There have been a lot of metroidvania-inclined games this year. Or as I like to call them in a not-really-adequate way, open world-2D-platformers. When I think of the best in the genre, it usually comes down to three specific criteria. One, it has to have a good jump, or alternatively, a strong integral ability. Two, its world must be a delight to explore, with plenty of secrets around every corner. And three, it has to have some sort of personality, whether that lies in its art style or writing (or both).
Iconoclasts, the fabled "seven years in development" platformer from lone developer Joakim Sandberg, hits most of those marks. It released earlier this year in January for PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and Steam but it found itself overshadowed by a surprisingly crowded month of releases. Celeste, another platformer, received a lot of widespread adoration (including from yours truly). Big budget games like Dragon Ball FighterZ and Monster Hunter: World dominated the conversation. Iconoclasts, while earning merit and praise, seemed like it got buried.
This week, it's getting a second chance on Nintendo Switch. Surprisingly, it's another busy week for the 2D platforming genre with Chasm and La-Mulana 2 also out this week. But as Hollow Knight got its time to shine on Switch, I think the world and people saving of Iconoclasts has potential too. The genre was practically made to take advantage of on-the-go play. What makes Iconoclasts stand out among its competition is something its competitors don't have: an appreciation for even the most minute details.
I missed Iconoclasts when it released earlier this year, despite anticipating it for at least a few years. All week long, I've been plugging away at its Switch port though, and it's not quite what I expected. Its story is ambitious, from its characters to the troubled world they live in. While the action and boss battles (the latter sometimes tedious) feel good, the exploration is rather tedious. I've found that it's more about progressing the central story than about freeroaming the world.
Yet it's the attention to detail that's captured my eye. The characterizations of its NPCs feel personalized, whether that comes in exclamatory dialogue or their ever-moving animations. For some, their clothes flop in the wind; for others, their torso's softly heave with each imaginary breath. The environments, matching the unsettling religious authoritaty, paint a strong picture of what the world's like. When stationary, the protagonist Robin bounces idly, as if she's always ready to leap into combat or stick her wrench in something. Just standing still on a screen, there's plenty of things dancing on the screen to marvel at.
The detail isn't just in the sprite art either, it's in how the NPCs and more interact with your bubbly mechanic. I first picked up on it when I went in the upstairs area of a random house towards the start and napped on a bed, restoring health. The kid from downstairs was suddenly upstairs when I woke up, and yelled at me because they had just made their bed. And here I was, messing it up again. (Sorry kid, times are tough.) There's a lot of those sorts of moments in Iconoclasts. These little intricacies make it feel lovingly crafted; it's easy to see how it took nearly a decade when every little part of it has been refined.
It's not without its problems though. What's dragging it down for me is that it feels aimless in its exploration—and not in the way I usually adore in games of its ilk. Even just a few hours in, there have been a lot of sections where I felt like I had exhausted every option in a screen and didn't know what to do next. On the pause screen, the single sentence description of your current goal is typically vague. There aren't as many epiphanies of "Oh, I can do that thing in this place now that I have this thing." There's a chance this improves later on, but the looseness in guidance so far seems to only be holding back everything else I'm enjoying about it, leading to lots of frustration.
The tediousness of it is overshadowing what I think, beneath the nomenclature of the "metroidvania" genre, is clearly a passionate labor of love. As a writer, I'm the type of person who writes and rewrites and self-edits about a dozen times more than a lot of my peers in this field. I'm a perfectionist, and as such don't really feel satisfied with the majority of my work because of that nagging voice in the back of my mind. When I look at Iconoclasts and gasp at the seven-something years it took to release, I feel like I can relate to it and appreciate all those itty bitty details that are squirming on every screen. I live for that: The things you catch, or the things you create that you wonder if anyone will notice. Calling a game "handcrafted" has become hyperbole in the past decade, but for a game like Iconoclasts, it really feels that way. Misguidance and all.