System: PlayStation 2 :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1
Genre: Adventure :: Released: 25 September 2001
By Morphine Jim
Welcome to one of the hardest reviews I'll probably ever have to write. On the one hand, ICO is lauded as one of Sony's greatest masterpieces, bringing innovation through old-school puzzle sensibilities, an engaging atmosphere and some beautiful, almost artistic set pieces, and I can see all of that. On the other hand, I just didn't enjoy this. I had to force myself to get into this game, and not for the reasons that it's fans would accuse me of.
Oh yes, the accusations. This is the crux of the reason why ICO is hailed as such a classic — people are too scared to say anything negative about this game because people will quickly point out that they're too obsessed with mindless action and trigger-fingered gameplay to appreciate how brilliant ICO is. You either get in line and applaud its beauty, or be condemned for your ignorance — sinfully overlooking a game because it's not about fighting. Well, that's bullshit. Complete and utter tripe. I didn't enjoy ICO because I thought it wasn't a very good game. Perhaps if ICO was some sort of painting, I would fall in love with it — but this is a videogame first, and a piece of art second. I'm not prepared to let sentimentality and a fear of being branded un-intellectual stop me from being damn honest. I hope the massive ICO fan who chats at me in IM doesn't see this... though I know I'll have to link him to it eventually.
The game starts, ironically enough, from the beginning. You play as Ico, a little boy who was born with a pair of horns on his head. Horns are regarded as a curse by Ico's people and the young boy is fated to be sacrificed by the time he's ten. This is when we join the little freak, as Ico is forced into a tiny stone cell, presumably to starve to death while Jim makes a joke about how horny little ten year olds need locking up. Already, through these collections of short, quiet scenes, the beauty of ICO's environment is evident. There's no music, just the echoey sounds of the huge, empty castle that will serve as Ico's prison, the unrelenting rush of a steady wind outside, the isolated chirping of birds. There's some sort of quake and Ico's incarceration falls from it's perch, smashing open and allowing the hapsome chap to break free, surrounded by hundreds of similar cells, obviously filled with the bodies of those that came before.
From here on in, you control Ico, and it's not very long before you bump into the first and last friendly face, suspended from a hanging cage in the middle of a huge tower. This pale, solemn girl is known to us, through clever use of the manual, to be Princess Yorda. Once you work out the puzzle to break her free, you realize that you can't understand each other, but one thing's clear between the pair of you — you've both got to escape from this foreboding castle.
So, the game quickly sets into motion once Yorda is freed. ICO is made up of environmental puzzles that involve your interactions with Yorda, as you not only navigate yourself around the castle but find paths for the far less agile and more restricted princess to follow. Basically, Yorda is a braindead fool, who you need to literally grab by the hand and drag around. She'll also respond to your calls, and you can lift her up onto higher platforms that she can't jump up to on her own. All your interactions with the princess are handled well with the R1 button, which works in different ways depending on your proximity to Yorda — for instance, if you're quite a distance from the stupid simpleton, Ico will shout and call her over. Once you're near to her, pressing the same button will cause Ico to grab her hand and pull her along wherever he goes.
Ico is far more nimble than his mentally devolved charge, and you'll need to make full use of his abilities to navigate the often huge environments, scaling up walls via narrow ledges, clambering up and swinging from chains and ropes, setting light to stuff — all sorts of things that a ten year old would do if he needed to help a retard to escape a massive castle... and he had horns... and a stick.
Here's why I'm not a button mashing action freak who hates this game because it's about thinking. In theory, that sounds like a fantastic game to me. Every review I've read made me think this was a fantastic game. This dual-person environmental puzzle lark has scope, has potential, but sadly the outcome provided me with nothing but frustration, and not for the right reasons. Firstly, controlling Ico is horrible. Though the control scheme is actually pretty good, Ico himself handles like your grandma on the LSD. For all his gorgeous animation — and it is gorgeous — moving him is just unpleasant. When navigating some pretty narrow walkways, you're faced with the prospect of panicking as you perform an insane balancing act with the analogue stick to stop his pottery ass flying from side to side, or you move really, really slow, which, given the overall twitchiness of Ico's response, isn't a guarantee that he won't just suddenly fly off the edge anyway. At least a slight stumble over the edge sees Ico teeter and grab it as he falls, but God help you if he just decided to launch himself into oblivion.
