Game review: Iconoclasts

Some time ago, I bought Iconoclasts for the Switch off the back of some positive reviews. I never got around to playing it, although my kids did, and seemed to enjoy it. I finally got around to playing it, and I really didn't like it. I completed it, mostly because I wasn't going to let this annoyance get the better of me.

The thing that really stood out to me at the start was the absolutely dire writing. Everything from poor word choice through unclear dialogue through to making the characters 2D cutouts (perhaps appropriate for a 2D platformer? :p). The characters are awful and the plot is very ropey - although it's not entirely clear to me if this derives from the writing, or is independently bad.

The pixel art is also awful. I remember a really good '90s pixel artist saying that the point of their work was to "hide the pixels", and put in more than was really possible with the technology. This game, attempting retro without properly understanding it, takes the opposite approach, of showing off the pixels, not only making them big, but badly used. I don't know if they actually used a limited colour palette, but the feeling is of using many colours, but mostly bad ones. The magenta that runs throughout brings back the worst of '90s platforming, not the best.

These things could be perhaps forgiven if it weren't for the gameplay. This grates at so many different levels. At the level of the simplest mechanics, it's fiddly: You get a spanner with multiple upgrades that can be used to wrench, hit, spin and hang from, three guns with two modes, plus an electrified version of most of the above, and can jump on enemies in two different ways. Then you need to match the specific attack out of all the above combinations against the specific enemy. Or the enemy might just be indestructable.

The movement mechanics are deliberately restricted to create non-sensical puzzles: While your character can do all kinds of jumps and climbing onto ledges, they can't simply clamber onto a platform about a metre high. This weird inability is the backbone of almost all the puzzles in the game.

Moving onto level design, the game has decided that the key element of Metroidvanias to reproduce is "tedium". I kept finding areas to explore that lead to... nothing yet. I was clearly supposed to come back later, tediously recrossing existing areas. It didn't feel so much like the levels unlocking and becoming different with new powers, as just boring back-and-forth make-work.

And then bosses are even worse. They're overly-cluttered, and multi-staged. They're an exercise in trying out the various weapons combinations and trying to learn how to dodge attacks (if they can reasonably be dodged), while trying to keep up caring enough to not just fatalistically die repeatedly or walk away from the game. Done well, these bosses would be challenging and interesting, as it is, they're ugly, messy, tedious, an attack on the senses and intellect.

The bosses are usually preceeded by incredibly slow, and obviously really badly written cut-scenes. Did I mention how annoying the monospace fonts with occasional ALL CAPS, badly scaled letters and shaky letters are? They really take the dialogue down to an even lower level. I started to think that the cut scense were punishment for dying, until far too close to the end I found the undocumented way to skip them (the button that usually brings up the map etc. can be used to skip).

I think the problem with many modern platformers is that they don't know how to deal with death. '90s console platformers gave you limited lives before taking you all the way back to the start. You were expected to learn the game well enough to complete it in a few hours, once you were good at it. In contrast, modern games expect save points and plenty of gameplay from end-to-end. Death should be enough of a roadblock to stop you just hammering each boss and lucking through it.

The trend seems to be to make the bosses harder, particularly by making them less obvious in how to proceed, so you keep throwing deaths at it until you find the weak point. And, quite frankly, this isn't as fun.

I dunno, maybe I just played the wrong games in the '80s and '90s. I just like Sonic. It wasn't particularly hard, but it was enjoyable and rewarding. Mickey Mouse: Castle of Illusion, QuackShot and Aladdin all just looked really good and played really well, and didn't associate platformers with blocky misery in the guise of fun. I tried NES Mega Man on an emulator, and why that's what people want to base their retro games on, I don't know. Is it too mjuch to ask to have something that's fun and looks good?

As I was saying, Iconoclasts doesn't really know how to deal with death. Beyond making boss fights annoying, it's looking for a way to punish you for dying. The mechanism it's found is to have a set of "tweaks", power-ups that break as you take damage, that don't get reset on death. Unfortunately, in order to prevent the game putting you into a downward spiral, the game plays fine without tweaks, so all the effort put in around them seems utterly unnecessary.

Between tweak crafting, and all these power-ups and attempted plot points, it feels a little bit like it's trying to pull in elements of RPGs or something. Certainly you spend much of the game going around as a "party", despite this being indistinguishable from being on your own from a gameplay point of view. The developer clearly wanted to build something grand, but why not just... good?

Sometimes it's really not clear if a puzzle needs to be completed to progress the game, or just get more raw material for tweaks. The puzzles are a mixture of fiddly and logic-y, and furthermore it's sometimes not clear which it is, so you don't know if you're failing because you're taking the wrong approach, or it's just annoying. It's a hard-to-read game. You might claim it rewards experimentation, but there are many games that do so much better, through well-structured subtle hints and feedback loops.

Overall, the design is largely unoriginal in ways that are cliched for retro platformers (cheesy monospace font dialogue, jumping on enemies), with bits of originality that are just plain bad (your character can climb onto a ledge they're hanging off, but can't actually clamber up three feet, purely to set up the game's puzzles). It is just soooo frustrating that after so many decades of 2D platformer design we still get games like this.

It's a sprawling game of considerable complexity. There's clearly been a huge amount of effort put into it. The plot is ambitious, even if the overarching "kill your gods" message is about as unsubtle as is possible. The way that you literally smash statues for tweak energy is quite funny in blatancy. The unlikeable characters (both "good" and "bad") suffer pleasingly, even if there's an unfortunately happy ending. There's sufficient content that I was really getting bored waiting for the end of the game (a sinking feeling with every extra boss).

Yet, and I think I've made this pretty clear, for all the effort that was put into this game, it's not fun. There were '90s EGA platformers that were significantly more fun. I tried Hollow Knight, and I was sufficiently impatient at the time to bounce off it, but I could see what it was trying to achieve, and it did it well. This does not.

Why? It appears to be a single-developer indie project. The thing about one person doing the art, music, game logic, level design, script etc. is that either it's a modern masterpiece, showing off genius, or it's just pretty darn mediocre in most areas, backed by an overinvested dev and people fawning over the idea and ignoring the reality. Not as smug as Fez but some similar vibes.

I appreciate Hollow Knight. I really enjoyed Super Meat Boy, even though I didn't get very far. These are games that have thought carefully about playability, possibly even fun. Iconoclasts, on the other hand, is simply a vast monument to mediocrity.

Posted 2023-11-14.