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ICO (PlayStation 2) artwork

ICO (PlayStation 2) review

"If ICO is one thing, it's underrated. "

If ICO is one thing, it's underrated.

To be fair, its concept did not exactly hit the heart of the mainstream. This was a simple throwback of an adventure game that, despite sending the media into spluttering rapture, soon faded into eBay obscurity mere months after its release. Unsurprising, really; the crowds are drawn by action and fury, and the quiet drama offered here had little chance of gaining their attention.

So it barely tries.

ICO is, initially, disconcerting to the point of being uncomfortable, challenging your gaming instincts. While your avatar is quite comfortable - outcast boy Ico immediately feels as awkwardly energetic as his short, slight frame would imply, and the questionable horns on his head lend him an odd strength - everything around him is quite disturbing. The expected paraphernalia has been stripped away; there is no health bar, no HUD, no inventory, and no overbearing tutorial to guide you. The fanfare and pomp that games generally greet you with are conspicuous in their absence, making the cold air of the silent mausoleum in which you first awake seem shockingly real.

First progress is unsatisfying, as you find yourself longing for a mission objective or a radar or something. It's a lonely, hollow experience until curiosity takes you a few rooms forward, and you discover what - or rather, who the bustle has been replaced with.

Meet Yorda: a ghostly sylph of a girl in a situation apparently similar to your own. Cinnamon hair whipping and white dress billowing in the wind, she joins you in your flight from your shared prison and quickly becomes the pale enigma around which your every move revolves. She is unintelligible (speaking in an exotic tongue subtitled in runes) and near-helpless (requiring your aid for all but the tiniest leaps and climbs), but an entirely welcome presence; from the moment you first take her hand (savouring the gentle controller rumble as you do so) and lead her out of the dusty tower in which she was confined, she inspires chivalry and optimism with a casual grace.

Chivalry lasts. The optimism is crushed once you get outside.

Meet the dazzling sunshine and take in the view. You are lost deep inside an ancient, magnificent castle, away from the mainland on a broken island, lost in mist so white you can't tell the sea from the sky. The ruined, old-European structure is spookily ethereal or punishingly solid to your difficulty; distant courtyards appear washed-out and dishearteningly unreal, while Ico trips on the shattered tiles and crumples painfully into jagged parapets (prompting Yorda to stop playing with the gulls and rush to his side, gasping in concern). This place was never a home - feeling more like the work of a demon than an architect, its layout is insane, its design mystifying.

Alone, you could probably rely on Ico's platforming skills to escape - scampering up chains and vaulting across broken walkways - but your care for the frail Yorda (to whom 'artificial intelligence' already feels like an insult) means a little more thought is required. You must scout ahead and set up a suitable path for her; by reworking the terrain, operating rusted machinery, and, if all else fails, manually helping her on like the gentleman you are. These navigational conundrums are often vexing, but entirely rational and organic, never feeling arbitrary or absurd. Progress is immeasurably satisfying; there are few moments in gaming more rewarding than grasping your grateful friend's hand once more before spiritedly leading her on down your own cunningly-laid route.

That's about where the game stops being disconcerting and starts being excellent.

Perversely so, even; ICO's serenely enchanting tale goes against just about everything that games have been striving for recently. Even the action scenes, where the towering fortress goes on the offensive - the worn floors bleeding black shadow that oozes into shrieking, dancing demons that try to drag Yorda into the horrid void - are low-key, relying mostly on the formless brutality of the beasts and your desperation to protect the poor girl. These frenzied battles also speak most about the game's audio credentials, using only the sound of the churning portals and a few sporadic, chilling notes to create more raw emotion than any number of lavish orchestrated scores could.

And yet for all their tension, these battles are often the game's lowest points; long-winded bouts of attrition that cut irritatingly into the smooth pace of the puzzle-solving and platforming exploration. The cynical mind would call them filler. Even with these grim slogs and the moments of complete confusion (occasional to frequent, depending on your skill and FAQ threshold), the game is short; it's unlikely that it'll take you more than 15 hours, first play, to see the adventure through.

Don't wince. The game's brevity is the key to its quality, and the entire adventure feels wholly complete. From the moment Ico first stumbles away from his dark fate in that dead tomb, the story flows effortlessly with the young pair as they work their way through the giant castle; every move feels natural, every area feels important, and every twist slips in to hit where it hurts or touch where it warms. Like the heroes, story and gameplay run hand-in-hand; in terms of sheer drama, the game's easy, elegantly-interactive storytelling far outdoes the overdone cinematics and booming voiceovers of its contemporaries.

ICO could break your heart, twice over. Not only with its perfect ending - in which Yorda's own fate becomes apparent - but also with your eventual realisation that it's so good and so original and so much more powerful than every big-budget FMV-choked blockbuster in the charts that its failure to sell is an absolute tragedy for the videogame. Like its hero, this is a lonely gem: a quiet little fairy tale drowned out by screaming, ultraviolent epics.

If ICO is two things, it's underrated and unique.

autorock's avatar
Community review by autorock (January 28, 2005)

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