Every once in a while a game company does something wonderful: they think outside of the box.
They develop a game that is at once enjoyable to play yet provides new and different styles of gameplay; that thumbs its nose at conventional games. A game that has not only wonderful graphics, but also the type of story that is original and compelling. That game is Ico.
Once in a generation a child is born with small horns protruding from the sides of the head. Any and all misfortunes that befall the village are instantly blamed on the cursed child. Ico is this generation's whipping boy. On his 12th birthday, masked horsemen come for Ico and carry him off to a large looming castle. Once there, Ico is brought to a room and placed into a large tomb where his arms are locked into shackles and the tomb sealed up, placed next to countless other tombs.
Eternal agony is spared as the tomb is shaken from its position and falls to the ground freeing Ico. While temporarily unconscious, Ico dreams of a trapped soul somewhere in the castle. Upon awakening, our hero realizes that it wasn't just a dream as he discovers a young woman named Yorda trapped high in a cage hundreds of feet in the air. Bravely, Ico must figure out how to free her, but once he does he realizes that whoever placed her in that cage wants her back and has sent the wraiths that haunt the castle after them.
Play as Ico as he leads Yorda through a hulking gigantic castle that is more complicated then a seven sided Rubik's Cube, fighting the wraiths off as they try to spirit Yorda away. Pack your bags, young adventurer, this game will frustrate you, freak you out, make you throw your controller and dig under your skin. Problem is, you will love every minute of it.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
ICO is an adventure/mystery/action/fighting/RPG/puzzle game. As Ico, you must figure out the tricks and traps of an impossibly large castle, all while protecting a weak and exhausted princess. The game is viewed from the third person perspective with floating camera angles. Controlling Ico is simple enough, with the standard use of the left analog stick or the D-pad and a free-floating movable view with the right stick. What I mean by this is, while playing, you will run into a new location (in this game you move through the castle figuring out various locations puzzles) using the right analog stick allows you to take your view off Ico and look around the room, up, down, left, right. The standard right side buttons also exist: Jump, attack and even a call button that makes Ico yell for Yorda anytime you are separated. You use them all to find the little hints and clues that are needed to continue on your adventure.
One of the most unique parts of the game is the fact that you must constantly bring Yorda along. Helping her climb walls, pulling her up onto obstacles and racing her away from the wraiths, fighting the bad guys that grab her and try and drag her into the shadows; it's a different kind of pressure since the adventuring requires that you leave her behind every once in a while to climb a chain or activate a door that she can't quite reach, even with your help. But don't go off and leave her alone for very long since she will be snatched up by the wraiths and pulled into the darkness. If this happens you can consider the game over, since Yorda is the biggest key to puzzle, with her magical ability to open the Idol doors that dot the landscape.
Now I don't know what race Yorda and Ico come from, but they must have rubber in their bones. Ico has no health bar and can jump or fall distances that rival 40 feet. With that, the only way I have found that Ico can be killed is if he falls from some insane height. And I mean, really high, like base-jumping heights. Plus, I have no idea what language that they are speaking. Thankfully, there are captions but sometimes there are even strange hieroglyphics that dot the screen (like I know ancient Egyptian).
One of the first puzzles Ico encounters is how to free the trapped Yorda; coincidently this also provides Ico with his first weapon, a stick. Now, you may be asking: what kind of a threat is a 12 year old with a stick? Well, you must realize that the enemies Ico fights are not much more than walking shadows. Sure, they vary in size and shape, but the glowing ball of light that resides in them makes for a perfect target for Ico's stick. Yeah, they slowly become more aggressive towards Ico and even smack him around a bit, but they never actually kill him. More like a couple will try to distract him while a third snatches up Yorda. Some of the wraiths look like spiders, others like huge men. Some fly while others scramble up the walls. Looking at them is like looking at a photo negative of a ghost. Kind of disturbing. The stick is also a tool with which Ico can set fire to things. That is, if you find the appropriate items, specifically if you see a bomb(s) lying around, chances are you will need to blow something up. Eventually Ico will find a sword and even a magic sword after that if he completes the right puzzles.
Now as far as the characters go, they all look a bit strange. First, Ico has horns, but we have already established that at the beginning. Yorda however, is as pale as a fish and appears to be as pathetic as one. No sense of self preservation (although I'm certain it's because she is so weak) whenever danger arrives. Sure shell run over to Ico for protection, but if one of the wraiths grabs her, she doesn't kick, punch, or scream. Now, when this first happened I was a bit unnerved that the game makers made her such a hapless soul, but then as the game progressed, I saw Yorda as a girl who is, for all intents and purposes, an abused child. She doesn't fight back because she knows that it would only result in a worse punishment. It's disturbing how melancholy she is when her supposed mother (the Queen of the castle) appears and demands that Ico stop trying to escape with her daughter, although the Queen is perfectly content with placing her daughter in a cage high in a tower with no food or water. Which also begs the question, how old is Yorda? I mean, she obviously has magical powers but she could have been trapped in that cage for hundreds of years. And what's with the Queen? She has the body of a wraith yet the pale white face of a human. You can tell she means business the first time you lay eyes on her. Her intensity and presence is overwhelming. Weird things are happening in this castle.
Which brings me to the forth character, the castle itself. I have no idea who could have possibly built this thing, but it is huge. The towers seem to go into the clouds while bottomless chasms are everywhere. Strange cemeteries and giant machinations are everywhere. The sheer size of it would take modern engineers decades to build it, and here it is, an ageless monolith that locals fear and respect. I really can't put into words how immense and powerful looking this thing is. And the traps and devices that dwell in it are equally impressive. Staircases pop up out of nowhere, windmills to be scaled and traps and alternate routes to be discovered. The cleverest use of architecture in any game, period.
The graphics in ICO are gorgeous. With its Myst-like environments and fluid controls it doesn't get any better. Even the wraiths, although simple looking, invoke a childhood fear of the boogeyman. The phrase "less is more" comes to mind. The castle is absolutely beautiful with its rocky surfaces and sun streamed windows. Whoever put this castle together when programming deserves the Nobel Prize. An architectural marvel. Fogging effects are used effectively as are the rendered characters. I can't say enough about how good this game looks.
ICO's sounds are subdued and light. It's almost as if the game makers thought players would get sensory overload if too much noise came out. What little noise there is though, is very good. Voices echo in the castles rooms and hallways and the light almost sweet/sinister music that comes up sporadically is well done.
I was saddened that the game was not Dolby Digital but I did hear some noise coming out of all five speakers.
This is a really awesome game. The mere fact that I scored it in the 90's indicates that it's a winner. Even now as I type this review I have the game running on the TV next to me, as I have not beaten it yet. Trust me, you get your money's worth on this game, as it averages out to 30 hours before you beat it. I swear your will I.Q. increase the longer you play it, as you are forced to really experiment and think things through just to get to the next stage. An awesome game with an awesome plot.