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ICO (PlayStation 2) artwork

ICO (PlayStation 2) review

"Books can have a deep influence over a person; I doubt I will ever forget Flannery Culp’s murderous panache in The Basic Eight. So can movies, and paintings too for that matter: the very title of The Hours evokes in me the intense ennui of a desperate Virginia Woolf, and seeing a beach painted by Sorolla is so very much like feeling the real sun on your skin. Until 2002 I had never stopped to think that a videogame could be added to this list of ultimate artistic experiences, but t..."

Books can have a deep influence over a person; I doubt I will ever forget Flannery Culp’s murderous panache in The Basic Eight. So can movies, and paintings too for that matter: the very title of The Hours evokes in me the intense ennui of a desperate Virginia Woolf, and seeing a beach painted by Sorolla is so very much like feeling the real sun on your skin. Until 2002 I had never stopped to think that a videogame could be added to this list of ultimate artistic experiences, but then I found Ico.

I truly have never loved a game as intensely as I loved Ico when I first played it, and as I love it now everytime I pick it up again. As a matter of fact, I have needed over four years to gather the courage to write this review, procrastinated all this time for fear of not making the game justice or sounding too personal. Finally, I have accepted that I may indeed not make the game justice after all and I am actually going to embrace my partiality and fondness of Ico: they are a result of the game and as such an undeniable part of its experience.

You see, this game really requires me to be this personal. It is so much more than the sum of its parts. If I were to describe the story to you in an aseptic or strict way, I would be forced to rely on a short summary that you’re probably already sick of hearing: Ico is a young boy lost inside a huge castle where he is supposed to be sacrificed rituallly. In order to escape he needs the help of his companion, the princess Yorda, a young and fragile girl oppressed by her mother. The latter is an evil queen who sends shadow monsters periodically to recapture Yorda. That’s it, really –there must be no more of about four cutscenes in the game, adding up to about half a dozen lines of dialogue. What’s more, half of those few spoken sentences are in a different language than Ico’s, so you won’t understand them until the second playthrough (then they will be translated, as an extra of sorts).

Is it possible to develop emotional bonds with characters that only speak twice in an entire game and do not communicate verbally in any other way? I wouldn’t have thought so before, but as it turns out it definitely is. Thanks to an expert direction, words aren’t necessary to understand that Ico is just a normal kid with no other resources than an admirable determination, how Yorda has given up on life altogether or the Queen’s menacing aura of apathetic power.

The “Music” part that reviews normally have is the one that suits me best to exemplify my point. Let me try a technical commentary. Music: there is none. I’m done. It’s true, there is indeed no music beyond a credits-song and a short tune in a couple of tense moments. That is not to say, however, that you will play in silence. In fact, listening to Ico can be an experience in and of itself: it makes a wonderful use of ambient sound.

As you know if you’ve ever used a tape recorder, even empty rooms with no-one in them produce a sound. In this game, even if nothing is going on you’ll be able to hear ambient sounds appropriate to the rooms you’re in. Courtyards and corridors sound different, as do small rooms and huge halls. Besides the very sound of a room and its characteristic echo, you will also be able to enjoy virtually every sound you would hear if the castle was real. Birds singing, cooing or just flapping their wings in a garden, the wind howling through a cave, the sea roaring under a bridge… The result of these superb sound effects is that, if all of a sudden the game had the option to have music in it, I’d turn it off as it would do nothing but spoil one of the main elements of realism of Ico.

A description of the gameplay, as it is, might very well be just as unimpressive as my uninspired “Music: there is none” comment. Ico lends itself to being haphazardly dropped into the “Platforms” category, although for example this website lists it under the more inclusive “Adventure”. Getting out of the castle requires getting from Point A to Point B, and that’s not always very easy. Sometimes you will need to jump from one place to another, swing on a chain, or climb ladders in order to get from one point to another. Indeed, sometimes you may have to go through a full alphabet of points in your journey from A to B. Other times, the actual way to get out of a particular hall might be very easy but blocked, in which case you will need to solve a variety of puzzles involving levers, moving crates, weight switches, torches…

It is not, however, as easy as “solve puzzles and move on” sounds. Yorda is your companion nearly for the entirety of the game, and since she is the only one who can open the mystic doors you encounter every once in a while, you need to keep her with you. Sometimes a chain of jumps that are easy for Ico are impossible for Yorda, so you’ll have to find another way of taking her with you. Additionally, at certain places you will be ambushed by shadow enemies and it will be your duty to slay them. There’s no such thing as a “life bar” or “lives” in Ico; not that we need them, since these enemies will rarely attack you. They are after Yorda, so your combat will always be for her protection and never for your survival.

