg’s strengths, especially when writing in English instead of his native Svenska. “Iconoclasts” suffers from somewhat-tortured English as a Second Language prose in its script, which makes the wordy and long-winded cutscenes and dialogs uncomfortable to read. It seems that, perhaps, Mr. Sandberg did actually improve his English skills over the decade he spent working on “Iconoclasts,” but then never bothered to go back and re-edit the earlier parts of the script.

“Iconoclasts” tells the tale of a teenage girl named Robin whose late father was a Mechanic for the One Concern. One Concern is the de-facto religious authority of Robin’s world, ruled over by an enigmatic woman known as Mother in the worship of a deity known only as He. One Concern combines the worst aspects of Roman Catholicism with the worst aspects of Soviet totalitarianism, discouraging people from educating themselves and parting out jobs to the citizenry without consideration for what any given individual actually wants or needs.

Serving Mother’s interests in the One Concern are the Agents, super-powered individuals who seek out heretics who would dare go against One Concern’s orders, such as a tribe of pirates known as the Isi, who worship their ancestors instead of He, and who illegally harvest a form of liquid energy called Ivory from the sea floor. Any member of the One Concern flock who is proven by an Agent to have committed crimes against the church is subjected to Penance within their own home… which is code for being executed by a robot starfish and having one’s house collapsed upon one’s mutilated corpse.

Robin finds herself at odds with the One Concern when, seeing a desperate need in her own community, she picks up her late father’s Mechanic wrench and begins fixing the dilapidated infrastructure of Settlement 17. When caught in the act by Agents, instead of returning to her home to receive Penance, Robin goes on the run, eventually joining forces with a smelly lesbian pirate (no, really!); her jaded brother, who lost his job as a One Concern chemist and had his wife and child Penanced due to Robin’s illegal activities; and Mother’s own heir apparent, who is suspicious about corruption within One Concern’s inner workings.

While this general premise and much of the early plot holds promise, struggling through large quantities of contorted sentences, being fed breadcrumbs of lore that never really pan out, and keeping track of an ever-increasing number of plot threads that dilute the narrative focus as the game wears on ultimately sucks all the air out of “Iconoclasts.” Even worse, after roughly 15 hours for a first-time playthrough, the story ends on a largely text-free pile of nonsensical non-sequiturs that not only don’t wrap-up the plot nicely, but actually left me paralyzed with apathy and confusion. Why spend so much time and generate so many lines of dialog throughout the game, only to end it with no conclusions or explanations? So much of the game feels overly verbose, yet when verbosity would be the most welcome, the narration clams-up and we’re left to question whether anything we learned is true…

Maybe that’s the point? Maybe being an iconoclast means smashing through accepted folklore and traditions to get at real meaning. Or maybe I’m overusing my Humanities muscles and reading in more meaning than there actually is.

Gameplay
“Iconoclasts” is fairly compact and streamlined by Metroidvania standards, with generally few enemies to kill, a fairly small map, and a similarly small number of secrets to find (though these secrets are usually so obscurely hidden behind environmental objects, seeking them out is often more frustrating than entertaining). Instead of focusing on combat and exploration, “Iconoclasts” focuses more heavily on environmental puzzles, with each area requiring the player to manipulate the environment with Robin’s wrench whilst platforming through to the other side. In most cases, once an environmental puzzle has been successfully solved once, a shortcut appears that allows the player to bypass it on subsequent visits to the same part of the map.

Robin’s repertoire of moves is not particularly impressive to start, nor does it ever become so throughout the course of the game. She can fire a stun-gun (which has a super-short range for a projectile weapon) and will eventually unlock two additional projectile types (one of which has a slow rate of fire, the other of which overheats). Her main claim to fame, though, is her Mechanic wrench, which she can either swing or spin. Swinging the wrench can be used as a super-clunky melee attack or to manipulate bolt-shaped environmental objects. The wrench will automatically latch onto these objects, allowing Robin to ratchet switches, hang from pivots, ride ziplines (with the appropriate upgrade), or build up an electric charge (with another upgrade). She can also jump, crouch, and grab onto ledges to pull herself up… but that’s really it. The essential bread and butter of “Iconoclasts” doesn’t really change much from the beginning of the game to the end.

But any Metroidvania game worth its salt needs some sort of upgrade system, and in “Iconoclasts,” the player will indeed unlock a variety of stun-gun and wrench upgrades that aid in the solving of environmental puzzles, but these are generally few and far between for the subgenre. Instead of a plethora of permanent upgrades, the player will find a large number of Tweak schematics, which allow Robin to combine raw materials (which make up nearly all of the hidden treasures in the game) into Tweaks. Robin starts with the ability to equip three Tweaks at once… and never gains the ability to equip more, but can freely swap them out at any save point. This would be a perfectly functional, if not particularly original, upgrade system… except for one teeny, tiny, HUGE, ANNOYING novelty: Tweaks break when Robin gets hit by an enemy or environmental hazard. Thus the player only needs to get Robin hurt 3 times before all of her Tweaks are out of commission. Tweak slots can be repaired by breaking statues, killing enemies, and even just damaging bosses, but because the game cannot expect the player to have any given Tweak at any given time, or have any of their Tweak slots in working condition at any given time, none of the Tweaks can be mandatory or even truly gamechanging. One of the earliest and most basic Tweaks is the Iron Heart, which prevents Robin from taking damage (but still breaks when she gets hit), but there are other Tweaks that do a wide variety of things, with one Tweak that causes Robin to say, “!” when in a room with a secret (unfortunately, this doesn’t differentiate between discovered and undiscovered secrets, making it useless), and one Tweak allowing Robin to meditate while crouching to repair broken Tweak slots (17 seconds of crouching per slot… which feels REALLY long), to name a few. But even the double-jumping Tweak doesn’t really open up any truly unique gameplay opportunities, and many players might not even find its schematic without consulting a FAQ. Thus, Tweaks feel largely useless and environmental design never really goes beyond the basics, because Tweaks are so unreliable.

In addition to puzzle-platforming, exploring for schematics and materials, and following the plot wherever it may lead, the player will encounter a large number of boss enemies. These encounters are generally large, copiously animated, screen-filling affairs that will test the player’s ability to manipulate Robin’s rather limited skillset. Unfortunately, bosses’ properties of ‘large and copiously animated’ combined with Robin’s property of ‘limited skillset’ means that these encounters are frequently-frustrating exercises in trial-and-error, where tells and weak points are obscured by the game’s gorgeous artwork, and where figuring out what to do is nearly always more difficult than actually doing it. Fortunately, nearly every boss battle (and nearly every phase for multi-phase boss battles) provides a non-saving checkpoint, and the player is free to retry as many times as they want, which keeps things from becoming frustrating, even if they never actually become enjoyable.

Self-abusers and H.A.R.D.-heads will be pleased to know that, upon completing “Iconoclasts,” a Boss Rush mode becomes available, as well as a Challenge Mode difficulty in which Robin always dies in one hit. Needless to say, I will never touch either of those.

Overall
I can’t help but compare “Iconoclasts” to the diva variety of beautiful woman. She looks gorgeous, has a voice like music, and is immaculately put-together… but she ultimately talks too much without ever saying anything, and there are only a few things you can do with her that are any fun… and she’s not particularly good at them.

Presentation: 5/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5

 

 


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