It's not helped by the camera, which is designed with aesthetics in mind first and gameplay second. Sure, it shows off the beautiful landscapes and environments on offer, but does little to help you in your quest — being in a fixed position from some mad angle. Though you can use the right stick to move the camera in any direction and zoom right in with R2, the camera will always be restricted by it's central pivot, that leads to utter frustration when trying to grab ahold of some rope or time a jump. Many times I caused Ico to leap amazingly clear of his target and splatter onto the ground simply because the camera's angle was so crap.
Many of the puzzles are pretty solid, mainly consisting of Ico pressing on ahead to find ways of opening up a better route for Princess Stupid. Annoyingly though, for all the solid environmental puzzles, there are some stupid observational puzzles. Things like doors hidden in shadows and ledges obscured against the wall which you'll usually discover by accident after wandering around a bit. Fair enough, if you legitimately stump me with a fiendish puzzle, I'll throw my hands up and concede your victory. Hiding a door in a shadow? That's just cheap.
What's cheaper though is the AI of Yorda. And I'm not talking about her lack of response or her insistence on wandering about like a preschooler who needs the toilet, I'm talking about her refusal to do certain things that trick you into thinking she's not meant to do it, thus leading you to waste time looking for an alternate route that doesn't exist. A couple of times I've had Ico hang over a ledge to help Yorda up and she shakes her head, before nonchalantly walking away. After trying to find a box or anything I could shift that way to make the climb shorter, it became apparent there wasn't any and the stupid slag was just wasting my time. Then we come to her lack or response and insistence on wandering about like a preschooler who needs the toilet. Halfway up a ladder, she'll often decide to start climbing back down, or if you need her to stand on a switch to keep a door open for you, she'll merrily skip off of it before you reach the exit. I wish I could say the AI isn't all bad, but if I'm honest, she's really, really mentalistic.
But it's not all switch-pulling, wall climbing and dragging around a windowlicker. See, Yorda's got a mother, and she doesn't want you to leave. At various points in the game, black portals in the floor will open up and these mysterious beings called Shadow Creatures will clamber out with the aim of dragging your dribbling princess into the dark depths. For a game that's not about fighting and was hailed for it's lack of combat, I was surprised by the amount of times you're actually required to fight these things. The solving of most major puzzles triggers the appearance of these portals, causing you to rush back to Princess Sunshine Bus and fight off the demons with your trusty stick, or later on, a sword. It's all simple enough — hammer square in the direction of these shadow creatures to whack 'em before they carry Yorda off to the portals. For all it's simplicity and overall bluntness, these sequences can be pretty intense as you try and concentrate on both fighting the oncoming Shadows and stopping Yorda getting snatched from under your nose at the same time. You can't just pick them off one at time, as while you're whaling on one of the shadowy freaks, another could swoop down behind your back and carry Yorda off. If worse comes to worse, you can drag Yorda out from a portal before she sinks into nothingness, but the Shadow Creatures knock you back with extreme force if you get too zealous in your protection of Madame Dumbass.
Sadly, combat can also be frustrating. Only 50% of the time does Ico seem to string any attacks together, using a little three-hit attack that knocks enemies back. The rest of time, no matter how many times you press square, he'll make one swing and then stop — leading to a very stuttery and ineffective little defense. Add in the fact that if you leave Yorda alone for an extended period of time, she gets carted off by the stupid bastards again, and you have quite the grievance. It's understandable that fighting isn't refined in the slightest, because it's not about the fighting but... well, I'd prefer to have fought a bit less.
Of course, perhaps it could be forgiven because the atmosphere is so damn nice. I'm sorry but, I must be missing what everybody else is experiencing, because this game got no feeling out of me. It's a frustration in itself, maybe more personal than it should be, but Ico, Yorda or the environment did not instigate an inch of my soul. The thing is, everything's in place. The cold, harsh, huge environments of the castle, inspiring cliff-top views, looking down on areas you've long sinced cleared or just simply gazing out to sea. It's beautiful, but why did I spend the game just telling myself it was, instead of feeling that it was? Was it the frustration of the gameplay that led to my indifference to the atmosphere, or was it the frustration of not feeling the atmosphere that led to my dislike of the gameplay? What begot what? Or was anything begot at all? All I know is, I just didn't get with it, and I should've. I should be bowing down to the sorrowful nature of the story, or the bond between Ico and Yorda. I should crook the knee to the way that for once, the gameplay is the story. Yet it got nothing from me. I don't like having to admit that, either.
