There are games, and there is art. Are the two fated to be mutually exclusive? Personally, I'd say the answer is no. There are some who would disagree with me, but I think that any case I'd make is strengthened by games that come along and really question and explore what the definition of a "videogame" is. I like things that aren't afraid to be a little different and create an identity all their own. That's exactly what ICO is...a game that puts emphasis and priority on things that are afterthoughts or ignored completely in other more conventional titles, and because of this, it succeeds wildly.
To be as concise and explicit as possible, ICO is basically a distillation of several other games, most notably Prince Of Persia, Tomb Raider, and both the Out Of This World and Panzer Dragoon series. It's a credit to the games designers that these elements blend together so well to create something new that the games influences didnt immediately leap out at me until after having a discussion with a fellow reviewer. However, while its clear that ICO is more an evolution than a spontaneously generated revolution, it adds a sensibility, mood, and emotion all its own and compares quite favorably to those that spawned it. Something old is new again.
The story of the game revolves around the title character, Ico, a boy with a set of bull horns atop his head. He is exiled from his small village and sentenced to die locked in a stone sarcophagus inside a huge and mysterious castle by the sea. After escaping from his prison by chance or fate, he stumbles across an enigmatic girl inside a huge iron cage and decides to rescue her so they might escape together. While there are no extremely complex twists or mindbending revelations in your character's motivations, the concise and straightforwardly honest story is a perfect fit for the game's overall philosophy.
The most obvious and significant example of this philosophy is that the play interface is masterfully elegant, streamlined, and simple. There are no lifebars, no timers, and no discrete "levels." After taking control of Ico, the player must find his way through a labyrinthine set of areas inside the castle, with the ultimate goal of escape. These challenges basically boil down to traveling through a series of 3-D room puzzles where the trick is in getting from point A to point B. To one-up other games of this sort and to add a new level of interaction, you must also create ways to bring the mysterious girl, Yorda, along as well. Yorda is not as agile or strong as Ico, so youll often have to forge ahead and then guide her to safety after creating paths that are less strenuous and easier to negotiate.
Besides the extremely refreshing design choices in the games format, I'd say that ICO is one of the first real uses of videogame technology to create art. Not a game that has artistic elements, but a game that is actual art. Using the chips of the Playstation 2 to advance the medium presented instead of simply increasing the polygon count for another average title, the graphics in ICO are nothing short of amazingly captivating. Everything looks smooth and realistic, down to the smallest detail. In fact, ICO is probably one of the only games where I've actually noticed the lighting and shadow significantly adding to the atmosphere (Konamis Silent Hill series being the other). The perfect example of this is when Ico is at the bottom of a huge, dank shaft that is lit only by sputtering torches on the walls. After starting up a long, twisting stairway, the lighting gradually changes to bright, glorious sunlight streaming in the high windows. Its smooth, subtle and gives the game such a thick layer of mood and atmosphere that not even the most hardened gamer can be impervious to it.
The castle itself is practically a character, with its brick outcroppings, breathtaking views, and interconnected layouts. There are actually several points in the game where youll simply need to sit back and just absorb the overwhelming richness of the understated visuals. The design is incredibly intricate, with the areas overlapping each other, giving an almost Escher-like quality to the architecture. Startlingly, when perched upon a rampart or minaret, Ico is able to view the distant and unreachable parts of the castle, just like you would be able to if you were the one atop the castle in real life. It may not sound like much of an achievement reading about it here in this review, but when you are gazing down upon a huge stone creation so seemingly real, you'll be suitably impressed. Speaking of which, the underside of the castle and the final areas of the game are simply beyond description.
One of the strongest non-technical elements ICO contains (which too many games lack) is the emotional investment that comes from the bond to strong characters. While none of the games characters have much dialogue, the language the game conveys to the player is expressed through the journey, and the feelings of companionship and care most people will surely come to experience while having pale, ephemeral Yorda in their charge. Its rare that the focus of a game is preserving a life through direct action on such a basic level as this, and it definitely affects the mindset of the player. It's hard to capture in words, but you can't help but get caught up in the wave of overwhelming solitude the castle exudes. The cold, isolating tone that threatens to chill is only held in check by the face of your friend, and because of this emotional impact, the motivation to guide and protect Yorda is stronger than a simple task its a need.
