Iconoclasts

Iconoclasts is one of my favorite metroidvanias, though not for the usual reasons. In fact, I’d argue that when it comes to the various metroidvania elements, Iconoclasts is a bit of a letdown. However, it has one of the best stories I’ve ever seen, period, even if it is relentlessly dark.

Iconoclasts follows the journey of Robin, a mechanic who is fairly silent and stoic (it’s arguable whether or not Robin is outright mute, though you’re given a few dialogue options scattered throughout the game). She lives in a sort of dystopian world run by the One Concern, a quasi-religious organization with a being known as Mother at the head. Recently Robin’s father died because he was caught repairing and restoring things, which is something that’s supposed to be left only to the One Concern. Robin has picked up his wrench, because there’s something in her that refuses to let people suffer. Her brother, Elro, is not a fan of this, but he still lets her do as she will.

One day the mysterious Agents of the One Concern visit Robin, kicking off the adventure. It almost starts light, with the highly animated sprites giving the various characters a lot of, well, character. Despite being silent for the majority of the game, Robin’s personality comes through: she’s got a strong desire to do what’s right and a quiet confidence in herself. The Agents initially come off as almost cartoonish bullies, with over the top actions and personalities.

again, highly expressive spritework helps a lot

However, the plot gets deeper and deeper as things go. Robin meets Mina, a member of a contrary society known as Isa, who are treated as pirates because they desire free will and worship their ancestors instead of Mother and her progeny. Robin and Mina work together to fight against the One Concern: Robin because they target her, destroy her brother’s house, and kidnap her brother, and Mina because the One Concern want to destroy her family. The character philosophize about their religious, cultural, and emotional differences at various points.

Every character has their own viewpoint that’s influenced by their varying cultures and positions within that culture. This means that they always act in accordance with character. It does seem like everyone but Robin is a bit too surly and pessimistic, but at the same time, it’s incredibly apparent that they live in a world where a religious dictatorship has taken over and has consistently been murdering people in overt ways. Not to mention that the Agents are seemingly invincible.

Even just summarizing the plot of Iconoclasts takes effort here. It’s hard to believe this is the vision of just one person, Joakim Sandberg, though it’s not too hard to believe that it took him 7 years (it’s ironic that some of these more plot heavy, philosophical metroidvania games come from a single developer). Sandberg has crafted this incredibly intricate world with an absolutely massive history and plot behind it. The sheer depth of what we have here is just incredible, as it touches on all kinds of important details.

The various protagonists question religion, both their own separate religions (worshiping a deified Mother or their own Ancestors), and the idea of even having religions or belief systems and what that does to people. They continually question whether or not people have an obligation or a right to help others, particularly since Robin keeps helping when there doesn’t seem to be any direct benefit to her (which makes sense: she’s the main playable character and a stand in for the person holding the gaming controller).

Each character feels lovingly designed and crafted. Robin’s probably one of the best silent protagonists I’ve seen. Despite almost never talking, she has a defined personality: she does what’s right, has that confidence, etc. That’s rare in a silent protagonist, and almost makes me wonder if she wasn’t outright designed with the intent of being actually mute: characters often act like she’s signing or signaling things to them even when dialogue is “selected.”

Your main melee weapon and way of interacting with the world.

You’re joined by three other characters, which are actively positioned in your party. I’ve already mentioned Elro, Robin’s practically minded, pessimistic, and fed up brother. He utilizes a sword and helps in a few points. There’s also Mina, the pirate Isa already mentioned, who steals a shotgun at her first appearance, joking about its use. She’s often trying to do the right thing, but has a tendency to burst ahead without thinking, which causes problems (but also has her finding a solution or two). Finally there’s Royal, who is the selected progeny of Mother and seems to have supernatural abilities (he’s the only one of the three the player doesn’t directly control).

This story just goes all over, fully developing each of the main four characters, yes, but also at least two reoccurring villains: Black and Chrome, who represent dueling philosophies among the One Concern and its people. Black is an Agent whose partner has recently died, giving her a particular hatred for just about everyone around her (said partner was the only person who extended friendship). She follows orders mostly because its the only way to justify what was done to her, in order to make her a Transcendent (a being infused with Ivory, a source of power on this world).

Chrome’s introduction; spoilers: things do not go well for the guy arguing with him (he’s the one on the left)

Chrome is a philosophical Transcendent who was put in charge of the military instead of assigned as an agent. He’s earned the respect of his troops, and he soon believes that there’s a need to get rid of that which controls everyone.

