System: PS2, PS3 (reviewed)/Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment/Developer: Team Ico/Players: 1 (2 after beating game)/Released: September 21, 2001, September 27, 2011
Picture if you will, the beginning of a console. From the moment it’s in its concept stages to when it’s finally out the door and into the homes of consumers, the company that makes it wants it to be successful. It does everything in its power to prove that the console is worth your hard-earned dollars. Features, controls, ergonomics, power… all of these are important to the console. But most of all, the games make the console, and it is the games that will shape the future of your console. And so, the company picks from a bushel of games to showcase around the launch period to show the public. You want to wow these people to buy your product. Since this is a new console, everyone’s going to go on about the graphics. Well, here’s a game that can wow you, while doing a few nifty things on the side. This was the reality back during the PS2’s early life when ICO was released. 10 years later, do those same enamored feelings still hold true for ICO? After the jump, I break down ICO.
Sony Japan Studios (Team ICO specifically) took an interesting approach in making this game. Intentionally, not much of the story is known from the outset. All you know is that you are a horned boy that is a victim of a sort of witch hunt. You are part of a cursed people. And then there is a girl in the castle that has these powers to eradicate the shadow monsters. You start the game knowing next to nothing about Ico, the boy you control, and Yorda, the girl you drag along with you. But by the end of the game you’ll begin to understand a bit about their roles. What isn’t explained is left to the player to interpret. To me, there is enough mystery in the game’s world to get me interested. While I did play Shadow of the Colossus first and thus had a better understanding of what was happening in ICO, I could imagine those playing ICO first might not know what the hell is going on. Still, this minimalist approach to storytelling is interesting and does harken back to the older days of videogames when the it was up to the player to fill in the blanks.
The game takes the concept of “save the princess” to a more reality based level. While other stories see the hero save the princess and magically leave (read “jump cut”) the castle, the hero here saves the “princess” and has to traverse the whole castle to and get you, and her, out of there. It does become fascinating when you sit back and think to yourself, “why would he let her out?” Is it out of the will to “do the right thing,” or is it for his own protection since she can open those weird doors and, in turn, instantly kill those enemies. Again, not much is said and the player can freely interpret the relationship between Ico and Yorda.
The minimalist approach of Sony Japan Studio seeps into the way this game looks. The colors are mostly muted to more earthly browns and grays, save for the instances of greenery that pop up. To this day ICO is an amazing game to look at and is still very much part of the Still-Looks-Good-10-Years-Later-Club. The character models look okay. But once the camera zooms in on Ico, you can see that he was not so well defined. I really can’t say much about Yorda. She’s white as a ghost and hard to really critique. Thankfully she’s easy to spot when you leave her behind and she’s far away. The game uses no HUD whatsoever, so there’s nothing blocking your view of the environment.
Grade: 90/100ICO – You Were There Composed by Michiru Oshima Vocals by Steven Geraghty
Music and Sound
The music of ICO is mostly comprised of ambient, and sometimes menacing sounds. At times when there is some semblance of familiar music, it is a relaxing acoustic arrangement. In keeping up the minimalist theme, the melodies are simple and tie into the situation. Other times, the music sounds very foreign with a combination of ambiance, strings, and otherworldly, almost spacey, “bloops.” Fumito Ueda, the game’s producer, said that for certain aspects of the game he wanted to tap into the feeling of unfamiliarity; to make the game completely foreign regardless of the region it was released. This seems to hold true with the music as well.
The sounds for the game are what you’d expect. Since there isn’t any much to speak of during gameplay, outside of fighting shadows, the sound effect have a prominent role here. From the crackling of the torches to the howling of the wind, you become immersed in the tranquil silence of the castle. In fighting shadows and figuring out the puzzles, you tend to forget that this castle, technically, has no “people” in it. It’s just you, Yorda, and the shadows. The silence also helps with figuring out puzzles since you’ll be spending most of your time walking around figuring out how to make things work instead of listening to an almost offensively looping song.
The game plays out essentially like a puzzle game of sorts. You walk into a room and you’re confronted by a blocked path or a machination that you have to figure out to get working. Sometimes, these puzzles will be enough for you and Yorda to pass together. Other times, You have to make a path not just for you, but for Yorda as well. Some of the more complex puzzles are pretty ingenious. It does get pretty easy to over-analyze some very simple puzzles (like a chandelier). But the figuring out part will vary from player to player. The actual execution though might not bode well to some as the control might mess you up sometimes. This is mostly regarding the jumping mechanics as Ico jumps like a Belmont and is stuck on a set path, velocity, and angle. For example, at the chandelier room I thought I had a clear jump. But Ico jumps completely over the chandelier and falls to his death. The camera, on its own, does an okay job, but I wish it would move faster when I manipulate it.
Combat is pretty simple and rarely exciting. You can’t die from a hit by a shadow, but you can lose if the Shadows get to Yorda and takes her through their portal. You do have a chance to save her though. It’s a bit maddening at times when they capture her, especially in one part where you have to leave her behind to solve a puzzle 2 rooms away. Once she gets across a platform you that your get working, she’ll be attacked by shadows on the other side. You then have to get down there and save her. I lost here, and it was annoying since you can’t save immediately after this puzzle is done. So I had to do this all over again.
If you haven’t figured by now, Yorda is a pain in the ass. While I do get that she is central to the story and plays an important role later on, she is practically stupid. As Suikoinfinity once said, Yorda makes Ashley from RE4 look like Rambo. I mean, she’ll run away if I swing my stick at a wall while she’s near. But she won’t run away if shadows get close to her. Calling her is another chore as she takes a while to realize that I want her to come to where I’m at. And dear lord, the ladders. There are several long ladders in the game, and she takes an ungodly amount of time to climb them, in both directions. At one point, I accidentally climbed one step on a really long ladder and got off immediately. Yorda, for some dumbass reason, interpreted that as wanted to completely climb the ladder. So she starts climbing. I call her to come back down. She doesn’t listen and climbs the whole freaking ladder! I then had to wait for her to come back down. This took a total of about a minute and a half to transpire. The only redeeming factor is that she can kill all shadows in a room if you can get her to one of those weird doors that only she can open. It’s sad that such an intriguing premise of actually seeing the a boy and a girl leaving the castle is hampered by such a dumb AI. Unfortunately, the ability for the second player to control Yorda is unlocked after beating the game.
All that complaining about Yorda aside, this game is really a gem on the PS2 and was a sign of things to come for the system. A foreign concept with a not-so-foreign setup. A boy saving the girl looks familiar, but rarely do you see the boy and the girl in the process of actually leaving. This unique blend of platforming and puzzles gives the game some replayability (especially if you’re going for Trophies in the PS3 version). The strange music really ties into the the environment, and the natural sounds help with thinking out and executing puzzles. The gameplay is good, but Yorda really drags the experience down sometimes. I will say though that if you really want to immerse yourself in some Team ICO lore, it ain’t too bad to start here. Thankfully, something much bigger was in store for this series. And I mean really, really big.
Final Score: 84/100