The opening cinema shows a young boy named Ico, with horns growing from the side of his head, on horseback being led through the forest by a group of faceless soldiers. They eventually come to an immense, decaying fortress that lies upon the sea, and the lad is brought inside. One of the soldiers finally speaks to the boy and apologizes for what they are about to do, but, he explains, "It's for the good of the village." Young Ico is sealed into a sarcophagus, and left to die, a fate that appears inevitable until he's able to jar his tomb loose and escape.
Unfortunately for Ico, the fortress is sealed tight, and any escape is going to be difficult, as well as dangerous. Unarmed and unaware of what fate has in store for him, Ico slowly makes his way towards freedom. Shortly after his quest begins, Ico stumbles upon a strange, yet beautiful girl, who's being held captive in a suspended cage. As he frees her, Ico is knocked to the floor, and the girl, who's named Yorda, walks slowly towards him. Just as she reaches out, a black hole opens up in the floor, from which dark creatures with glowing eyes that appear to be made only of smoke appear. They grab Yorda and quickly return to the portal in the floor. Unsure of exactly what's transpiring, Ico grabs a stick, fends off the Spirits, and pulls Yorda out of the pit. Though the two speak different languages, and don't comprehend what is happening to them, they form a bond, and as a team, their quest begins.
Just one glimpse of the luscious environments make it almost impossible to imagine Ico appearing on the Playstation. Each room of the immense fortress is amazingly detailed, and special care was made to ensure that the entire game's layout fit together perfectly. Standing at the top of a tower, it's possible to retrace the steps taken to get there, and even overlook areas that have yet to be explored. This in itself isn't an amazing feat, but the way in which the areas fit together make puzzles easier to solve, and if nothing else navigating from point A to point B is easier because of it.
Another strong point is the game's artistic direction. While some games are pretty looking and try to show off via snazzy camera angles, Ico's viewpoints manage to dazzle, and remain functional at the same time. The cameras are often positioned towards an area worth investigating, and in any case where the view is less than optimal, simple maneuvering of the right analog stick usually corrects the problem. Alas, unless it was perfect to begin with, the camera's performance, while far from horrible, is the game's weakest point in an otherwise stellar presentation. It's impossible to pan a complete 360 degrees around a room regardless of where Ico is positioned, even if there is nothing obstructing the camera's movement. This can be frustrating when trying to plot a path from one area to another in a short amount of time, and the problem is further compounded when the camera slowly returns to its default position after a scan of the premises. The game's not fast-paced enough for these minor issues to ruin the experience, but on the few occasions where it's necessary to move quickly, it adds an unnecessary level of frustration. In its defense, when a jump from a chain or a ledge needs to be performed, the camera almost always swings into the perfect location, yet another thing that shows the amount of polish that the game received.
Also top-notch are the way in which the characters are animated. Running, jumping, climbing, and any other actions are all incredibly fluid, and flow seamlessly from one to the other. While there are only four different kinds of Spirits that Ico must face, their lack of variety is compensated for by their unique appearance. They are composed entirely of black smoke except for their glowing eyes, which make liberal, but effective use of motion blur. Capping off Ico's visual achievements is its ability to convey an amazing sense of height like no game before it has ever done. The feeling of creeping slowly across a crumbling ledge that is several hundred feet over a rocky shoreline, causes the palms to sweat, and a huge feeling of relief when the ledge is traversed. Graphics don't make the game, but this experience wouldn't have been the same without such incredible scenery.
Ico takes a minimalist approach when it comes to its audio. Most of what there is to hear comes in the form of ambient effects like birds chirping, wind blowing, or water flowing through a cave. A creepy tone plays when a Spirit portal opens, providing an auditory warning that something is amiss, even before the monsters are visible. While not anything revolutionary, these sounds compliment the visuals, and create a more immersive experience. Music is sparse, and is only used in the occasional cut-scene, but the two tracks that play during the end credits are beautiful, and while it seems hokey, just hearing them is reward enough for finishing the game.
Ico's unique style can best be compared to Prince of Persia, but it's so unlike anything currently available, that even that comparison doesn't do it justice. At its core, ICO's a puzzle game with an engaging, if slightly underdeveloped storyline, and beautiful environments.
There's certainly a fair amount of box-pushing and lever-pulling to be done during the course of the adventure, but there's much more to the game's puzzle solving than these tired staples of videogaming. Often the solution to passing through an area is a multi-step process whose elements reveal themselves as each small part is solved. This means that while there is some lever-pulling, it's often just a small portion of the grand scheme. After each area is cleared, game progress is saved by maneuvering the characters to one of the many save couches that populates the game. Since the save points are so plentiful, it's never a problem finding one, but saving often, especially after completing a particularly arduous task is key.
Ico possesses the ability to perform a wide variety of actions, yet all of them are easy to perform, and conform to a simple control scheme. This simple layout, which maps multiple tasks to the same button, whose functions change automatically depending on the situation, works quite well for the game. Moving successfully across the perilous environments, and defending Yorda from the relentless Spirits requires precise movement, something that the game is not always able to provide. In general, the controls are solid and easy to learn, but a few cheap deaths are inevitable.
It's not possible to control Yorda directly, but learning her abilities, and directing her via Ico, is essential to completing the game. Yorda's biggest strength lays in her ability to open the Idol doors, something that Ico cannot do himself. Since she is weaker than Ico, it's often necessary to find alternate routes of travel simply because she's not capable of overcoming the physical obstacles that Ico can. She's not totally hopeless, as she's more than willing to jump across a large gap provided that Ico is waiting to catch her on the other side. This results in a harrowing experience where Yorda is dangling several hundred feet in the air until she's pulled to safety. She never falls once, but the animation is so convincing that it seems possible that she could fall each and every time she leaps.
By far, Ico's weakest point is its replay value, or lack thereof. Sony had originally intended to translate Yorda's dialogue into English after beating the game, but for some reason that idea was scrapped. As a result, other than improving completion time and seeing the lush fortress grounds again, there's no substantial need to play through the game a second time. With total gameplay time ranging from 6-10 hours, this makes for a very short, yet rewarding experience.
There's nothing quite like Ico on the market for any system, yet there are some people that may not enjoy it. Anyone looking for fighting, or non-stop action, will be disappointed with the game's simple combat and the slow pace in which the story unfolds. This means that those who can live without those two elements are in for a treat, no matter how short it is.
7/24/2004 Aaron Thomas