Again, this plot is just… incredibly complex. It almost makes you wonder if Sandberg wanted to build a novel or something. There’s so much philosophical weight here, with these highly engaging and engaged characters who go around doing their thing. You know the reasoning behind every character, and uncover the backstory behind almost everyone involved too. Sure, sometimes video games get highly involved with their intricate narratives and all, but this is just on another level entirely. It reads at times like philosophical papers or handiwork (and I literally got an undergraduate degree in the subject, so I would know).

Which begs the question: how is the actual game? Often if I put off talking about gameplay, that means it’s not very good.

That is not the case with Iconoclasts.

just one of several intricate boss fights

Again, this is loosely defined as a metroidvania. This means you control Robin (and surprisingly often you control Mina, rarely Elro). You move her around the screen, attack with the wrench and later a stun gun, and fight various enemies. You’re tasked with exploring the world and figuring out that intricate plot, and this is done in non-linear fashion.

Robin controls incredibly well. Her jumps feel crisp, her attacks feel like they have weight and impact, and everything feels just incredibly precise. This is helped by a sound design that just feels crunchy as it possibly could, with everything having this real solid impact. The resounding noises make you that much more immersed in a game that already wants to have you sink into its world and gameplay elements.

standard Metroidvania map, along with that mention of the party you can have

There is some exploration involved here. Technically there are sort of levels or areas you’re dropped into and they progress in a quasi-linear fashion (though you’re told to work your way through the first area at a later point in the game). Robin’s dropped somewhere, and you have a goal, usually a boss. If you explore, you can find various parts that can be combined to form tweaks which grant Robin some slight bonuses. If you’re incredibly lucky, you can find a blueprint which allows you to make those Tweaks in the first place.

Here’s the thing though: once you’ve found a set of Tweaks that lets Robin play the way you want, there’s not a whole lot to encourage you to explore. That’s one of the main drives of any metroidvania, as I’ve said in several reviews: you should want to explore. Iconoclasts leans more on the Metroid side of the equation, both in its sci-fi plot and world and in its general control. That means that Robin doesn’t level up from random encounters.

The only reason to fight enemies is because they’re in your way. Okay, yes, if you sustain a hit, you lose whatever Tweak you have equipped on the far right. Killing an enemy will grant some Ivory which fills up a meter that can restore your Tweak. Most of the Tweaks are secondary improvements though (which does make for a quite fun new game plus, which is how I played it on this most recent playthrough).

This is particularly disappointing given how in depth the world and lore is. I wish Sandberg had done something similar to what Team Cherry did with Hollow Knight: included bits of lore in those nooks and crannies. There are some moments in the game, particularly late in the game, where exploration can let you see more about how the world is reacting to everything that’s happening. But it’s incredibly late, and by that point in my first playthrough, I just had no interest in looking over every nook and cranny.

There are some rewards to exhaustive exploration. There’s two hidden boss fights, which also grant you the ability to craft unique Tweaks (you read that right: you still have to craft them). I actually unlocked one of those in this last playthrough, though I had to use a guide to figure it out (the game gives hints). It was kind of fun, but I don’t know if I’d ever do it on another playthrough.

See, I played through this game twice mostly because of the story. The gameplay is still quite amazing. The graphics are excellent with well developed sprites and a world. Sound design is incredible, and I dig a lot of the overall music too (might get the soundtrack). So there’s definitely a lot here to add to a reason to dig into the game. But it was the story that really brought me back.

I’d originally played this as my second ever real official metroidvania, after Bloodstained. I’d put this game and several others on my wish-list after combing through recommendation lists. It looked like fun, with its good sprite graphics and engaging trailer. It was the first of those to go on sale (not long after I put it on, actually), so I scooped it, not realizing what I was getting into. I soon ranked it among my favorites, so when I ran out of brand new games to play this time, I circled back to replaying it.

It was worth that second playthrough, and it’s still one of the better metroidvania games I’ve played. Sadly it isn’t one of the best I’ve played at actually being a metroidvania game: there’s not a lot of rewards for searching around and there’s a fairly linear path even if you go through pretty nonlinear levels. But an excellent, in depth story and great gameplay really make it worth picking up.

9 missing that last bit of rewarding exploration to be absolutely perfect; still an amazing game

of course I didn’t 100% it

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