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ICO (PlayStation 2) artwork

ICO (PlayStation 2) review

"Ico was born with horns on his head. It may look like he’s wearing a helmet, but those two buggers are rooted to the bone. Although such an unfortunate devil-horned child would today undergo scientific study and vivisection, Ico lived in less tolerant times. Local villagers shunned the young boy, believing him cursed; his kin fervently waited for the day he would die. On his twelfth birthday, Ico was carried off by dark horsemen to an enchanting but ominous castle built atop a wave-washed cl..."

Ico was born with horns on his head. It may look like he’s wearing a helmet, but those two buggers are rooted to the bone. Although such an unfortunate devil-horned child would today undergo scientific study and vivisection, Ico lived in less tolerant times. Local villagers shunned the young boy, believing him cursed; his kin fervently waited for the day he would die. On his twelfth birthday, Ico was carried off by dark horsemen to an enchanting but ominous castle built atop a wave-washed cliff. These faceless minions, wearing horned helms reminiscent of Ico’s own accursed crown, escorted Ico to his cell: one coffin in a matrix of one hundred. For generations, horned children had been brought to this graveyard of lost dreams as sacrificial lambs to appease the bloodthirsty Queen and protect the village from her fury.

Happy birthday.

In its opening moments, Ico comes across as a gorgeous 3D platformer. A minor earthquake shakes the castle up a bit, loosening Ico’s coffin from its perch and releasing the young prisoner with a clatter. Faded yet brightly lit, the tombs of lost children exude a dreamlike visual style that sharply contrasts against the realistic pants escaping Ico’s lungs. There are no guards to see what’s the matter; Ico is alone in this world, a stranger knowing nothing of the enchanted castle’s inner workings. Step outside onto a lonely parapet and the mid-day sun paints a fresh layer of color and vitality over the gothic tableau. Wind whistles, seagulls cry, waves crash against the cliff’s desolate face. This is beautiful.

The game soon takes an inventive twist once the player meets Yorda, Ico’s angel. This delicate girl, clad in heavenly white, exudes such an air of pure innocence and fragility that Ico — and I — felt compelled to help her escape her birdcage suspended high above the castle floor. Surprisingly, Yorda’s first appearance is that of a child born from shadow, her dark poison blood dripping onto Ico’s innocent face. The relationship between Ico and Yorda could be negatively interpreted as strong male protecting dependent female, but I see it as something deeper: a pure soul guiding an impure soul. How strange and ironic that Ico’s pure heart is housed in a cursed body, while Yorda’s dark core wears a mask of wispy beauty! Ico sees in Yorda his own sad predicament: a captive without a future of her own. The observant player knows better. If Yorda’s fate is to become the next Queen, then Ico’s saving her from something more significant than mere captivity.

It’s at this point that Ico’s true nature becomes apparent; this is art wrapped in adventure game attire. The game’s tangible goal is to guide Yorda through a series of elaborate environments until the pair escapes the castle’s desolate confines. Hold the shoulder button to hold Yorda’s hand and pull her along; you’ll soon find your finger unconsciously glued in place. Exhibiting the smoothest animation ever demonstrated by Sony’s Emotion Engine, Yorda stumbles and falters behind Ico as they run across grassy castle courtyards or underneath shimmering waterfalls, but she never lets go of his gentle grip. Ico pulls the princess onto ledges, catches her as she makes (and misses) heroic leaps and defends her from the spirits of night.

When dark portals open in the ground, trouble’s about to arrive; the Queen’s shadow helpers, murky miscreants sent to return Yorda to her rusty steel cage, swarm Ico in hopes of retrieving their wayward princess. Swat them with stick or sword, causing puffs of smoke to issue from the shadows’ incorporeal forms like clouds of inky blood. There’s no health meter; if Ico is struck, he briefly falls to the ground but gets back to his feet. If Yorda is completely absorbed into a portal, a wave of evil washes over the screen, turns Ico to stone and prematurely ends the game.

These battles may sound simple, but each one poses a dynamic challenge. Ico could bravely fend off two shadows only to have a third sneak up and knock him down from behind. Upon regaining his feet, Ico calls out to discover Yorda’s whereabouts. There she is, slung over a lumbering spirit’s shoulder! Yorda desperately returns Ico’s call, and the young boy rushes to her aid brandishing his large wooden stick. With a mighty double whack to the back, Ico forces the murky fiend to drop its captive angel, who crumples to the ground in presumed pain . . . just in time for another spirit to fly down and steal her out from under Ico’s protection.

The most frequent obstacles are posed by the castle itself. Within this enormous and complex prison, each scene incorporates bombs, pulleys, bridges, pressure-sensitive switches or levers to be used, moved or activated. Yorda isn’t very powerful, so the grunt work falls on Ico’s small but determined shoulders. Most puzzles are not immediately obvious, but clues can be caught by an observant eye; when a flag flutters indoors, that means a window somewhere must either be shattered or missing! Even the opening cinematic hints at a future puzzle’s resolution. If a solution is too obscure, wait a bit and Yorda might walk near an important object and stare at it. She’s intensely curious about her surroundings; she’s just afraid (or incapable) of actually doing anything.

The reason all of this works, the reason I put myself through hours of solving puzzles and leading this helpless girl by the hand, is because Yorda feels so alive. When faced with a gap to cross, she braces herself and takes a mighty leap, only to fall short of the edge . . . and be caught by Ico’s outstretched hand. When faced with a large gap to cross, Yorda shakes her head and voices a surprisingly firm refusal to jump. Still, every time Yorda moves, it’s at Ico’s insistence. Despite her presumed status as helpless captive, she shows very little initiative, as though it had never occurred to her to escape and as though it still may not have occurred to her. In Yorda’s mind, this jaunt through the castle is freedom; she’s been locked in a birdcage for so long that even the castle confines are enough to sate her curiosity. The question is, how will she behave in the end? Will she come to regard Ico as a friend? Will she repay his innocent but ignorant efforts? Will she sabotage their escape and betray Ico’s naive trust? Everything happens with a symbolic and meaningful reason.

Art presented as game, showing off its high-minded intentions without any pretense. I should love it. Unfortunately, the game occasionally gets in the way of the experience. When leaping from a swinging chain, Ico has a disturbingly suicidal tendency to leap in the wrong direction, leaping to a splattery red death on the rocks below instead of leaping through an open window. Waiting and waiting for Yorda’s head to finally peer above the top of a ladder as she painfully makes her way up and over the rim is endearing the first time, tiresome the second and irritating the third . . . a dangerous (but thankfully fleeting) feeling since so much hinges on at least tolerating Yorda’s presence. Finally, and some may call me shallow for even suggesting this, but Ico needs music. It has none. An intricate soundtrack would liven Ico's more monotonous moments.

Art presented as game: Ico is ultimately a prisoner of its own device. Despite that, it’s a great experience. The ambiguous ending has multiple plausible interpretations and it’s actually worth thinking about. I cherish my memories of Ico and Yorda’s adventure; I just don’t intend to keep their game.

lilica's avatar
Community review by lilica (January 24, 2005)

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