ICO Reader Review
Every now and then I watch a film that genuinely engages my emotions and I�ve realised that when I do, I tend to find myself �watching� the credits; not to find out who the 3rd grip was but as a gentle reintroduction to reality, a quiet moment to ponder the significance of the experience. Up until now it has never occurred to me that this might happen with a game. Ico just changed that and I�m filled with an overwhelmingly positive glow as a result.
Ico was released over 5 years ago, so I�m rather late to the party, but to my mind that only increases the significance of the experience. I�m not going to claim I was moved to tears (of joy or happiness � no spoilers here) or that the game is perfect, but it does stand out as a landmark game, a pinnacle of artistic vision and a supreme example of why games are indeed art.
Perhaps like many good stories, the plot leaves much to the imagination. There is no detailed back-story, no ham-fisted characterization and no dramatic introduction accompanied by pounding soundtrack. Instead it begins with a scene oozing with restraint and directed with masterful precision. Hooves gently trample the undergrowth as a party of hooded gaolers moves slowly along a wooded footpath towards an imposing castle set upon an island lying just off the mainland. Their prisoner is Ico, a young boy with horns and victim of superstition, destined for imprisonment (and presumably eventual death) in the depths of the secluded castle.
After the enigmatic introduction, you take control of Ico as fate releases him from his tomb within a tomb and you stand alone in a vast crypt. Your quest is quite clearly to fulfil your destiny and escape the confines of the castle. Torches crackle and spit, shadows flicker and the silence echoes your every footstep. From hereon-in the game is essentially a three dimensional platform puzzler if you strip it to its core � but that�s like saying Amelie is a film about a French waitress. Ultimately the game�s beauty derives from a subtle blend of its brilliantly coherent castle design, its emotive use of audio, lovingly crafted animations and perhaps above all else the emotional attachment to the ethereal Yorda whom you meet within a few minutes of beginning the game.
It�s hard to convey in writing how much personality and emotion Team Ico managed to imbue in their creations simply through animation and occasional voice. Dialogue is minimal and accompanied by only a few exclamations (in unknown language) to break the silence but you immediately recognize the sense of wonder that Yorda has in all she sees, the fear, the uncertainty and the joy in her freedom. Leave her alone for a moment and she�ll be distracted by doves, ask her to make a jump too far and she�ll shake her head and refuse in shy embarrassment, linger too long in lost confusion and she�ll lift her head and gaze towards a possible clue. You might be reading this thinking �yeah, yeah, idle animations � big deal, seen it before� and you�d have a point, but there is something very believable and special about Ico�s characters that lifts them above anything similar that I�ve seen before.
Perhaps it is the credibility of the animation that draws you toward Yorda from the outset but that closeness is reinforced quickly as you learn that leaving her alone for any length of time will attract the shadowy forces of evil keen to trap her and return her to their master. Unlike any other game I�ve played, the levels in Ico are not generally populated with enemies by default � they only appear when you leave Yorda alone. There are a few exceptions but as a general rule, the levels are very sparse and usually enemy free. This allows the game to force you to choose to abandon Yorda on occasion in order to solve a puzzle and find your way to the next room of the castle. Get it wrong or leave her too long and you�ll never get back in time to protect her. Consequently you are constrained by her presence and need to think your way through and around the puzzles with her in mind. The lack of enemies allows you to pause to do this and take in the gorgeous surroundings at the same time. Close inspection can show what, now, might be considered low resolution and ugly textures but the overall impression is one of stunning beauty. The architecture, the lighting and the scale of the castle design are incredibly impressive and loading times absolutely minimal. Lighting in particular is beautifully done and for all the talk of �next-generation� this game shows just what can be achieved with skilful artistic direction and intelligent use of hardware.
You never get the sense you are moving between a series of disconnected levels in Ico, it always feels cohesive and real. At several points in the game you have the opportunity to observe the extent of the castle from various vantage points that let you drink in the details. These are not just static renders placed to fool the eye; you can observe details and routes that will help you solve puzzles later in the game. The puzzles are always fair too although I did find myself occasionally stumped � but never for long enough to become genuinely frustrated and always with a �doh!� result when I did work it out. Likewise the enemy are relatively easily dispatched and are more of a distraction than a challenge once you learn to stay close to Yorda. Throughout the game, patience is the key: stay with Yorda, give her time to respond to your requests and observe your surroundings carefully and you won�t go wrong.
All too soon, you�ll reach the end of your journey and the credits will roll by. Quite probably, like me, you�ll sit through them in a state of composed serenity and enjoy the beautifully appropriate closing music � the only �true� musical accompaniment in the game. In my case, I remembered reading that a second play through was rewarded with translated dialogue. I could either start Halo 3 or play through again. The oft-mentioned brevity of the game convinced me a second play through was the only sensible choice. It had taken me 10 hours the first time through but can probably be finished in 5-6 hours in truth. I found this an advantage rather than a fault.
Playing a five year old PS2 game I bought off ebay in preference to starting what is billed as the pinnacle of next-generation gaming says a lot about the qualities of this game and its importance to gaming culture in my opinion. I�m sure Halo 3 will turn out to be a great game in its own right but the draw of playing Ico again just to experience the dozen or so lines of translated, subtitled dialogue and seeing the game through again says all that needs to be said. I�m now tempted to fork-out for the original release of the game complete with postcards. Probably the soundtrack too. A truly great game that you deserve to experience and that deserves to be appreciated.
10 / 10