It’s funny how some games are lost on the unsuspecting public. While most games – heck, all games – are produced, primarily, to rake in consumer dough, some developers have loftier goals than just profit. Some strive to tell a moving story, some offer a breathtaking visual style, and others are just too wacky to categorize. But games like these often face an uphill battle for acceptance even before they reach release. These manifestations of uniqueness find themselves fighting for shelf space alongside wretchedly cute mascot games, mame-a-thon shooters, and perennial upgrade-happy sports games. Unless the discerning gamer is willing to expand their horizons and take a chance, the titles of innovation and originality find themselves in the bargain bin faster than you can mutter Superman 64.
Three years ago, one of these particularly unique games was critically acclaimed yet still criminally neglected. During the Grand Theft Auto III hysteria and GameCube/Xbox schoolyard/Internet squabbles that gripped America in 2001, a little gem named Ico quietly slipped onto store shelves. The absorbing storyline, delicate and beautiful graphics, and the frighteningly immense world the characters inhabited were but a few of Ico’s many defining strengths. The emotion and beauty flowing through the game were effortlessly engaging, yet rare in the video game market; from a hard-core gamer’s standpoint Ico gleamed much like a diamond in the rough. But alas, Ico was relegated to being a mere footnote on the pages of gaming history – yet rightly acknowledged at #1 on GameSpy’s “25 Most Underrated Games” list. But dig around in a nearby used-game shop, and you may well uncover one of the best gaming experiences to ever have passed you by.
The story of Ico is as timeless as gaming itself. Persecuted for being a little different – okay, he has horns – our young protagonist, Ico, is apprehended by paranoid, narrow-minded villagers intent on imprisoning him. Taken to an abandoned castle, Ico is sealed away in a stone cage to live out the remainder of his days. However, a sudden earthquake soon shatters the restraining cage, and our incarcerated hero is inadvertently handed his freedom. Trying to locate a way out of the castle, Ico stumbles upon a caged young girl named Yorda (kinky!). Rescuing the damsel in distress (whom we later learn is a princess), the two companions face baneful threats from summoned shadow-demons, an uppity queen, and the castle itself. The now, much clich?d ?boy saves princess’ plot device may normally induce sighs of tedium and eye-rolls of disdain, but it takes on a different twist in this game. The subsequent escape and survival of Ico and Yorda depend on the reliance they build for each other mixed with their own unique skills. The story is pretty straightforward, but it ceaselessly unfolds in an elegant and cinematic fashion. It also answers those significant questions, such as: “Why is mom’s so triflin’?”.
Even after three years, Ico’s visuals still continue to stun. The characters may exhibit some blur and jag, but their design remains gorgeous; the fragile, haunting beauty of Yorda against Ico’s lanky horned frame are inspired creations. The wraithlike vapors and icy-blue eyes of the shadow-demons along with the imposingly sinister queen are the dark yang to the protagonists’ delicate yin. But, beyond visuals, the personalities of the characters manage to shine through; from Ico’s unlimited energy to Yorda’s shy and inquiring movement – even a game save says a thousand words: seeing a game save couch (my kind of game save), Ico plops down while Yorda carefully approaches it before sitting. More impressive are the environments that compose the game world. The rendered backdrops making up the larger-than-life castle are gorgeous yet ominously brooding. The coldness often associated with static environments works to Ico’s advantage, turning the stone and metal fortress into a fearsome enemy in its own right. But the beauty shines through the lighting effects; much of the game is awash in natural light, from projected beams filtering through windows to the sun’s blinded glare. Running hand-in-hand with the sunlight nearly washing out the screen is almost heart stopping in its intensity – it is that awe-inspiring. Cinematic swoops and pans of the camera lend a sense of creative expression. From the towering structures to the creatures inhabiting the mythical world, the game’s look draws comparisons to another overlooked sleeper series: Panzer Dragoon. Both ooze atmosphere in their unconventional, gorgeous characters, and stunning, engaging environments. It is almost like watching art come to life.
The sound, while not as dominant as the graphics, is still impressive. The music – though only present in certain situations – is as subtle and lovely as Yorda herself. From the ghostly piano and desperate moans of Yorda about to be captured, to the worldly jangle of the main theme and save music, its distinctive nature complements the game’s sophisticated aesthetic. The minimalist music approach allows you to take in the aural details that are prolific throughout the game: footsteps, creaking metal, and the crackling of burning wood to name but a few. Standard stuff, mind you, but it is perfectly cast against the stark surroundings. And when you’re running along the top of the castle with the wind blowing like a banshee’s piercing wail, it draws you into the game’s ambience that much more. The voice acting is great as well, with all of the dialogue spoken in an alien language. There isn’t much verbal interaction, but the unfamiliar speech further conveys the engrossing nature of this grandiose, fictitious world.
