Beautiful, fun, and moving, from start to finish
Whew, where to begin? Duh. You start off a little leaping lad with horns, clothes, and nothing else. Imprisoned in an enormous castle for a mystic purpose that isn't quite clear, you escape your confinement by chance and start wandering the castle, looking for a way out. Ico is quite nimble, as you make him jump and grasp at walls, ledges, chains, and ropes. Unless you're charging full boar, he won't slip over an edge, ever. The camera is mostly stationary, changing angles and following along to give you a strategic and scenic view. Whenever you turn a corner, it sweeps around to show what you're getting into. From this predetermined position, you can turn the camera at any angle and zoom in or out at all times.
Two halls over from your intended rotting-spot, you find in a cage suspended from the ceiling, Yorda, a lovely, ghostly girl some years older than Ico. Once you free her, she is your charge. You must protect her, you must lead her. But you will rarely tire of her. While she is rather frail and dependent on you for guidance, she can actually carry herself rather well, and will surprise you with her determination in some instances, and her trust in you will win you over. As you guide her, you can continually call for her to follow, or you can hold her hand. Running while holding her hand, she will be jerked forward by Ico's grip sometimes. This is very emotive in two situations: it shows the urgency when you really must run to escape some overwhelming enemies; and it will compel you to kindly stroll when you're free of danger and you feel she deserves a bit of peace.
While Yorda depends on you to move around much of the time, you will quickly realize how important she is to your advancement throughout the castle, as she has a power that is indispensable. By a third of the way through the game, perhaps, you will really begin to like Yorda. Her leaps over gaps and into your waiting hands show a faith that amazes me.
The action of the game is solving puzzles by pressing timed or weighted switches, flipping drawbridges, destroying or moving parts of the environment, and otherwise finding paths not obvious at a first glance. Between this puzzling and pathfinding are some demonic shadows that will try to take Yorda into a void and will fight you for her. They're not particularly difficult to fend off, but nonetheless you will feel a little uneasy when you think they might pop up, or when they've just been quelled. The finest rest you'll get is at the save points throughout the game, represented as a charmed stone love seat. When you take a seat, Yorda will lazily sit next to you, for a nice vignette of the peace you can't really afford in your rush to get out of this hell hole! When you load up a save, Ico will be asleep, slumped toward Yorda, and wake when you move or press a button.
There are many fine details in the game, of course, that I'd love to tell you all about, but there's not much point to it, is there? Because you're going to play it. Or you already have and you're reading this to see if anyone could love it as much as you did.
Summarily, this is a finely crafted piece of action, puzzling, and storytelling which will engage you with its many caring details which make the environment come alive like only books or the real world usually can.
Okay, now the rant:
I just finished the game for the first time. I've been playing for the last six hours (the last half of the game, give or take). The game is wonderful, of course. I couldn't love it more. Right now, I love it more than I love my passport, my vote, my stupid white privilege. I am so angry with my love for this game, because my country has stripped me of my denouement.
I didn't know this for a fact, but I felt strongly after finishing the game that another playthrough would render Yorda's speech in English. I was so pleased with every facet of the game to the end that I was certain this would be true. I didn't even bother looking it up. I started playing a second time, found my fair Yorda, and she spoke her same soft gibberish. Now Wikipedia informs me that this was in fact a feature, along with two player, Ico and Yorda (!), in every version but the North American! I am shocked. Not only do they give little Ico a weird button nose on the cover and hope that people's GE tubes are too blurry to distinguish the East Asian boy in the game, but they actually removed features. Now I need to buy a Japanese or a European PS2 and a copy of the game. Sheesh. What choice do I have?
EDIT: I just reread the paragraph of the Wikipedia article dealing with the North American version's shortcomings. It seems that the extra features and cover were not available at the time the North American version was being finalized. So I guess for our privilege as first seconds for Japanese localisations, we sacrifice some of the benefits. And, By The Way, at the side here, Gamespot is saying, if you like this, you may like Shadow of the Colossus (naturally), Beyond Good and Evil (occurred to me a couple times while playing, actually), and Okami (why not?). And as a further aside, several gameplay mechanics of this game reminded me of Twilight Princess (cutting ropes on drawbridges, ghouls out of portals, and maybe some other stuff). Zelda has such a burden to be perfect, but gems like this can shine through in a purer light.