At this point you will probably think that protecting other characters sucks, and quite frankly I can’t think of a single game that dispels that feeling… Except this one. The main problem with this kind of missions in other games is that we’re usually presented with a sexy kung-fu expert heroine who kicks ass in cutscenes but is a real pain to keep alive in real gameplay. Yorda offers no such problem: she is established from the very start as a fragile and helpless character. She’s aware of this herself and, thus, she generally stays behind Ico while he does the fighting. There are no kamikaze attacks or suicidal recklessness: she normally does a good job of staying out of trouble, so the fights are always tense but never frustrating.

Still suspicious that having Yorda around might be a disadvantage rather than one of the most interesting aspects of the game? She doesn’t need any actual defence against that. Any dislike anyone could possibly have towards her vanishes instantly the moment you turn around, halfway through a puzzle, and find that meanwhile Yorda’s been slowly stalking a white dove, trying to caress it. The animal then notices her and flies away. In my case this was the first time I saw this girl as a living and breathing person, and one that I actively wanted to protect at that, but there are many more. She gasps, concerned, when you nearly fall to your death in a poorly executed jump. When she doesn’t take a “break” to follow birds or feel the sun on her face, she follows your every move with attention but without ever standing in your way. Although you can grab her hand to lead her around or call her to your side, with time she learns to follow you out of her own volition. She can’t fight, but I found it significant that she never asks for help either, even if she is captured.

I have already mentioned the first time I glimpsed how lifelike Yorda can get to be for a videogame character that doesn’t even speak the same language as the one I control, but the definitive proof of her charisma came when I got stuck in a particularly obscure puzzle. I ran around the stage for ages, wondering what escaped me and whether I should check a guide, when Yorda called out Ico’s name and pointed straight at the solution of the puzzle. I was left open-mouthed, literally. I may be the one playing, here, but this girl I’m supposed to be leading around actually told me how to solve a puzzle that had me dying. This is how you make someone care for a videogame sidekick, not with provocative clothing and spectacular fighting cutscenes.

Lastly, when I tell you that the entire game takes place in one castle you might be inclined to let me know that even the original GameBoy already had enough power to display several sceneries. The truth is that, even as I am writing this many years after the game came out, I still haven’t played a game with Ico’s awe-inspiring level design and visual coherence. The castle is far larger than anyone could possibly imagine beforehand, with countless rooms, corridors, and halls in the inside. Outside there are courtyards, gardens, graveyards, ponds, even a windmill. If it were real, it would take the best part of a week to explore fully. What I meant when I said this castle’s coherence remains to be beaten is that, no matter in which part of the building’s outside you are, you can almost always see all the rest of it. It’s truly an interesting experience to look down a balcony and see at least half a dozen places you’ve already been to, and just as many that you haven’t visited yet but you will in the future. The outside shape of the building corresponds exactly with the interior design, and that does a lot for the game’s visual identity.

If you have seen even one screenshot of Ico, then you must have noticed that the visual design is as impressive as the actual level design. It manages to gather a good variety of places (including underground caves and rudimentary machinery) under one single style, one that at times seems Romanesque, others Neo-Gothic, others downright fantastic. Although the sun shines beautifully on the sandstone and there are a number of beautiful gardens, the desperate loneliness and antiquity of the castle make it a veritable fourth character in the story, a terrifying colossus that looms over all the others.

All the elements I have been describing, on their own, seem scarcely noteworthy or remarkable. Together, though, they form a completely unique product that nobody, Ico’s own creators included, has managed to reproduce; it’s hard not to feel grateful for its very existence. It is the quintessence of videogame artistry, a masterpiece born from stripping away all we take for granted in a game and adding intensity and sentiment. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I confidently trust you will enjoy as much as I have.


MartinG's avatar
Community review by MartinG (August 27, 2007)

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