You've played the demo, seen the screens, read the preview, and even read the interview; ICO (pronounced 'Eeko') has swept me away like no other game has. I can't remember the last time when I covered a game as extensively as ICO. At first when I heard of the game, it was around the time when the PS2 was revealed, but it had such a Japanese kin to it that I never thought it would hit the US, when in fact it's possibly vice-versa. Playing the demo for a mere 20 minutes, I was taken through a journey that felt like it lasted for an eternity. I drooled constantly, so much that I had the demo taken away from me, because I was dangerously close to dehydration -whatever that was all about.- On a serious note, ICO was simply the most blissful experience I've had since Final Fantasy X. The most original since... Well, it's hard to say, because in terms of originality, nothing compares to ICO, nothing! The level of inspiration is all there. Sony has quite possibly created one of the most original videogames, and it brings a tear to my eye.
Ask any gaming enthusiast out there to list three of the most beautiful videogames available, and ICO is bound to be on that list. The game opens with a beautiful real-time intro, which shows off three Viking-esque characters, three horses, and of course ICO. The setting is a forest filled with trees, and the scene instantly sets the mood of the game. The visual atmosphere of ICO comes off to be strongly influenced by the European-medieval era. The scenery you will encounter is mesmerizing, if not permanently enchanting. It will carve itself into the core of your imagination and stay with you as if it was imagery from the perfect paradise get away.
The atmosphere comes to life thanks to the amazing lighting effects that create the most gorgeous sun splash effect. What I'm referring to is the bright sun hitting various textures, such as walls, the ground, trees, and even tree leaves, and then create a realistically lit texture effect. So real, you can almost feel the heat wave rise from the ground. In addition to the perfectly cast lighting effects are the perfect shadows. Each and every structure, including Ico and the princess, cast their own individual shadow. This is something that caught my attention, as it is incredibly noticeable. The game's texture detail is indescribable. Everything looks too realistic. Whether you are outside or inside, the textures all around you are wonderful. With the fortress being as enormous as it is you'll rarely find yourself looking at the same exact structure. Granted there will be similar structures, but in one way or another there is something that separates them from one another. While it may sound like an unusual thing to say, I should mention that this game has the best-looking tree-leaves I've ever seen. Instead of being pixilated little objects, these leaves are made up of polygons. And they reflect the sun, in real-time! So if I zoom up on the leaves (R2) and I move the camera around, I will see the one or two bright spots on every leaf move...amazing!
You primary environment is an abandoned fortress, that is now home to nothing but demonic souls of the hundreds who were placed in wooden wrist shackles to be sacrificed, because the town believed they were somehow related to the devil. Some may indeed have been, while many others were innocently starved to death. The fortress is never ending; it is absolutely, positively, no ifs, ands or buts about it, the largest game atmosphere ever! When you step out outside of the castle and you are standing on the top of it, you must take a look at the gigantic palace, which is as well slowly crumbling right before your very own eyes. With the fortress being as colossal as it is, the replay value and level of exploration take in effect, for what seems to be an almost infinite adventure, but in-fact it lasts for 15 hours or so. The scenery in ICO is unbelievably gorgeous; I've never experienced anything quite like this since Super Mario 64. The views you will come across are awe-inspired, the windmill scene of course being one of them. Sony has also done a great job of creating perfect looking water effects, the windmill scene has a pool of water around it, and if for whatever reason you plummet to the floor and hit the water, you'll notice the realistic motion of the waves, almost as if you were witnessing a CG take in progress.
Throughout the game, most of the time you'll only see Ico and Yorda on screen. The character detail is fantastic. When standing still, and zoomed in you will notice Ico look around his environments, blink and even take breaths. The screenshots do not do this game justice. Once you see the game in action, you'll believe every one of my words. Despite the fortress' size, there is absolutely NO pop-up or draw-in of any kind. Every texture is noticeable from any distance. Amazing, but true! I should mention the realism of motions that this game has. Whenever Ico runs, jumps, climbs chains, and scales steep areas, it comes off looking as a motion-captured animation. It may very well be, because the sheer realism of the movements plays a big role in the visuals score. What the heck more can I say? ICO looks so simple from afar, but up close this is the most exuberant looking game to date!
ICO, although very easy to pick up and play, features an amazing story that is inspired by the European medieval era, as I have mentioned earlier. The story goes as follows (SPOILERS ahead please skip to next paragraph to avoid spoilers!): ICO's troubles turned up the day he was born in his village. You see, a normal child is considered to be a positive omen from the gods, although every generation a child is born with horns on his head. The village trembles in the site of a horned baby, and accuses it to be the kin of the prince of darkness. By the time Ico turned 12, his horns were full grown and it was his time to be taken away from his village -by request of the elders- and sacrificed, along with the countless other souls who have experienced the same travesty in the past generations. Faceless horsemen arrived on their gallopers, and took Ico away. They rode through the forest and beyond, and eventually the ride was halted at an ancient fortress of sacrifice. This castle built structure is slowly crumbling, due to its age. Ico is then placed into a crypt where his arms were cuffed to a wooden shackle. Frightened beyond belief, Ico stands in the crypt left to be starved to death, when all of a sudden a rumble causes a break under Ico's crypt, which makes it slide off the platform, and breaking upon contact of surface. Plummeting two stories down, Ico is knocked unconscious for the time being and has a dream. He dreams of ghouls, and sees a shadow figure inside of a cage. Who could it be? After waking up, Ico will then find himself in a massive tomb, if you will, where dozens if not hundreds of crypts, just like Ico's are stacked on levels of platforms. Ico is thankful to be alive, and this is where you pick the game up and go.
