If there were to a be a single game which embodied the term 'cult classic', it would be hard to think of a title more deserving than Fumito Ueda's Ico.
The premise is relatively simple - you play a young boy (the titular namesake) who is locked in a huge, seemingly abandoned isolated castle as a sacrifice. After a fortunate turn of events Ico is freed from his prison and makes his desperate escape bid.
One of the most interesting and immediately striking things about this is the sheer scale of the environs you must traverse. Cloned many times since (but arguably never bettered), it's fair to say these are some of the most lonely, dizzying and spectacular environments ever committed to a game. There is no small variety in what's on offer, although much of the game takes place in the walled-in castle grounds. You will also see huge sea caverns, vertigo-inducing wall climbs and pleasantly serene gardens. It's a credit to the development team that even now, more than five years after it's first release, the environments in Ico continue to stand out above most of the competition.
After just a short while you meet Yorda - an ethereal young girl also incarcerated in the eerie castle. Once she is freed she becomes your companion which essentially gives the game most of it's weight. You see, the castle is old and worn, and the way out is not simple or straightforward. Wearas Ico has the strength and agility to jump caveats and climb chains to negociate most of it, Yorda is too weak and feeble to do such things, so he must go off the beaten track to create paths for her. The twist here is that she harbours a strange power to move seemingly immobile obelisks which block their path, so both characters are needed if either one hopes to escape the castle alive. Infact, back at it's original 2002 release, Sony summed it up nicely with one of the magazine adverts for the game: 'If you die, she dies. If she dies, you die.' A bit morbid, perhaps, but it captures the essence of the game's driving force.
Traversing the grand environments and working out a means of getting Ico and Yorda past obstacles makes the bulk of the game. It is split into fairly large areas and usually you will have to solve environmental challenges in the area before being able to move forward. Sometimes you will be unable to progress in a certain location, and will have to come back later when you have a certain item or have instigated something in another area which has a knock-on effect. These 'puzzles' are almost always logical and often quite grand in scale. It does rely a bit too heavily on the old cliché of box pushing and switch pulling, but it's all implemented here with as much imagination and originality as any game since the original Tomb Raider.
You are not alone in the castle. Shadowy creatures emerge from dark portals and seek to recapture Yorda and return her to their master. Ico must defend and protect her. The rather simplistic combat is where many people have problems with this, but you have to understand that Ico is no hero; he is just a small twelve-year-old boy who is trying to protect his companion as best he can. He can't grab or throw enemies like Persian Princes or Spartan Warriors can, he just has a simple, untrained and erratic swing of his wooden stick to try to beat back the foes.
The presence of these dark foes also injects a sense of urgency into some of the puzzles. In instances where Ico must leave Yorda and try to find her a route, there is the ever present fear that the creatures will take advantage of their separation and try to take her. This leaves you cautious to leave her alone too long, even though sometimes you must. Although their presence can sometimes prove to be a nuisance, in fact it helps keep the pace of the game moving, balancing the sense of urgency with taking your time over the puzzles.
The story is extremely understated and left very open to interpretation, and there is a bare minimum of cutscenes and speech. I won't go into any details, but despite the lack of plot development and indeed, significant characterisation of any kind, I felt a real attachment to Ico and Yorda, and the ending in particular was incredibly emotional. Obviously I'm far too big and tough to ever cry at a game, but this is probably the closest I've ever come.
Graphically Ico can still hold it's head high, even today. It has a very unique and muted style and lots of character. It also has some incredible little details such as waves which go as far as the eye can see across the ocean and trees which blow in the wind with outstanding realism, but also a flawless draw distance (the few panoramic shots you get of the castle are incredible), gorgeous effects such as fire and explosions and all-round superb character animation. The sound and score are also excellent, mainly due to the fact they're so understated. You don't get any music running around the castle. Occasionally when the shadow creatures appear or during a cutscene you'll have an underplayed piece of music, but for the most part the rhythmic tapping of their shoes, grunts of exertion or incessant sound of the harsh winds or breaking waves will be the only semblance of music. There is very little speech, although what is there is done in a mystic made-up language, much like the team's more recent effort Shadow of the Colossus. Infact, this is just one of a number of things shared by the two games, although I won't detail that here. The speech is very well done, and adds to the otherworldly feel of the proceedings. Technically speaking, Ico is pretty decent. Besides the attractive graphics and superb animation, the frame rate is rock steady and loading is very minimal. You will only find 50hz TV support here, although Surround Sound is included.
The controls are very good on the whole, but again, your abilities are to reflect those of a young boy, so don't come here expecting any double-jumps or wall-running. Nonetheless, Ico ticks all the typical boxes like shimmying along ledges, grabbing onto poles and a rather unpracticed form of swimming. There's nothing here that hasn't been in action adventures for the last ten years, but it's all competent enough and you never feel the need for anything more. The camera is one of the game's finer elements. Taking the same route as God of War (which, I might add, the creator David Jaffe has admitted he owes a huge debt to Ico for influences and designs), it is a fixed viewpoint, although you are granted a small amount of freedom to swing it around and zoom if you wish. Although some people will undoubtedly find the fixed viewpoint a little irksome, It always worked perfectly well for me and I can't really think of any examples when I struggled with the game because of the camera.
I suppose the main shortcoming is the game's fairly brief length. This will obviously vary according to how long the obstacles keep you occupied, but you can probably expect in the region of eight hours on your first play through. Subsequent replays will prove far quicker given that you will know how to overcome the environments, although there are a couple of extras unlocked on the replay. If ever there was an arguement for quality over quantity, it has never been done better than here. I suppose a lack of direction could be levelled at the game from time to time, but if you spend a long time in one area or on one obstacle, Yorda will often shout and indicate objects of interest, which helps to keep things moving.
In a way so few games manage to achieve, one of the strongest aspects of Ico is it's feel and simplicity. Everything feels so expertly developed and - for lack of a better term - so right. It has a charm and character that is unfortunately so rare in the industry, and is chock full of beautiful moments, like the way Yorda and Ico slump down on the softly glowing stone couches which act as a save point, or the way they hold hands and Ico pulls her along, accompanied by a subtle rumble of the DualShock. The endearing trust they have in one another is also lovely, with Ico holding out his hand to catch Yorda over a large jump, or the way they call to each other in their although-I-don't-understand-you-I-know-what-you're-saying way. And for those who are simply undeveloped two-dimensional characters, both manage to say a hell of a lot with body language in a way I've never seen in any other game.
It will remain one of life's mysteries why Ico did so badly at retail. Perhaps it's a lack of marketing, or a lack of knowledge of how, exactly, to market a game as unique and charming as this. Perhaps it's the small number of [reportedly] 20,000 copies which were released in the UK back in 2002, which isn't really enough to make much a dent at retail. Or, (more likely?) perhaps it's just public and retail apathy to games which try to be a little different and unique (see also: Beyond Good & Evil and We Love Katamari). Thankfully Sony saw the light and re-released this classic last year, so please don't miss out on it again this time, or one of the most special games ever might just pass you by.
9 / 10