It’s Been A Long Time: Iconoclasts

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I’ve been waiting for Iconoclasts for a long time. I first found out about Konjak’s games around 2007 or so, playing through Noitu Love, Legend of Princess, and some of his unfinished projects like Mina of the Pirates and Ivory Springs — the latter of which was his first attempt at the concept which eventually became Iconoclasts. Later, I enjoyed Noitu Love 2 (and wrote about it), as well as Konjak’s playable teaser for Iconoclasts (back when it had a “The” in front of the name) which arrived way back in… actually I’m not sure when it appeared, but I mentioned it in my 2012 post about Noitu Love 2, so it was sometime before that. Iconoclasts has been in development since 2010, you see, and given that Konjak had released a few unfinished and abandoned games before, I feared Iconoclasts had followed suit. I was wrong. Iconoclasts finally appeared in January, and I’ve finally played it.

My favorite thing about Konjak’s games is way the art and animations reinforce how the action feels. Legend of Princess and Noitu Love 2 are great examples. As protagonist Xoda Rap dashes around beating up robots in Noitu Love 2, the visual effects are perfect, giving each punch heft and lending every dash a sudden explosive energy. Clouds of smoke and flame erupt from enemies as Xoda dispatches them, hammering home the rhythm of the combat. In Iconoclasts, Konjak has honed his craft, as it is by far his best looking game to date. The art itself is crisp, vibrant and colorful, but the superb animations are what really impress. Characters are wonderfully evocative, be it protagonist Robin as she leaps over obstacles while expertly wielding her giant wrench, various townspeople idly loafing around, or other characters throwing tantrums, giving dramatic orations, or simply slumping in defeat. And the visual feedback during the action is even better than in Konjak’s earlier work. When Robin fires her stun gun at a nasty critter, it’s visibly jarred by the impact, the force of the blast evident from the impact flash and, yes, smoke and fire billowing outward. And that’s just Robin’s most basic attack; stronger moves like her mid-air downward stomp hit with palpable force. These animated effects aren’t done justice in screenshots; they must be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. Subtle transparency effects and layered frames merge into something spectacular, which seemed to feed back directly into my fingers as I played. A huge amount of effort for effects that last but an instant, but it really makes a difference.

Nowhere is the art more impressive than during one of Iconoclasts’ huge boss fights. From giant robots to lithe assassins, the bosses all have tremendous presence, each with their own style and beautiful animations. These encounters challenge players to learn to dodge different attack patterns while they work out how to defeat the adversary, and it’s here that the spectacle can become overwhelming. All the detailed art can be hard to read, and more than once I found myself losing track of where Robin was, floundering as I tried to process everything on the screen. It’s not that the encounters are poorly designed; in fact, boss behaviors are carefully telegraphed so players have a decent chance of success even on their first try. But it took some adjustment before I was effective at these battles. Once acclimated to Konjak’s style of animation and encounter design — learning the kinds of visual cues to look for — I was much more effective and had a lot more fun. This will vary from player to player I’m sure, with some able to adjust instantly while others may feel out of control for longer stretches. Part of my troubles may have stemmed from the fact that I picked the harder of the two difficulty settings straight off, which is much less forgiving for taking damage. Players who find the boss encounters a little much will appreciate the Normal setting instead.

With all this talk of action, I don’t want to give the impression that Iconoclasts is just about fighting. In comparison to Noitu Love 2’s arcade-styled fisticuffs, Iconoclasts is downright sedate most of the time. It’s an exploration platformer, commonly referred to as a “metroidvania“, although I dislike that term. Robin gallivants around the world, using her giant wrench to solve navigational puzzles, able to access new areas as she gathers new abilities. Unlike most games of this type that I’ve played, however, Iconoclasts has a very strong emphasis on story. Cutscenes and dialog abound, and more often than not Robin must head to specific places when the story demands it, rather than through free exploration. The most important upgrades and new abilities are simply handed out at appropriate times, rather than asking players to find them on their own. Robin is only let loose to travel where she wishes at certain points in the story. In effect, play cycles between story-focused segments set in specific locations, and bouts of free exploration when Robin may use her new skills and equipment to obtain previously inaccessible items in earlier areas.

Returning to grab items that couldn’t be reached before is a staple of exploration platformers, but the items themselves are unusual in Iconoclasts. Rather than direct upgrades, Robin collects crafting components, which she can later use to craft “tweaks” she can equip. These tweaks adjust Robin’s behavior in small ways, slightly increasing her movement speed or the duration of her wrench twirl, for example. Many of these have little practical use, providing a barely noticeable boost that is by no means essential. Which is good, because taking damage will break each of Robin’s three tweak slots in order, requiring her to collect bits from defeated enemies (or by damaging bosses) to repair them. That means one can never rely too heavily on tweaks, and I paid them little mind, especially early in the game when I hadn’t acquired the most useful ones yet. Obtaining items is therefore less mechanically rewarding than in most exploration platformers, so I was surprised to find that I still greatly enjoyed going back to grab them. The real joy lay in finding the items, not in the reward they bring. This also made me realize that, while Iconoclasts’ find-then-craft system seemed needlessly complex at first, it’s actually an elegant bit of design. It provides an excuse to hide a slew of items across the world, and it’s possible for players to craft all the tweaks even if they haven’t found every last component. And since individual crafting components aren’t that important, the system doesn’t punish players who aren’t interested in the hunt and would rather just follow the story.

