In film, there is a status bestowed upon movies that are brilliant but underappreciated, diamonds in the rough that you’d have to wade through piles of shitty movies in the bargain bin to get to. ICO for PS2 would probably be the best equivalent of a cult classic in video games, had its fans and subsequent success of its spiritual sequel Shadows of the collosus made sure that it would be thrust into the light of day.
Simply put, ICO is one of the most amazing videogames I have ever played. I’ve played many games in my lifetime and I say this with no qualms whatsoever. What makes this even more amazing is the fact that this game was made in 2001, a full 6 years ago, and I daresay it still holds its own against the best PS2 titles out today.
The story of Ico is sparse and frankly it works to the game’s advantage. The game is cinematic in the way that Metal Gear Solid isn’t, since it doesn’t rely on cutscenes every ten minutes to move the story along. You are Ico, a boy with horns that has been sealed in a coffin alive to die, in order that the villagers may live in peace. This is the tradition that has gone on for centuries, and you are merely the latest sacrifice made. The villagers who take you to the castle even apologize, asking you not to hate them, and that they do this for the village. By sheer luck a tremor occur and allows you to escape from your tomb, then the game begins…
There is little that hasn’t been said already, but I’ll say it again. The game’s graphics are amazing. This game is proof that proper art direction can compensate for low poly counts and weak system specs, that videogames are truly an art form. From the architechture of the castle to the reflections on the water and the slight blurry effectt that is persistent throughout the game, it’s obvious that creator Fumito Ueda has an eye for the minutest details. An experienced gamerswill notice that some of the textures look pathetically old, but that rarely detracts from the experience.
The animation in this game is superb, and sometimes I felt like I was watching an animated film instead of playing a video game. Anyone who’s played through the recent Prince of Persia trilogy must recognize that developers ubisoft took a lot of inspiration from this game, as the animations are fluid and realistic, and indeed convey a sense of emotion that few games can muster up. There’s a scene late in the game where the other main character Yorda (more on her later) has expended a lot of energy. When Ico drags her by the arms she usually manages to scamper along with you, but this time after a few steps she falters and falls to the ground. Every movement is so realistic and fluid that you almost want to ask Yorda if she’s hurt and indeed feel sorry for having dragged her too harshly.
Sound, like dialogue in this game, is sparse but effectively used. The music that comes when shadow creatures are attacking is suitably creepy, the sound effects of torches crackling and bombs blowing up, every single sound comes into play only when neccessary, and enhances the overall feel of the games in leaps and bounds.
After exploring the castle for a bit, you’re introduced to the other main character, Yorda, who’s locked in a cage in the middle of a tower. After doing a bit of inspection, you find that the only way yo reach her is to jump on the cage, which sets off a sequence in which the cage falls due to the extra weight, free Yorda, then fight off a small horde of shadow creatures looking to drag Yorda into the shadows.
The simplistic gameplay of ICO has been detracted by critics, and it’s easily explained in a sentence or two. Your objective is to escape the castle with Yorda, while solving puzzles that open up new pathways and defending Yorda from shadow creatures. You have no life bar, and the game ends only if you fall too far or if Yorda is absorbed by the darkness. And that’s about it. But in the best example that good gameplay doesn’t require multiple button presses, ICO rises to the challenge of gameplay like few games have.
The cage sequence I mentioned above is only the first example of what will be a series of intuitive puzzles that do not rely on a player finding crests or keys to unlock a door. Every puzzle you go through makes absolute perfect sense, and sometimes you want to slap yourself in the head at how simple a puzzle you spent hours solving is. None of the puzzles seem contrived and while there are still crates, I guarantee that every little puzzle you get through makes absolute perfect sense, be it bombing a door open or slicing through some ropes to let down a drawbridge. The brilliance of Ico is magnified by the fact that it revolves around your going through a single castle, and going through the game you get a sense of things falling into place, like the game itself is a huge puzzle that fits the pieces together so neatly there’s a sense of wonder as you come upon the last few hours of play.
One last things bout the gameplay is that I love how the save points are spread out so that after finishing a puzzle there’s almost always a save point. With my schedule, I only allow myself an hour or two of game time at best, and it was very satisfying to be able to finish a puzzle, save, then get some sleep.
Ico is a game that anyone interested in videogames and making videogames should try out. Fumito Ueda is like the darker version of Shiggy that works for Nintendo, who creates games not according to what is trendy, but according to a unique personal vision, a true autuer of the videogame industry.
Now that I’ve spent my load all over ICO, do yourselves a favor an buy/borrow/steal a PS2 (theyr’e really cheap these days!) and get a copy of ICO. I guarantee it’ll be one of the best gaming experiences you’ll ever have.