I have often found it hard to find similar games to my beloved Zelda series that have really kept my attention over so many glorious Hyrule adventures. Sometimes I feel I live in a Link induced bubble and cannot always see the wood for the great Deku tree…
Ico is a masterful game made by the legendary Fumito Ueda that really has given me a lot of enjoyment and maybe broken that trend. For me, at least, it does have quite a few similarities to the 3D Zelda titles which I can get straight on board with. The overall look and feel of the game remind me heavily of Twilight Princess. Some of the puzzles found in Ico would fit in nicely in any Zelda game. Plus, the giant castle that Ico is set in has a few clear comparisons to the giant temples found in most Zelda games, albeit in a much larger scale. Simply calling Ico a Zelda clone does feel a little unfair though. There are more than enough differences to help make this classy game stand out from the crowd and stand on its own two feet.
The game starts with quite a gloomy intro where a young child named Ico is locked within a tomb inside a giant castle. Ico was ultimately sent away to be sacrificed. Why, you may ask? Well, Ico was born with horns and this is a big no-no in his village as they fear he may be possessed by a demon. Luckily for Ico, a tremor soon sends his coffin toppling over a ledge and he is able to escape his shackles and begin his treacherous escape mission. Things get even more complicated very quickly as Ico manages to rescue another imprisoned child named Yorda. The complication levels go up another notch when it becomes clear both Ico and Yorda speak different languages. This sets the game up perfectly as dialogue is kept to a bare minimum and actions certainly speak louder than words. This again reminded me of the voiceless Link but also the amazing Another World, which apparently influenced Ico. Controlling Ico, you must work closely with Yorda to traverse your way though various sections of the castle. It’s a huge compliment that you almost feel so attached to the game’s protagonists and are desperate to keep them both safe from harm.
I was soon got swept up in the game’s narrative and was ready to help Ico and Yorda on their perilous adventure. There’s no health bar, point tally, inventory or anything else to distract your eyes apart from the amazing graphics and setting of the ominous castle. This was apparently one reason that initial preview shots of the game failed to really grab a lot of attention from consumers and critics, simply because of the unassuming screenshots. The use of lighting, textures and eye-catching landscapes in the distance really set the scene for a truly open feel. This is an area where the game truly excels; you often find yourself in a very open part of the castle, and it seems like your routes and options are limitless, however the game very subtlety moves you forward without your ever really realising it. I don’t think there are many better-looking games on the PlayStation 2. Ico is simply a piece of art (no arguments there – Ed).
The gameplay can be split up into three key areas: fighting; solving puzzles and making your way across different landscapes through jumping and climbing. I feel the game excels in two of these three key areas. One weakness in Ico is the relatively simplistic fighting element. You really only have one type of enemy in the game; shadowy figures that can knock you down longer than Mike Tyson in a Hangover film. Your choice of weapons is limited to mainly sticks and swords and defeating a typical shadow monster will only take a little clever movement and sword swiping. The fighting elements (which appear at different stages of the game) do ramp up the pressure as Yorda can be caught and flown over to a dark shadowy hole that opens in the ground. Leave her too long and she is sucked into this hellish hole and the game grinds to a halt.
I would have loved to see a few new weapons and attacks bought in to the game, however you could argue this would possibly over complicate things. My favourite area of Ico is the puzzles. You feel very proud once you finally work out the correct sequence in reaching different areas of the castle through canny thinking and sometimes a lot of trial and error. Ico’s puzzles are firm but fair and often need you to take a good look around and work out your surroundings before putting all the pieces together. The use of lighting torches, spinning cogs, shunting metal boxes and pulling levers will all become second nature to you after a few hours playing this amazing game.
The jumping and climbing aspects of the game have also been executed very well, something not all 3D platforming titles can boast during the PS2 era. I was very impressed that the game’s 3D environment really balanced the look and feel of the game, whilst still allowing you to leap and climb around the castle with relative ease. This was achieved through a very polished and simple control system and the clever way the screen pans around your location. I would also like to give a lot of credit to the game’s character animations. Just watching Ico leap from one platform to the next was expertly captured onscreen akin to the good old Flashback and Another World rotoscoping masterclasses. Just watching Yorda jump and grab on to your hand for dear life always sent shivers down my spine at how terrifyingly accurate it all seemed onscreen. My favourite in game character animation is probably one of the simpler ones; grabbing Yorda’s hand! To move on to a new room or area of the castle it is highly recommended you take Yorda with you (unless you have a hankering for more shadow monsters). The way Ico grabs Yorda’s hand and almost physically drags her around the many areas of the castle is both brutal and amazing to watch. Let me just say that I wouldn’t want to see Yorda’s chiropractor fee at the end of her adventure, her poor shoulders!
The game’s story chugs along at a great pace with a few short but intriguing twists and turns throughout. There’s quite a sudden and sad change of pace towards the end of the game, but I won’t spoil that for you. I cannot recommend this game enough, the positives hugely outweigh the very few negatives, one being the game is quite short and can be completed in around 6 to 8 hours. Completing Ico felt so satisfying and I am now eager to try out Fumito Ueda’s highly acclaimed follow-up and prequel to Ico; Shadow of the Colossus.
All screenshots taken from Moby Games.