Ico is an important game, but one that time has not been particularly kind to.
Cons: Poor combat; Dragging Yorda around gets annoying; Yorda pathfinding issues
Note: This review was based on the HD collection version of Ico. As far as I know this doesn't affect the game significantly in one way or the other, but I figured it was worth mentioning.
I am glad Ico exists. Ico was an important game for its time, marrying game mechanics and artistic message without seeming pretentious. It was a significant step forward for art games, which I believe can still become a significant force if they continue to experiment with what our medium can do. If nothing else, Ico helped lead to Journey, which is absolutely one of my favorite games in recent years.
However, I am not necessarily glad I played Ico.
Ico is an action-adventure game at heart, whose claims to fame are its simple understated art style and the way it attempts to make you bond with your companion. Puzzles are based around getting you both from point A to point B, and there's an entire button dedicated to nothing but calling your partner and holding her hand.
At the time this was a strange, but significant step forward to connecting message and mechanics. The idea is that having to work with your companion, Yorda, would cause some bond to form between the two of you, and you would sympathize with your companion. This groundbreaking focus on companion bonding would eventually lead us to Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us, which have been making waves this year, so Ico's influence really can't be overstated.
However, like a lot of early pioneering works, the results are rough. Very rough. Yorda is completely helpless without you: she moves slowly, forcing you to drag her along or else be waiting for days; she can't defend herself, lacking either a fight or flight instinct; and she can't navigate the world competently at all. Her only contribution to your adventure is that she opens certain doors for you. In that respect, she's more like a key than a person. Except you have to babysit this key.
It doesn't help that the game's combat-which composes just shy of 50% of the game-is pretty bad. Enemies are all largely identical, and your only strategy is to mash square repeatedly until they die. You occasionally have to make sure Yorda doesn't get kidnapped, but otherwise, you just mash the square button and try to stay awake. Now, I'm not against combat, or even simple combat (Batman Arkham Asylum did it well), but if you are going to make combat this simple and mindless, you probably either a) shouldn't use it for about half the game, or b) shouldn't include it at all.
Fortunately, for everything that Ico does wrong, the puzzles are actually pretty excellent. These are your standard action-adventure puzzles, with blocks, switches, torches, etc. However, they are generally well-designed, and aside from a couple that involve a lot of running back-and-forth, they feel more clever than annoying. Solving a puzzle while immersed in the game's silent, solemn world is a satisfying experience, and elevates the experience.
It's in those moments that I see what the fuss is about. These moments of calm quiet recollection are different from the usual explosive pace of AAA games, and are very pleasant. It's just a shame that nothing else really holds up. I'm sure many people will get this as part of the HD collection with the far superior Shadow of the Colossus, and want to play it to find out what the fuss is about. And while there is nothing outwardly bad about the experience, you may find yourself scratching your head in confusion when it's all over.