Though it may not initially seem so, video game production is an extremely demanding task, requiring equal amounts of ambition, creativity, and attention to detail to produce something memorable - and that’s not even accounting for the long shadow cast by countless other games that have garnered mass acclaim and popularity. The act of making a game is an intimidating mountain to climb even when you’ve got a team of talented individuals backed by sufficient resources, yet somehow, Joakim Sandberg has managed to do the impossible with Iconoclasts: he's made a fantastic, memorable, and fun game, and he did it alone.
Iconoclasts is the result of one man’s dream project for an action platformer, borne out over a lengthy eight-year period of development. Fortunately, the final product reflects the time invested into it, as it expertly mixes an engaging and surprisingly heavy story with Metroidvania elements and a peerlessly gorgeous 16-bit visual style that favors immaculate detail and eye-popping color palettes. It’s a treat on several fronts, and isn’t a game you’ll want to pass on without giving it some consideration.
The story follows our silent heroine, Robin, an engineer and mechanic who lives in a society where her services are highly discouraged. A religious regime called the One Concern rules over people with an iron fist, tightly controlling the usage of a mysterious and powerful material called Ivory which has made the society’s technology possible. It’s a gripping and unusual tale, and one which will frequently take you by surprise with the themes that it covers.
Topics like the dangers of religious zealotry and the nature of free will are explored at length, and though the dialogue and cutscenes can sometimes feel like they’re dragging on a little long for this sort of game, they’re often an interesting change of pace and tone for what otherwise looks like a typical bright and friendly action platformer. Though these deeper themes take the center stage, they’re balanced out by a healthy dose of wry humor, which helps to keep the experience from feeling too preachy or dull. For every uncomfortable scene of watching a mother and daughter’s tense relationship erupt into a hurtful argument, there’ll be another where you listen in on a bar full of raucous men telling groan-inducing, pun-riddled jokes.
Gameplay is rather difficult to describe, as it borrows many elements from the Metroidvania genre, but it does so loosely. This is very much a narrative-driven experience, which means that exploration is not the number one focus, even if it is strongly featured in the familiar map design. Robin begins her adventure with a powerful stun gun and a giant, golden wrench, both of which are used to clobber the occasional enemies you’ll come across and in most of the puzzle solving as you explore. Though Iconoclasts is, on the whole, a more linear experience, there are several pockets where the map opens up considerably to allow for some good, old-fashioned trial and error exploration, and many of these sections must later be revisited with new power-ups if you wish to grab all the loot.
Instead of rote health or weapon upgrades, the various nooks and crannies of the map are rife with small treasure chests that contain crafting materials - like the cutely named ‘Improvium’ - which can then be used on benches to make special ‘Tweaks’. Tweaks act as a sort of skill or perk system, giving you a wide range of little boosts and buffs to make the game easier in some ways. You’re only given a few slots for equipping Tweaks, which can do everything from giving you more air for underwater sections to upping your max run speed. Taking any sort of damage will deactivate the Tweak in the rightmost slot, and each one after that will also deactivate as you take more damage, only to be restored if you find enough ivory from felled enemies and solved puzzles.
It’s a nice way of introducing a little more incentive to play defensively, though admittedly, Tweaks don’t do a lot to modify the overall experience. Yes, you may notice if one gets knocked out and Robin runs a little slower, but there’s seldom a situation where it feels like a notable loss. Nonetheless, the Tweak system is a welcome way of giving the player control over skewing the game towards particular playstyles, and there’s just something that feels so right about scouring the map and finding materials to craft more of them.
Much of this is down to the traversal and moment-to-moment gameplay, which feels positively sublime. Robin has just the right amount of weight to her jumps and the diverse skillset that she develops over the course of the game makes for a varied and interesting experience. Puzzles are often straightforward and simple to figure out, but there are many that will demand a little more thought and planning; some puzzles can span multiple screens and a few different tools just to get to a little blue chest. Some may see this as going a bit overboard, but it’s nice to see some puzzle design in a Metroidvania that goes for a little more than just using a single tool on an obvious obstacle.
Oddly enough, some of the best puzzles are actually dressed up as boss battles. One memorable fight involved two characters separated on different sides of a room-sized robot, with the two having to tag each other in and out as they dismantle different parts of the machine so the other can get to weak points on their side. It was dynamic, interesting, and rather off the wall, which was a refreshing change of pace from the usual loop of simply recognizing attack patterns and retaliating where possible. Each boss in Iconoclasts feels distinct from the last, with many of them employing unique tactics and requiring unconventional reactions to triumph. Though the difficulty does occasionally tend to be a little on the easy side, these boss fights more than make up for it in their overall fun factor and memorable design.
On the presentation side of things, Iconoclasts manages to astound with its hyper-detailed 16-bit graphics. This is pixel art at its absolute best; it’s immediately clear that Sandberg devoted a significant amount of development time to getting the looks of the game just right. Each environment you enter has a vibrant and bright veneer to it, and the atmosphere is perfectly captured in the little details, all adding up to make for quite a visual treat. Animation quality is similarly stellar, with a surprising amount of emotion and expression being coaxed out of each character as they pantomime during cutscenes. All of this is capped off by a retro soundtrack that’s just about as diverse, offering up the perfect backing tunes for whatever the situation requires. This element is perhaps not as striking as the gorgeous visuals, but it satisfies nonetheless.
On the whole, Iconoclasts is a memorable, thought-provoking, and enjoyable take on the Metroidvania genre which manages to stick out from the crowd with its chipper presentation and deeper storytelling style. Couple those elements with some of the best 16-bit spritework we’ve seen and a killer lineup of awesome boss encounters, and you’ve got another must-have for the Switch library. It may have been eight years in the making, but this one has certainly been worth the wait; don’t miss out on this one.