Control in Ico is straightforward and functional. The left analog stick and digital pad aid in movement, and the right analog stick dictates the camera’s positioning. The square button swings your weapon of choice, the triangle button controls jumps, circle is for environment-specific actions, and ?X’ releases Ico’s grip from objects. R1 – the most essential button in this game – grabs onto Yorda’s hand (and also calls to her if she’s acting up); R2 zooms in on Ico, as well as the closest parts of the environment. The left analog isn’t very sensitive, as there are only two speeds of movement: daily stroll and fleeing the scene of the crime. Conversely, the right analog seems to be too sensitive, often veering off course, yet it’s limited to a 180-degree view around Ico.
Gameplay is deceptively effortless, yet adds to the enthralling nature of the game. A puzzle game at its heart, Ico shuns the ?find the keys’ and ?go fetch’ quest exercises of frustration for a more realistic – and ultimately more satisfying – design. The oversized castle is broken up into digestible chunks, with most involving clever manipulation of the immediate environment. Upon entering a new section, there might be a switch in an unreachable place, or a giant chasm that looks as wide as your eyes grow when you first see it. But look closely around the area, and there might be a helpful tool or ledge to grab onto. Knowing how to maneuver yourself and Yorda through each segment may seem intimidating at first, but the rush of excitement afterwards is well worth the effort. Most of the puzzles are logical, and don’t involve leaps of faith to understand or solve them. And there are lots of them standing between you and opening the castle’s front gates. Both Ico and Yorda use their abilities to solve the puzzles. Ico is the athlete of the pair; climbing, swinging and leaping like a sugar-gorged monkey. Yorda is literally the key, with the ability to open special Idol Doors that litter the castle grounds. The combination of the two makes for a powerful gaming experience that is gripping and fun, yet also strenuous and challenging.
Speaking of threats, they dwell in the form of phantom-like demons. After Yorda is freed from her prison, they emerge from a shadowy portal in the ground, hell-bent on capturing Yorda and returning to the darkness. These portals pop up throughout the game, spawning different forms: ghostly spiders, birds, and wispy-yet-strong demons. Ico is the lone champion standing between the demons and Yorda – but he has help. Armed with a wooden stick, and later a sword, Ico can bat off enemies with a few taps of the attack button. It seems like a simple method of defense, but becomes a frantic matter of survival when surrounded by hosts of malignant demons. Things never get too far beyond your control, but do provide a nice challenge to break up the taxing puzzles.
Not everything in Ico is sublime, though. Character animation is sometimes stiff and there are a few frame-rate issues, too. The camera sometimes pans in odd directions, making it hard to see Ico at times. Yorda’s AI is a little slow on the uptake, having to be prodded to move just right (occasionally involving you moving a few centimeters for the desired effect). Some players may not like the real-time events, such as demons capturing Yorda while you’re in another room. For players who like unlockable features and other goodies and bonuses as incentive to replay the game – there is no fuel for their fire in Ico. The biggest complaint is that the game is too short. Those looking for an RPG-like play length will be rather disappointed, but stretching out the time would ruin the perfect pacing of the story. All are mere blemishes on an otherwise superb experience.
Ico is the type of game that true gamers yearn for. It is actually more than just a game; it’s a magnificent experience that must not be missed. Quite a statement, but the exquisite visuals exude a level of personality, warmth and beauty that most graphic powerhouses simply can’t attain. The audio is perfectly matched and balanced, providing an enveloping backdrop that impresses with its modesty. The effortless control and logic-based puzzles stress simplicity yet manage to invoke challenge throughout. Engineered as separate facets across other games, these qualities would perhaps be lost and wasted without a worthy central force weaving them together. Because Ico takes an unassuming approach in so beautifully crafting such a unique experience, the little graphical nuances, unobtrusive music, and simple story would stick out like a sore thumb in other titles. But, in this game, everything blends, overlaps, and meshes together almost perfectly. The fear in Ico and Yorda as their diminutive forms risk life and limb to flee their towering brick-and-mortar prison is an almost tangible experience for the player. You can feel the goose bumps when Yorda is being carried off to impending death by a shadow-demon. You feel the warm heat of the sun as it washes out most of the viewing perspective. You feel the wind whipping past your ears as you stand atop of the castle walls. You sigh with fulfillment and relief when finally solving a puzzle that had been threatening to stump you. And you treasure each and every priceless minute that you play this game.
Games like Ico are increasingly rare in their originality, honesty, and heartfelt approach to the digital form of entertainment. These are the games that people say they want yet rarely buy. Do yourself a favor and support these games – support Ico. We are lucky to be getting the pseudo-sequel, Wanda and the Colossus, but who knows how much longer publishers will reward us with such precious gems. Don’t give them a choice; take a chance.