The Iconoclasts Preview

Warning: This preview contains some moderate narrative and mechanical spoilers.

“Unfortunate souls, floating lifeless in the night!
What horrible things have happened in your pasts?
Such young faces, likely shipwrecked and left for the microcosms to devour.
The thought of their quests unfulfilled…

These solemn lines, spoken by an incidental character that briefly reflects upon the momentary misfortune of the heroine and her friend, are summarily subverted to set up a punchline. Yet, when taken as genuine sentiments, they also encapsulate the troubled development of The Iconoclasts, the game in which they are found. You see, The Iconoclasts started out as a little game known as Ivory Springs way back in 2007. By the middle of 2009, Konjak, the developer, eventually decided to release Ivory Springs as abandonware because he felt the gameplay was derivative and because he had started working full-time on a different game. While Ivory Springs could’ve been considered derivative for featuring gameplay similar to Cave Story and a setting that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Sonic game, its fantastical landscapes and characters provided some lovely charm that alleviated any derivative qualities. Regardless of the game’s potential, it seemed as if the developer moved on and that this was just another creative endeavor that was aborted when it was only half-formed.

This is a picture of Ivory Springs. Compare it to pictures of The Iconoclasts and notice the radical change in the amount of detail.

Nearly two years later, Konjak surprised his followers by releasing another abandonware version of Ivory Springs, though this time it was known by a new title despite the two versions sharing many characters, settings and themes. The new version was also remarkably better; the enemies were less annoying, the boss battles were more engaging, the art was stunningly beautiful and you could just feel so much more all-encompassing passion poured into this version of the game. If the loss of Ivory Springs was disappointing, then the loss of The Iconoclasts was heartbreaking.

This picture summarizes most of the changes between versions. It's also a sample of the game's beautiful pixel art.

Fortunately, fans responded by offering verbal support and expressing interest in paying for a full version of the game. In the span of about a week, Konjak went from dejectedly thinking about throwing in the towel as a game developer to being cautiously optimistic about his future. Since it seems like an eventual full release of The Iconoclasts is planned, it only seemed appropriate to preview the game in order to highlight the quality available in the “demo.”

Players focus on controlling Robin, a perky female mechanic with a penchant for helping out others with her talents. She doesn’t talk much, though she’s quite emotionally expressive via body language throughout the game. An interlude informs us that Robin’s dad was also a mechanic and that he died some time ago, though there’s no word on who or where her mother is.

The main antagonist is an oppressive, and perhaps even totalitarian, organization known as the Concern, which forbids unauthorized tampering with machinery and Ivory (the common fuel source). As you can imagine, this makes Robin an outcast in the eyes of many in her society, and much of the story deals with her interactions with soldiers, agents and citizens loyal to the Concern. The game hasn’t had much opportunity to flesh out this organization yet, but its members come across as similar to the Civil Protection in Half-Life 2, though low-ranking members are much more bumbling and nonthreatening.

Various members of the Concern.

There are also these strange and hostile creatures inhabiting the bizarre environments that Robin explores. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for most of them seeking to harm Robin, so I assume they are there mostly for the sake of having something to fight since Robin can’t battle any human enemies (yet anyways). The creatures may also exist to serve as an antagonistic force that is actually overtly physically violent since the Concern currently comes across as more like thought police than brutal jackbooted thugs. Perhaps the developer feared we would get bored if we didn’t have something to kill?

Speaking of combat, Robin currently has two weapons at her disposal: a stun gun and an oversized wrench. The stun gun is a standard blaster-type weapon, though a degree of auto-aim allows players to deftly avoid the annoyances inherent in directional restrictions on one’s ability to fire their weapon. The wrench bashes enemies, cranks doors and gears for puzzles, and is even used to swing from things bolted to the environment. While Ivory Springs was like Cave Story with a couple of twists, the vibrant environments, alien enemies and wrench tool/weapon of The Iconoclasts make this version of the game much more like Ratchet & Clank. There’s no robot buddy or excessive and wacky weaponry, but otherwise the feel of the aesthetics and gameplay are very similar. Furthermore, an equipment menu suggests that Robin may later acquire additional weapons and tools, which would make the R&C comparison even more apt.

By default, Robin can only fire her gun in the four cardinal directions. However, once she is within range of an enemy, she will automatically angle her gun to make it easier to hit them. It's a very refreshing change of pace and you'll probably grow to love this feature.

One major difference from R&C is that combat does not appear to be a primary focus of the game. Enemies serve more as minor obstacles along your path than things to be dominated and destroyed for personal gain. Staples of the Metroidvania genre like environmental puzzles, platforming segments, and exploration provide the actual challenge. Strangely, it is here where one change from the original Ivory Springs seems to make the game worse. In Ivory Springs, upgrades appeared in the form of simple collectibles like the Heart Containers from the Legend of Zelda series or the Missile Expansions of Metroid. In The Iconoclasts, one needs to collect metallurgic materials before taking them to special chemists to craft upgrades that alter RPG-esque character stats. I can’t image why this change was made, as it only serves to break satisfying upgrades into pieces and be needlessly complicated. Is the old system of one item equals one upgrade really that bad?

This is one of the four types of crafting materials that you can collect.

Content-wise, the crafting system is my only gripe based off of my experiences thus far. I guess I could complain about an underdeveloped second world and the abrupt end that demarcates an inability to progress further, but I think such is to be expected since this was initially released as abandonware rather than a formal demo meant to be indicative of the final product. However, there are two unpleasant technical problems that should be addressed. The most important one is that the game suffers from slowdown at points. It’s particularly noticeable in one very specific area of the first world as well as throughout many areas of the second world, which frequently seek to emulate image distortion caused by heat waves. I pretty much never have problems playing 2D games on my PC, so I’m assuming the slowdown is more the fault of the software than my hardware.

Note the distortion of the background.

The lesser, though still annoying, problem involves the controls for swinging segments. Initially, I seriously struggled with performing successive swings whenever they were necessary, and I feel like it’s because the controls for this process lack calibration. Every time I would fail a swing, I was either too close to the point that I needed to swing from or a little off in my timing. The wrench has some range to it and doesn’t seem to catch swing points immediately, so it caused me a lot of frustration until I stopped what I thought was an intuitive approach and forced myself to prep the wrench at a distance and prior to being at the same height as the swing point.

Don’t let these complaints deter you from trying what’s available now though, as it’s still great despite its flaws. So many independently-developed platforming games just go for being small-scale and retro, but I believe The Iconoclasts has great potential to be a shining example of a modern 2D platformer in an era where such games appear infrequently or are sadly absent altogether.