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ICO (PlayStation 2) artwork

ICO (PlayStation 2) review


"Back in 2001 when Ico was first released there was scarcely anything quite like it. Perhaps, like many games of the past, it was over-praised for being something different where now it may seem aged – a feat of its time and little else. Now given a re-release and the HD treatment, Ico is perhaps just another example of a developer aiming to cash in on nostalgia. What is strange, however, is that Ico in 2011 is grabbing players in the same way it did 10 years ago, players who are entering its castle chambers for the very first time. "



Back in 2001 when Ico was first released there was scarcely anything quite like it. Perhaps, like many games of the past, it was over-praised for being something different where now it may seem aged – a feat of its time and little else. Now given a re-release and the HD treatment, Ico is perhaps just another example of a developer aiming to cash in on nostalgia. What is strange, however, is that Ico in 2011 is grabbing players in the same way it did 10 years ago, players who are entering its castle chambers for the very first time.

Playing Ico is much like experiencing a dream. You have little idea of how everything has come about, or how you got to where you are, yet everything seems natural, and thus you comfortably proceed through your imagination. The game begins with little explanation, following a young boy named Ico as his captors escort him to a castle isolated upon a misty island. Although normal in every other respect, Ico possesses a feature unlike most boys his age – two horns that protrude from his head. It is because his horns that he is entombed in the basement of this abandoned fortress, and then by a great stroke of luck, is able to break free. Shortly after exploring past the remains of his broken stone tomb, Ico discovers a girl, Yorda, caged high above ground in the neighboring tower. Ico then takes it upon himself to free the girl, and so your adventure with Yorda begins.

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Yorda brings a very unique presence to the game as you guide and protect her throughout the journey.


Primarily a puzzle adventure, you’ll engage in the typical practice of moving crates, activating switches, lowering bridges, and platforming across gaps and ledges in order to create a useable path for Yorda as you both seek for a way to escape the island. The puzzle process is very well conceived, with only a few possible instances of being stumped for what may turn out to be rather straightforward, yet uncanny solutions. The main question of each area is how to get Yorda in a certain place, and end with you by her side. However, it soon becomes clear that the castle does not wish for Yorda to leave, as shadowy creatures emerge through its stone floors to steal her back from you as the game proceeds. Once again, explanation comes slowly through only a few custscenes dispersed throughout the entire playthrough, and as Ico and Yorda seem to share different languages, there is little dialogue to establish a relationship – yet one is certainly there, and it’s very real.

As told through the game’s brilliant yet simple animations, Yorda is seen as dainty and frail. She looks noticeably nervous as she watches Ico take on courageous feats of heights and leaps, and at the start of the game seems reluctant to trust you. Guiding her through use of the R1 button, you can call out to Yorda when a path is ready, reach out to catch her when she leaps a gap, pull her up to the ledge of a high wall, and most iconically – hold her hand.

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Yorda possess some sort of power that will allow you to push past magically sealed entrances.


Escorting A.I. companions has become a rather infamous affair in gaming. These segments are often considered troublesome, annoying, and bring the experience of many games to an archaic standstill. With this in mind, it’s very interesting to see how the entirety of Ico is built upon guiding a rather useless A.I. through puzzles, defending her from enemies in between, and yet somehow at the end of it all isn’t reflected upon negatively. In fact, it’s the fragile nature of Yorda, her uselessness, which makes her one of the most interesting elements to be used in a video game.

Your companion, along with the deliberate pace of the overall game and its puzzles comes together in a very moving way when placed within the game’s immaculately created atmosphere. Ico’s visuals more than stand the test of time – they continue to impress, and the immersive art direction only proves to benefit from the HD upgrade. The castle is incredibly lonely; with stone rooms of huge scale where only the crackling sound of torches and the patter of footsteps from Ico and his barefooted friend reverberate off the walls. You’ll witness excellent examples of level design as you explore the castle’s towering walls and courtyards, sometimes backtracking to areas in new and exciting ways. Stepping outside introduces an incredibly bright sunlight that’s both warm and inviting, and the camera pans unlike any other, reaching far across the screen, drifting over enchanting landscapes before you feel its pull back towards the task at hand. No life bars, meters, or text are to be seen.

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The castle is haunting, and at the same time beautiful.


Yorda’s pale figure emits a subtle white glow, and she is often seen patiently awaiting your return, her torn dress flapping in the wind while all that can be heard is the breeze and chirping of the birds – and it is at these moments that Ico is most moving. Gently tugging this sheepish girl along by the hand amongst the vibrantly colored outdoors or empty castle towers has the potential to move players in ways that remains unique even a decade later. It involves a youthful attachment, one that can make you uncomfortable should your companion ever leave your view.

