Many have called Iconoclasts an example of a Metroidvania game. But that shorthand label, which mostly succeeds at suggesting that a game’s developer was perfectly content to take inspiration from other games’ accomplishments, doesn’t begin to describe what developer Joakim Sandberg has delivered here: a 2D platformer with better storytelling than most video games of any genre. Through provocative depictions of faith and religious dogma, emotional flare-ups between characters, and razor-sharp humor, Sandberg maintains an intoxicating theatricality that underpins the entirety of Iconoclasts.
Iconoclasts immediately establishes a conflict that recalls the story of Christ, leader of the downtrodden, butting heads with the law-worshipping Pharisees. In the game, you play as the silent teenager Robin, who lives in a settlement governed by a religious/political organization, One Concern, that has outlawed private ownership and use of advanced tools that can potentially aid in the collection of a magical resource called Ivory. But despite the risks to her livelihood, Robin, inspired by her father, works secretly as a mechanic to fix things for those in need. After One Concern learns of Robin’s secret, she fights to avoid execution and, with the help of her brother and friends, uncovers One Concern’s fascistic scheme of ensuring that people keep their faith in a deity that forbids even a casual interest in technology.
Unlike the case with innumerable action games, the narrative framework of Iconoclasts is far more than window dressing. Sandberg gradually reveals the personal emotions and worldviews that would exist in a setting like Robin’s community. One home you visit is headed by a woman who emphasizes the importance of getting “right” with God (“Don’t you think it’s about time you changed your ways?”). In the same residence, a man sobs because his wife has died, and because he doesn’t understand how this unfair tragedy fits in with his religious beliefs, he prays to find the answer. Soon, the woman vehemently tells you to leave after she discovers that her child is playing with a forbidden tool because of your influence. The multilayered scene is a believable, affecting depiction of religion-influenced humanity, and it’s a great example of how Iconoclasts fully commits to its premise.
The narrative, too, informs the game’s distinctive action. As Robin the rogue mechanic, you wield a special wrench that can whack enemies, open doors, let you glide via electrical lines, control electricity, and more. This dynamic item, along with a gun that fires a variety of bullets, allows Sandberg to propel you through an array of combat- and puzzle-driven sequences. In one scene, the only way to destroy an enemy is by manipulating platforms with your wrench so that a spiked block rams into the foe. During a boss fight, you switch between controlling Robin and her friend Mia to rearrange the elements of a room so that each character can take turns executing critical hits. With such concepts, Iconoclasts brilliantly literalizes the concept of game mechanics.
The visual aesthetic of the game, which calls attention to the colors and shapes within the natural part of its world, also plays off the story. The use of Ivory has led to strange effects in the settings you traverse, and the sights you behold are oddly spellbinding: blue mountains that look as if something has drawn rectangular lines on them, green leaves as sharp as daggers, cacti that resemble small rigid buildings with pointed domes, flowers whose flat petals suggest they’ve been crafted rather than grown, square-shaped and multicolored coral that outlines twisty underwater caverns. Keeping with the game’s often critical view of faith-based viewpoints, these visions don’t register as intelligent design, but they do demonstrate the beauty of creation.
Iconoclasts reaches an enthralling peak when you scale a tower built out of purple metal that’s symbolic of the high-and-mighty oppression of One Concern. Earlier in the game, you have to escape a room by crawling through a vent, at which point you observe guards engaging in “locker-room” talk (their laughter comically halts when a soldier’s stated lust for a man stuns his homophobic comrades). Later in the game, such eavesdropping is taken to the next level, after you use tools to open up paths to new floors of the tower, allowing you to listen to a number of exchanges between different people while you slither through vents. Eventually you crawl through a space to discover a full-blown theater in the middle of the building, and the on-stage performance sees One Concern figureheads spouting brainwashing aphorisms to an audience: “Only in compliance do we maintain our verity!” In showing how a façade of artistic expression can influence the thinking of everyday people, Iconoclasts is an ironic, humanistic critique of religion as much as it is a masterful take on a traditional video-game genre.