As Ico you will be required to not only protect Princess Yorda from the tormented spirits who reside in the fortress, but also make sure to find alternative methods of getting through various parts, that Ico can get through, but Yorda can't. Ico has tons of abilities he can accomplish. For one, the little guy can jump and grab onto edges of platforms, and pull himself up. In addition to pulling himself up ledges, Ico can help Yorda grab onto ledges by stretching his arm out and catching her in midair.- Make note: the later mentioned ability will be extremely useful throughout the whole game!- Next, our hero can climb up chains, and as I've mentioned, when the motion is done, it looks gorgeous. Let's not forget he can scale very steep ledges, pushing/pulling objects and doing it extremely quick too. He can use his initial weapon, the wooden stick as a light to match bombs or torches. Ico can of course climb ladders, and shimmy left and right when hanging on to ledges. The final and perhaps most dramatic move is whenever Yorda has to make a big jump, Ico stretches his arm out, signaling her to jump. You don't control the jump, but you must make sure to hold that button so she isn't let go of and dropped. Witnessing Yorda leap and Ico grabbing on to her, gets better every time. It's such a kick-ass scene, no doubt about that.
ICO will make you use your noodle to the fullest extent, the game is not a breeze, it may look simple, but it's not. The gameplay is quite simple, but the puzzles are a hoot. The game is roughly a 15-hour adventure, and in some cases may end up being a 30-hour title. Throughout your journey, you will be spending all of your time trying to find a wait out of the fortress. The further you get into the game, the more you realize that this one atmosphere is single-handedly the largest videogame atmosphere ever! You will encounter enemies that will try to trap the princess in a portal, and then use her mysterious powers to destroy whatever lurks in the fortress. The demon Queen of the fortress is after Princess Yorda, if her army of demonic souls fail, she will personally go after Ico and Yorda. ICO is a strangely addictive title that blends adventure and puzzle into one seamless package. ICO's gameplay is quite possibly some of the best around. For the 47 of you about to email me; "yes" I truly believe ICO is the "Zelda-killer." There, I said it. So what more can I say about Ico? There's more, but I think it'll be better of left for you to discover and awe over.
I originally thought ICO would feature voice acting, but in fact it doesn't, well not exactly. Like Klonoa 2, Sony has given ICO's world a language of its own. Every word is as unique as the next, and it really does create a mood that Ico and Yorda are both foreign game characters, where the English language just doesn't exist. The emotion between the two characters is all there, but don't this game for a cinematic journey though. Voice dialogue is far and between, this is why the game is CD based and not DVD. Of course there is text at the bottom of the screen for you to read. What really earns this game the near perfect score is the background audio effects. Running through the fortress, you'll be hearing some of the most amazing sound effects, such as the cracking of fire as it burns off of a hung torch, or Ico's and Yorda's footsteps as they make their way through the building. Outdoors you will hear the birds chirping, the wind blowing, and hear the tree leaves swaying. Bliss I tell you, it's bliss.
Because of this game's simplicity, this is without a doubt one of the easiest games to pick up and go. The controls are laid out perfectly! Basic controls are, Square to attack, Triangle to jump, X to release from holding on to something, and O is to walk or hit a lever, throw object or pick up object. The R1 button is the most frequently used button in the game. It's purpose is to grab Yorda's hand so that she follows you wherever you go. When she is away from you, you can press R1 to call her by yelling or just telling her to come (depends on the distance). The sensitivity in the analog is downright perfect. Ico responds to the slightest push of the stick, and in some ways it makes the game feel more realistic. For example, during the spooky parts, you will walk calmly to avoid any upcoming hazards, or anything of that nature. The Dual Shock is every bit as perfect, every footstep, jump and climb, can be felt via the Dual Shock 2 controller. With the R3 button, you are allowed to look around your current environment and judge your next step, this is a 'very' handy technique in the game.
I-C-O. Remember those three letters for the rest of your gaming life! ICO stands out among the pack as one of the most awe-inspired games to hit a console since the release of Final Fantasy VII. The unbelievably gorgeous visuals, that feature a level of detail never quite seen in a game before, are beyond words. Describing something as beautiful as ICO is hard to do. ICO is hands-down the best adventure/puzzle game of our time. Zelda, Mario, and Lara Craft have nothing on ICO. Nothing! ICO plays like no other game. The sheer brilliance that is this title is a title that just doesn't come along as frequently as it really should. ICO is a journey to be remembered from the moment you pick up the controller, to the moment the credits roll. It's quite possible that very few games will be able to compare what Sony's ICO has just achieved. I'd especially like to see Nintendo pull something off, but at the rate they're going, it doesn't seem likely.
9/26/2001 Arnold Katayev