Drenched in style and class, an emotional exercise as well as a manual one, ICO redefines and updates what a game is and can be. From a true critic's standpoint looking at more than the common elements most reviewers are satisfied with, the game achieves by presenting something wonderfully understated yet quite powerful and sends a message that videogames can be experienced instead of just played.
Theres very little negative to bring up when discussing ICO as far as I'm concerned. While there is one plot point I'd love to discuss, I'm not able to mention it in the body of this review in order to avoid any possible spoilers it for those who haven't played it yet.
Taking a look at the things I can safely write about, I'm expecting some people to bring up the relatively short playtime (approximately 6-8 hours). Far from being a negative, I found it to be just the right length. I'm definitely a supporter of games that trim the fat, so to speak, and ICO was long enough to give the player a well-developed sense of play and theme without being so long that it induced boredom. Too many games these days dont realize that MORE does not automatically equal better. I've wasted far too many hours on games that basically ran out of things to say, yet kept right on talking. A game that takes a minimalist approach the way ICO does is greatly appreciated.
I've seen other review sites try to call ICO on the supposed "shallow combat," but to criticize ICO for that would be to miss the point entirely. I can't even imagine someone enjoying the disc for what it is and simultaneously wanting to include an in-depth combat engine or a more detailed weapon system. Battles and fights are simply not the point of ICO, and there's nothing more to say on that.
Lastly, there arent any "extras" or bonuses to unlock after completing the game. While I'm usually one who enjoys these types of things, I'd say they just dont fit in ICO. The game sets its own style, and as I mentioned earlier, it tosses the usual videogame trappings right out one of those high, lonely castle windows. It's hard to describe, but to include some of the standard conventions such as extra costumes or new weapons would cheapen the game and do little more than tarnish the overall experience.
Over the course of writing with GameCritics, I've received my share of hate mail and letters that didn't understand how I could give certain games a low score for one reason or another when it seems to be a perfectly competent affair. Frankly, most of the games getting lower scores from me are just more of the same-old, same-old and are suffering from too little innovation and a fatal case of "one more time, but with a twist" syndrome.
To those who don't understand the merit of exploring new territory, I'd like them to go ahead and say I'm jaded. I'm proud of it, actually. It's true that it takes more than the latest sequel or update to score high with me. There are a lot of games on shelves that aren't even worth an hour of my time, if you want the truth. Over the years, I've been asked why I even bother to keep playing games with such a hard-to-please attitude. My answer? For every 500 games that are boring, uninspired, graphically-enhanced rehashes, just one title like ICO is enough to reinvigorate my love of games and keep me going another day.
Parents: According to ESRB, this game contains animated violence. You have nothing at all to fear. The only swordplay in the game is against nebulous shadow creatures that disappear in a puff of smoke, and there's no blood to be seen anywhere. The game stresses care and emotion, as well as a healthy dose of cerebral problem solving all wrapped up in the most beautiful and artistic graphics you can imagine. The puzzles will probably be beyond most of the younger gamers, but anyone in their early teenage years or beyond will have no significant problems. A safe and worthwhile purchase. Text accompanies spoken dialogue.
Gamers in general will want to check out ICO for something that contains gameplay design from the old-school, but updates and infuses it with modern-day vitality. It's short (6-8 hours) so gamers on a budget may want to make it a rental instead of a purchase, but it should definitely be experienced by those who are into slower, more cerebral, and artistic themes. If you're looking for fast combos or some kind of fragfest, stay away. However, if you want something off the beaten path, this is a real gem.
3D-exploration and puzzle gamers will be in heaven. The challenges in ICO are completely logical and solvable by the average person, and remain completely engrossing throughout the entire game. The level of design sophistication shines through, and the necessity of the player to think for two instead of one is a great mechanic. Anyone who even remotely likes these kinds of spatial puzzles owes it to him or herself to give it a try.