Under development for a long time, and released with little fanfare, ICO is perhaps the epitome of a sleeper hit. The game was developed by a relatively fresh internal team at Sony, and the original PlayStation was its original target platform. It eventually made its way to the PS2, though, on which it has emerged in an altogether surprising form. At its core a simple, almost classical game, ICO has nonetheless proven to be one of the year's most interesting releases. The game is undoubtedly driven by its smartly crafted aesthetic mood, though its production never compromises the gameplay it provides. At a moment when cheap visual fluff is all too often framed by derivative game mechanics, ICO stands sound and elegant. It's an aesthetically driven game done right.
Though it opens with a relatively heavy video sequence, ICO's flow is seldom intruded upon throughout its course. And those sequences that are present are both tastefully minimal and effectively directed. The narrative is a simple one, which is quite fitting: Ico, a young boy born with a set of bull horns, has recently come of age. According to village practice, this means he must be sacrificed. So he is ushered by horse and by skiff to a remote castle and locked into a standing stone tomb. But due to some seismic fluctuation, he manages to escape. Upon doing so, he notices an almost ethereal girl locked in a giant birdcage. He makes it his business to set her free. All of this is communicated by the game's opening sequence, which ends with Ico standing in the huge chamber, his scrawny form eclipsed by the titan structure.
From that point on, you control Ico, helping him traverse the many hazards and obstacles found throughout the castle. The game is not unlike the classic Prince of Persia; its objectives and control mechanics are self-evident, with the main challenge found in its subtle environmental puzzles. Light physical puzzles are also present, but they're seldom focused upon. You will grasp the game's simple control scheme almost immediately, and very few permutations exist. Combat is similarly understated; you basically encounter one type of monster, which you can attack with one move. As such, the game will likely disappoint those craving sheer mechanical depth. But if you're playing ICO for a hearty twitch experience, you're missing the point entirely.
Early on, you rescue the girl shown in the opening sequence. Her name is Yorda, and a good number of the game's more striking elements are centered on her interactions with Ico. She isn't nearly as mobile as the diminutive hero, so you're going to spend lots of time "creating" paths for her to safely traverse where before there were none. Simply put, you'll lower platforms for her to hop onto, create bridges for her to cross, and narrow gaps enough for her to jump across (and land in your arms). Far from being tedious, these simple mechanics spotlight what is perhaps the game's most lovingly crafted element: its deep, emotive animations. When you're in close proximity to Yorda, you can take her by the hand and run with her. Doing so will initiate an animation routine that warmly captures the tug-and-pull dynamic of rough puppy love. When she jumps especially far distances, she'll scurry on the face of the wall before scrambling into your arms. And when you reach a save point (which take the form of wrought-iron couches), Ico and Yorda will slowly nod off on each other's shoulders, hand in hand. ICO will indeed pull your strings, in many ways.
The game's environments seal up the visual package and provide a brilliant stage for the activities throughout. Far from the geometrical playgrounds found in most 3D adventure games, ICO's environments feel like they've been hewn from stone or laid out on soft green earth. Rather than compromising a believable world by including gratuitously placed geometry, the developer has managed to imbue the environments' otherwise cosmetic elements with tons of gameplay potential. So instead of shimmying across neat parallel bars, for instance, you'll do so on the edges of balconies and the rails of stairs. While it's easy to understate the effect of this in text, it makes a world of difference when it comes to immersion within the actual game. It's hard to describe the effect of the game's scale; indeed, many games pull it off just as effectively. But the level of detail present in ICO's environments makes them feel ever more grand and imposing, which is something that few, if any, games have achieved.
The environments also look marvelous. Light is masterfully used throughout most sequences, either saturating the environs with its presence or accentuating the ambiance when darkness rules the moment. A soft haze permeates the game, keeping the mood soft yet heavy, even during its brightest moments. Further, a subtle bit of noise has been tastefully added, which does much to distance ICO from the sterile look found in many 3D games. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of the view from a surveillance camera. Soft, well-proportioned shadows contribute to the moody whole, doing much to weave the character models into the world. The characters themselves are relatively simple in terms of poly count, but their brilliant animations truly bring them to life. As they run through the expertly textured and masterfully constructed worlds, you'll be taken aback many times. The game's look is definitely the quality that leaves the strongest impression. Taking into account the game's lush ambient effects and a creeping, minimalist score, the whole of the production is inspired in ways that games seldom are.
Anyone interested in witnessing the cutting edge of art direction and atmospheric design in games will want to check out ICO. Few games are as seamless, and none are more elegantly bold, from a visual standpoint. ICO serves as a strong testament to the potential of video game aesthetics and boldly asserts that a strong production can indeed drive a game, when it's coupled with solid play mechanics.