That story was the most surprising part of Iconoclasts for me. I was expecting a lighthearted tale, in line with Konjak’s previous work (and indeed the original Ivory Springs prototype), but Iconoclasts quickly heads in some dark and disturbing directions. Robin is a young plucky mechanic in a land where her activities are illegal, banned by the authoritarian theocracy unless a citizen is specifically assigned to that task. She exemplifies the optimistic, ever-helpful spirit I was expecting from Konjak, but as she delves into the truth behind her people’s strange religion, she faces increasingly weird, sinister, and downright harrowing events. Despite Robin’s best intentions, things seem to get worse and worse, and even her friends and family are not always on her side. As I played, I wasn’t sure I liked path the story was taking, especially at certain particularly uncomfortable moments. Now that I’ve finished the game, I find that my appreciation for the story steadily grows the more I reflect on it. Iconoclasts is a game that inspires reflection, with a satisfying ending that still leaves some open questions to ponder. And when it was over I began to realize just how well the themes are woven into the story itself. I felt uneasy and even horrified at times, but I was meant to; it’s what Robin was going through. One scene in particular is an expertly crafted emotional wallop, making me feel the same shock, anger, and despair that Robin did. But still, she never gave up, no matter what horrors she had to face, and by the end I was proud of her courage and perseverance.

Iconoclasts is no walk in the park, then, but it is affecting and well written, even if I wasn’t so sure at first. There’s a lot of dialog, and some of it features awkward phrasing that betrays Konjak as a non-native English speaker. Far more often, however, the dialog is clever and funny, or sinister, or simply weird. And it’s always endearing, with variations in text patterns and size to help convey tone, supported by more of those excellent character animations. It all adds up to a surprisingly long story. My game clock read nearly 20 hours when I finished, and that’s not counting all the restarts as I tried to best particularly tricky bosses. It is, however, counting a bunch of poking around for secrets, as I like to try to find everything in games like this. I’m happy to report I was able to get most of it myself, but I did resort to some internet searching a few times. Even if you just want to follow the story, you will find a lengthy adventure in Iconoclasts, so prepare for a long haul. One thing that may help is something I didn’t realize until quite late in the game: you can skip cutscenes by pressing the shoulder buttons on your gamepad, which is useful when you want to retry a boss but don’t need to see all the pre-fight chatter again. I gather that using shoulder buttons to skip cutscenes is standard for many games, but it’s not documented anywhere in Iconoclasts itself that I saw, and is especially weird because the shoulder buttons aren’t used for anything else. Incidentally, I played with a gamepad because the game’s four action buttons — jump, shoot, wrench, and change ammo — would have been a little much for my left hand on a keyboard, and also I can easily re-bind an extra gamepad button to take screenshots. But Iconoclasts does not feature analog movement, so it could easily be played on a keyboard for those who prefer that. And if you want to skip cutscenes with keyboard control, my guess is that the escape key will do the trick.

The big, beautiful world and hefty story of Iconoclasts is all the more impressive given that the entire game was made by one person. Konjak (AKA Joakim Sandberg) did the design, coding, art, animations, sounds, and even composed over two hours of original music (which is excellent). The only time he turned to others for help was with testing. It’s mind-boggling that a game of this size and quality could be made by one person, and while it goes some way towards explaining why the development cycle was so long, it is also why the completed game feels so cohesive. I started this post with rapt descriptions of how the animations and character movement work together, but that’s because the same person built them both. Every part of Iconoclasts supports a singular vision for what the game should be, and the result is remarkable to play.

I highly recommend Iconoclasts. It’s beautiful, it sounds great, and it got me deeply invested in its world and characters without me even realizing what was happening. I did not always strictly enjoy myself, but that’s what’s so great about Iconoclasts. It put me through the same wringer as its cast, and I persevered for the same reason they did: I cared about what was going to happen to these people, and felt I had to stand up for what was right when no one else would. And lest you think it’s all doom and gloom, let me stress that there’s plenty of joy to be found in Iconoclasts as well. There’s funny banter, blossoming friendships, silly moments, imaginative and beautiful locales, satisfying puzzles and wrenchcraft, and the various bosses are fun to tackle too. These things make up a big part of Iconoclasts, but it’s also a game that’s not afraid to be grim, and is all the stronger for it. Iconoclasts is Konjak’s magnum opus, a powerful work that’s absolutely worth playing.

At least, it’s his magnum opus as of right now; Konjak may yet make more wonderful games for us to experience. And I very much hope he does.

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