*Review based on the PS3 release as part of the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus Collection*
Released nearly a decade and a half ago, Ico quietly became one of the most influential video games of the new millennium. There have been few games that have borrowed its gameplay, but its narrative, characters, world and tone raised the “video games as art” concept to new heights. It in turn inspired many of the artsy, minimalistic games we see today, particularly on the Indie scene. Though a good deal of the games it inspired have been more pretentious than artful, Ico remains one of the finer works of art in the medium, even if some of its mechanics are showing their age.
Ico is set in a strange, mythical world. A young boy – the titular Ico – was born with horns on his head. This is considered a dark omen by the people of his village, and so a group of warriors takes Ico to a mostly-abandoned castle, where he is locked away as a kind of sacrifice for the Queen that resides there.
Luckily for Ico, a tremor causes his chamber to collapse, setting him free. Shortly thereafter, he meets a girl named Yorda, who is also a prisoner of the castle, but for much different reasons. The two then set out together to escape the castle, its Queen, and the shadowy creatures that lurk within the castle’s walls.
The story isn’t all that complex, and the characters lack the moral ambiguity of its spiritual sequel, Shadow of the Colossus. But the experience ends up being far more than what the simple plot might suggest due to the beauty and subtlety it weaves into its world and narrative.
All the characters in the game speak fictional languages. But Ico and Yorda speak in different languages from one another (Ico’s subtitles are presented in English, while Yorda’s are made up of strange symbols). Their relationship is not one of stereotypical romance, but one built around friendship and empathy. Despite the characters’ inability to understand one another, their relationship is unique and treated delicately, making it one of the most earnest relationships in gaming.
As righteous and innocent as Ico and Yorda are, the Queen is equally sinister. It’s a classic good vs. evil story, one that creates one of gaming’s few real fairy tales.
The game itself is built around Ico and Yorda’s relationship. Though that means the game is largely a giant escort mission, it succeeds where many other such games fail due to the game’s minimalistic nature. It never bombards players with danger, and it focuses more on puzzle-solving and exploration than it does on stressful situations.
The game can be compared to Yoshi’s Island in that the player can only lose by two means: either falling from a great height (the only way Ico can actually die), or if Yorda is taken by the shadows. Though even if Yorda is taken, the game gives the player a fair amount of time to rescue her, relieving what might otherwise have been a frustrating element.
Ico is notable for lacking any in-game HUD. There is no health bar, nor do you have any inventory to keep track of. It really is just Ico, Yorda, and whatever weapon or item Ico is currently holding in his hands. It’s a unique change in presentation that still feels fresh today. Though the game may have benefitted from including a few button cues here and there (you may not realize that you can swing from chains until the moment comes when you need to, and even then there’s nothing that tells you to hold the “O” button in order to do so).
The shadows are the only enemies in the game outside of the final encounter with the Queen. They appear through shadowy portals on the ground, and usually come in packs. Some of the shadows are smaller, while others are bigger and can fly.
Admittedly, the combat is one of the game’s weaker elements. Ico fends off the shadows by picking up either a stick or a sword and swinging away. The combat amounts to little more than repeatedly hitting the attack button, which quickly begins to feel monotonous. The larger shadows, in particular, take a long time to kill, which just makes the action segments feel overly long. Combat can be made quicker by finding the game’s secret weapon (on a first playthrough, it’s a mace reminiscent of Sauron’s from Fellowship of the Ring, while in New Game Plus it’s replaced with something more akin to a lightsaber), but they still require the same button-mashing. Thankfully, many of the encounters with the shadows can be skipped over, but when action becomes necessary, you may find there’s not much to it.
The other gameplay mechanics include the ability to jump, grabbing on ledges, and climbing. In the times when Ico and Yorda need to separate, you can call Yorda back by tapping the R-1 button, while holding that same button when close to Yorda causes the characters to hold hands which, on top of being incredibly sweet, is necessary for much of the game.
There really isn’t much more to the core gameplay than that. It may seem a bit empty, and to a degree it kind of is, but gameplay depth is added to the experience through the game’s sense of exploration and puzzle-solving.
You may spend a good few minutes in any chamber of the castle before it becomes apparent what you need to do to progress. They aren’t puzzles in the traditional video game sense, but puzzles that ask the player to inspect every inch of the castle to look for a ledge or rope or ladder or anything that can help you find a way for Ico and Yorda to move on. It’s actually a very linear experience, but the presentation is so unique, and so full of eureka moments, that you probably won’t care.
Sadly, the game does have some mechanics that are succumbing to age. Besides the aforementioned combat, some of the controls can feel a little clunky, with Ico’s jumps in particular often feeling inaccurate. The camera, while not terrible, could have used some more polish, as it’s usually fixed at a certain angle in any given scenario, and whatever camera view the player can change is overly sensitive. And Yorda’s AI, while mostly reliable, has some frustrating moments. You will probably find it hard to imagine anyone could climb a ladder slower than she does, and she’ll often change her direction midway up (or down) a ladder for no reason. Similarly, sometimes when you call to her she’ll refuse to move or jump where needed, even when you’re calling her to the exact spot she needs to be.
In terms of aesthetics, the game still looks pleasing to the eyes (even if it is obvious it was an early PS2 title). The graphics may not wow players like they may have at one time, but the jump to HD in the PS3 version hasn’t damaged them. The art direction is wonderfully unique, and though the music is rarely present, it adds all the more beauty and atmosphere to the adventure.
Some may lament that Ico is pretty short, as it can be completed in only a few hours. But the short length works in favor of the storytelling. So many narratively-driven games also feel the need to provide a lengthy adventure, but only end up adding layers and layers of padding to the story, effectively drowning the narrative. Ico presents only what it needs to tell its story. And because of the short length, it feels like a complete story. You can unlock some new features in New Game Plus (along with the aforementioned lightsaber, you can also give Yorda English subtitles, and tweak the ending ever-so slightly). Though because the secrets adhere to the minimalistic nature of the game, only those who are truly captivated by Ico’s adventure will want to replay it to add the minor changes to the experience.
In a lot of ways, Ico remains one of gaming’s finest artistic achievements. It effectively creates a modern day fairy tale with complete and utter sincerity, and manages to tell a compelling narrative by doing very little. It succeeds with subtlety in a way that few games could hope to achieve (the castle itself becomes one of the great locations in gaming due to the atmosphere it exudes). But Ico is a bit less consistent as a game. It’s an enjoyable experience, but time has exposed a number of mechanics for their lack of polish. Yes, the puzzles are great, and the sense of exploration gives it depth, but you may find that controlling Ico himself is far from ideal.
This has become all the more apparent as its spiritual successor/prequel, Shadow of the Colossus, has an even greater sense of narrative artistry, while also providing a more complete game. With that said, Ico remains something that’s increasingly rare in the world of video games: a unique experience.
Shadow of the Colossus may have fulfilled the vision, but if Ico is a prototype, you probably couldn’t ask for a more beautiful one.