As far as the graphics go, this is naturally a stunning little number. Though character models aren't hugely detailed, the animations are fantastic. They move with such realism, with such a natural flow that it really highlights the work that was put into making them as believable as possible. Little touches like Ico running his hand along a wall if you walk near it, or the evident force with which Yorda gets pulled about when you lead her by the hand help make these characters come across a lot more than any dialogue could. Yorda, in fact, being your pivotal goal throughout the game, is made to stand out from everything else with a deeply contrasting brightness and a rich cell-shaded look that gives this bizarre, incorporeal feel, topped only by the fantastic look and feel of the Shadow Creatures, who's fluidity and sinister appearance are pretty damn special. The castle is the real star of the show, though. Every room you visit has an incredibly immersive depth to it, being both huge and detailed all at once, really adding to the oppressive atmosphere that it gives off. I may not have been drawn in by ICO's nature, but I'll be the first to admit that the environments really paid off. Outside scenes look even better, with bright sunlight illuminating the brilliant architecture and stunning view of your surroundings. Effects like lighting standout really well, and the water effects are simply delectable.
Oh... and you can move the camera during cutscenes. Apparently, for some reason, that's great.
Sound wise, again, we're looking at something good, which is a pain in the arse because it reminds me that Ico was made to be enjoyed, and not lazily. The background noise of the game is subtle but immersive. A lack of music is replaced by strong winds, or crackling fires — things that make Ico's world seem so barren and lifeless, save for it's two captives. There is no English language to speak of, and in the few cutscenes where there's speech, Ico's language is translated via text for us, which adds to the overall strange, alien nature of what's going on. Because Yorda and Ico don't understand each other, in-game dialogue is short and to the point. Ico will just make a big shouty noise to get his companion's attention, or emit a little "Auntoir" while beckoning to call her over from a shorter distance. What tiny amount of music there is provides us with gentle, pretty little tunes, with a lovely folky tune in the game's trailer and the ditty that plays while you save your game.
Looks great, sounds great. Goddamn this game is a tragedy.
— Some good environmental puzzles
— Nice babysitting idea
— Good looking, deep environments and characters
— Some bad handling issues
— Camera that chose style over convenience
— Not half as engaging as it should be
— Short without replay incentive
And The Horny
Remember at the beginning of this review I said it'd be hard to write? Well, I started writing it and found it easy at first. Bashing what made this game a pure frustration was easy, telling you how little I enjoyed it was smooth running. But then I remembered that it shouldn't have been like this, that all the pieces were in place for me to join the ranks of ICO lovers and kneel to the alter of the horned one. Didn't happen though. It's hard because the atmosphere should've been enough to carry this game, but for me at least, it simply didn't. I can forgive most games for a multitude of sins on pure atmosphere and storytelling alone, but nothing in ICO really appealed to me. No, it wasn't the slow, gentle pace of the game — it's what I've been looking for. I just didn't want the package it came in. It simply was not enjoyable, I'm sorry. If I'm honest, I'd say this was one of the most overrated games I've ever seen — forgiven for too much just because it looks pretty. Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to seemingly be the one to break the mold here and give ICO a negative review. Even if you hardly know me, you should know I despise people hating on something just because it's liked by nearly everyone. That's why I didn't just trash this game and say, "It was crap." I just... I just didn't have fun playing it, like, once.
But then, it's not like that matters. ICO's in love with itself anyway. From it's digipacked box to it's textured game manual, this game knew it was different from everything else and exploited that fact to the very last drop. It almost borders on pretentious, the way this game is presented. A pretension that's convinced many that this game was made to be adored. Let's face it, I tried to convince myself. I'd look over the cliff edge to that old windmill I'd climbed up minutes ago, now so far away, and say to myself, "This is breathtaking." Yeah, I said it, but I didn't simply know it. I spent the whole time playing ICO telling myself to love it, but I knew I didn't. I barely liked it.
To each their own.