However, it’s not to say that this 4-6 hour escort mission isn’t tedious at times. The camera, though interesting, can give you awkward angles in combat, and jumping to your death as a result of unsure distances and having trouble lining up leaps to narrow chains is a very real, and sometimes frustrating occurrence. The shadowy creatures after Yorda also tend to overstay their welcome, coming in large waves that create a panicky process of running back and forth – at one end trying to wack at enemies who possess difficult to strike hitboxes and rise back up numerous times, and at the other end making sure to grab Yorda before she is sucked into a pool of darkness. Fortunately, the creatures typically only come when you’re not knee deep in puzzle solving.

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You must solve what's ahead in order to create manageable distances that Yorda can overcome.


Despite these annoyances, they bear little weight on what the player will take away from the ultimate experience. The game is very meticulous in its puzzles, and players always looking to swing their stick or constantly leap from ledge to ledge will find the experience resoundingly average, even painful. Perhaps in any other game, waiting for your companion to slowly climb a substantially lengthy ladder – step by step, ever so cautiously as Yorda does – would be an absolutely deplorable experience. And yet you’ll stand there, and wait, not in impatience but with understanding, awaiting Yorda, your bright beacon of hope – two lost youth looking for freedom.

Conclusion

Ico is a curious game to lend judgment to as its experience can certainly vary depending on what players choose to take from it. It’s eerie in its presentation, thoughtful in design, and profoundly vivid throughout. Though created with gaming elements we’re all too familiar with – ledges, ropes, levers, and 3 swing combos – Ico is able to grab at our hearts in a masterfully conceived way. At one point in the game, Yorda will periodically stumble to the ground as you try to run her along at your usual brisk pace. What is perhaps the greatest example of the effect this game has on its players is that some will, at this moment, slow their pace. Not because it is more efficient to do so, but because she is in pain – this fictional A.I. character with no usefulness about her is in pain, and it concerns you.

Rating: 10/10

holdthephone's avatar
Community review by holdthephone (October 20, 2011)

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honestgamer posted October 20, 2011:

I've approved this review and I'm leaving feedback here where you can see it, rather than rejecting the piece (which in general is well written), but I hope you'll go back to it and make some adjustments. For one thing, the site uses HTML in its reviews, not php-bb tags, so you'll want to change that. For another, there's no reason to include the score again in your review because it is provided automatically at the end of your review. Finally, you seem to have reviewed the HD version of the game included in the recent PS3 pack, rather than the PS2 original. You might want to tailor your text more to the PS2 version if you're going to leave it posted there (early on, the references were fine, but notes about how good it looks in HD felt out of place). I hope that you'll keep writing and that you'll feel comfortable submitting future reviews here.
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holdthephone posted October 20, 2011:

Thanks, sorry about the sloppy formatting. It's my first time and, no offense to the site, but I didn't have a preview option or much of an interface for formatting. I'll keep this in mind for next time though, and I appreciate the review being accepted.

And yeah, wasn't sure how to work around the fact that I'm reviewing the HD remaster of ICO and advertise it as such -- as I'm not going over the entire HD collection, and just one game.

Thanks a lot!
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Suskie posted October 20, 2011:

Correct me if I'm mistaken, but speaking as someone who's submitted over a hundred reviews to this site, I'm pretty sure it's literally impossible to contribute a review without previewing it.
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honestgamer posted October 20, 2011:

It used to be. The new form (implemented 2 days ago) has changed some things and that's one of them. Still some kinks to work out, I think, though there are other things that are improvements from a backend perspective.
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holdthephone posted October 20, 2011:

I suppose I could just view the html and all in another window, true. Wasn't thinking.
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fleinn posted October 21, 2011:

Neat review :) Like the structure of the review, it fits well for doing a "retrospective". But I hope you continue to use that way to approach other games too..

The natural breaks work really well, imo. I don't think you need the "conclusion" headline either, because of the way the review is put together. Specially since it ties back to the money-shot earlier.

This here was a good opportunity to use a different word, though:
<em>"guiding a rather useless A.I. through puzzles, defending her from enemies in between, and yet somehow at the end of it all isn’t reflected upon negatively. In fact, it’s the fragile nature of Yorda, her uselessness,"</em>

If you used "frailty" or "vulnerability", or some adjective you would use to describe a person rather than a mechanism, that would go really well with the rest, imo. Describe the transformation, that kind of thing. Would do great as a quote, imo.

Also, sure it's not a 9? :p It looks like a nine from the review-text.
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holdthephone posted October 24, 2011:

Thanks that's a good point about the word usage there.

As for the score, I just think the game design at work here is impressive enough that a few minor annoyances aren't going to be enough to dock it a whole level. Every game has flaws, but few games manage to turn out so well regardless.

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