Review by Jen
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 timeI 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 lifelessbirds 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 symbolsIco and Yorda do not speak to each
other because they cannot understand each other.
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 mentionedthese save points take the form of ethereal sofas,
and you save by having Ico sit down on one with Yordathere
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
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.