Ico

Review by Jen
October 2002

It Was the Best of Times, it Was the Worst of Times

I first began playing Ico nine or ten months ago, shortly after its release. My sister was here for a weekend visit, and we wanted to play a console game together so we went shopping and decided on Ico. We played for several hours, taking turns at the controls, and then she went home. I played a little further on my own but it just wasn't as much fun by myself. So I let it lie for a couple of months.

I took it up again later, still on my own, and stuck with it for a while before getting frustrated with Ico and then sidetracked by another game. And so Ico lay forgotten for several more months. Until now ...

Horny Boys and White Girls

Ico opens with a stunning cutscene of a horned boy being transported through the woods by three masked men on horseback. They leave the horses and board a rowboat to cross a small strait and enter a gated cave that lies in the island bedrock of a massive, crumbling old castle. "Get the sword," says one man, and another unsheathes the sword that acts as a sort of magic key to move stone idols blocking the entrance to a great stone elevator. The party escalates into a cavernous room whose walls are lined with mysterious stone chambers. Ico, the horned boy, is sealed into one of these chambers and left to die. "Don't be angry with us," says one of the escorts as he closes the door, "it's for the good of the village."

Ico, resistant to his fate, struggles, and the stone chamber topples from its alcove and breaks open. As Ico, now freed and under player control, gets his bearings, we witness a strange dark, liquid presence forming in a different sort of cage suspended from a chain high above another room. The liquid darkness takes shape, that of a young girl.

Ico finds his way into this other room and brings down the cage to release the girl, now white and solid but still ephemeral. Ico watches fearfully as a dark, smoky being grabs Yorda, the girl, and tries to abscond with her into a swirling black spot on the floor, a hole made of the same liquid darkness as the creature, the same liquid darkness Yorda was formed from. Ico picks up a stick and beats off the creature and pulls Yorda from the hole.

And thus Ico and Yorda's fates are bound together for the remainder of the game.

Here's Hoping You Like Hopping

Ico has the ability to jump and push and climb things, and Yorda has the same magical power as that sword to open stone idols. The blackness is always after Yorda and Ico must continue to protect her from its dark creatures.

Ico the game plays like an old-fashioned platformer, but much more sophisticated, of course. Ico the boy's job is to figure out how to escape from each room or group of rooms in the castle, all the while keeping Yorda safe. Ico pushes crates, climbs chains, sidles along narrow ledges, and makes death-defying leaps in his attempts to find a way out of one room ... only to be faced with the same task in the next room.

Frequently Ico must go on alone, since he's the only one who can scale walls or push boxes or use bombs or wield stick or sword or even a mace, and figure out a way for Yorda to follow. If he leaves Yorda alone in a room for longer than a minute, the dark creatures come and reclaim her.

Ico also must protect Yorda from these creatures from time to time in the course of regular gameplay. Every time Ico and Yorda near a game milestone, the creatures arise and try to reclaim her; Ico must beat off the monsters and pull Yorda up from the darkness if one of the smoky beings manages to get a grasp on her and start pulling her in.

The fighting in the game is not at all difficult, and the monsters never increase in strength, just in numbers. They knock Ico down but they don't kill him; if Ico locates their black lair in the ground and stands near it to fight, it is an easy matter to pull Yorda back up and out if she should be captured. If, however, the inky darkness draws Yorda all the way in, it's game over.

Most of the death for Ico comes from poorly timed leaps or falling from the edges of high structures or some other kind of splat action. Unfortunately, there is a lot of this, and the save points are all too few and far between for my liking. That's part of the reason why I put the game aside and didn't go back to it for long stretches of time—I would spend half an hour or better performing twelve scary jumps and a difficult lit-bomb throw only to die within sight of a save point and have to restart the entire sequence. This was incredibly frustrating for this player, who doesn't much fancy repetition in her games.

Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

The castle and its surroundings are absolutely stunning in their realism and beauty. The castle, as I said before, is massive, and yet it makes sense architecturally. It's as if the designers had drawn a feasible floor plan for the whole thing and then stuck to it. Even though once you complete one room or area there is no going back the way you came, you will revisit locations from time to time by getting to them in another way, and you always understand how you got there.

The grounds of the castle are light and airy; the insides are gloom pierced by rays of sunshine through high windows or lit from above because the ceilings have crumbled away. The distant views serve to heighten the sense of isolation, of being trapped in this remote and forgotten place. Yorda's mother, whom you will encounter once or twice, is a masterpiece of terrible beauty. Water is abundant in various forms, cascading or pooling or as distant waves lapping a distant shore. The castle is spooky and yet not lifeless—birds circle in the sky, settling on your path only to fly away as you approach, trees and grass sway gently in the breeze, shreds of decaying drapery flap in and out of windows ...

However, the sometimes overly cinematic camera angles add an undesirable extra level of difficulty; for instance, it was always hard for me to figure out where to stand when leaping for chains because of the odd perspectives, and since character movement is screen-relative, sometimes I had to shift control direction to continue moving in a straight line.

Music is sparse but used to good effect. Sound effects are masterfully done. There is no speech as such; occasionally a character will emit sounds that are meant to be a foreign, almost alien, language. Ico can be understood via English subtitles, but Yorda's subtitles are nonsensical symbols—Ico and Yorda do not speak to each other because they cannot understand each other.

Oompah-pah

There is no inventory; Ico occasionally must move or carry something in addition to his stick or sword but these items are always found near where they are used. Controls are minimal and straightforward. Besides directional movement (analog or digital), there is a button for climbing, one to use an item, one for swordplay, and one to beckon Yorda ("Oompah? Oompah?" says Ico until she arrives). You may also get a first-person closeup view or do a third-person pan of your surroundings. You can only save at set points, as I mentioned—these save points take the form of ethereal sofas, and you save by having Ico sit down on one with Yorda—there is no saving without Yorda at your side.

Overall, Ico is a very tightly planned and well put-together game. It is not really an adventure game but more a combination of a console platformer (even down to the usual save-the-princess game goal) and a puzzle game, with a little bit of easy action thrown in for good measure. It is very frustrating at times and loads of fun at other times and on the whole well worth a play through.

My total logged gameplay was slightly less than seven hours, but of course that doesn't include all of the time spent dying and restoring from earlier saves. I'd estimate it really took me more like 15 or so utterly involving hours. True, I put it aside for two long spells due in large part to my frustration at having to repeat several long sequences and in some smaller measure to the overall sameness of the gameplay, but I never forgot my place when taking it up again several months later. And the magnificent ending made it all worthwhile. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: SCEI
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: September 2001

Available for: PlayStation 2

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