ICO makes subtlety an art form and with the smallest elements builds an experience like none other.
This is the world of ICO.
Sony’s 2001 adventure title is understated from beginning to end, but don’t let that simplicity fool you. ICO, which was originally in development for PlayStation before finally making its way to PS2, delivers a deep and captivating experience that places it among the classic adventure games from Sierra and Lucas Arts.
It is the story of the horned boy, Ico, who manages to escape his stone prison and wanders the fortress in search of an exit. Early in his journey he meets a girl, Yorda, who he releases from an iron cage and who he is determined to rescue from her captivity in the castle. It soon becomes clear that escape is neither easy nor guaranteed. Yorda is pursued by a host of black smokelike demons who serve the sinister mistress of the castle.
Like everything else, ICO’s storytelling is low key, letting the player intuitively understand the relationship between the main characters rather than needlessly expounding on it in lengthy dialogues and cutscenes. Instead, the story plays out naturally as Ico and Yorda explore the castle. The few cutscenes there are provide very basic facts around which the player can easily construct the rest of the story. Despite the fact that they’re speaking unknown languages, at no point in the game are the pair’s motives veiled or their actions perplexing. The transparency of the characters is one of ICO's greatest strengths.
Every other aspect of the game’s design flows out of the story. The puzzle elements largely consist of the much more agile Ico’s attempts to clear a safe path for Yorda. Their way will lead them along broken walkways, across crumbling parapets, over rickety handcar tracks, and through ruined courtyards. These puzzles are found in the environments the children are traversing. Rarely do they feel as though they were artificially inserted in order to provide a challenge to the gamer. On the contrary, they feel as though the developers took advantage of the features already present in the various areas to create unique and stimulating solutions. Instead of hunting for broken pieces of machinery or mystical glowing stones, Ico shimmies across ledges, climbs chains, swings from chandeliers, and topples broken columns. As an additional test, occasionally Ico will encounter a door only Yorda can open. The adventure elements are surprisingly organic and subtle, which is good because they constitute the most difficult parts of the game.
The combat is noticeably less challenging. Yorda’s demonic pursuers will appear suddenly and attempt to physically carry her away and she is completely helpless to resist them. It falls to Ico, then, to defend her. He does this by swinging his weapon at them and attempting, somewhat desperately, to swat them away. Through most of the game Ico will wield a simple stick as his only means of defense. As he slashes at the creatures, bits of their bodies will fly off and scatter in the wind. Despite their insubstantial appearance, these fiends are an even match for Ico. They will attack in groups, attempt to distract Ico, and can even deal him a hard enough blow that he will fall over winded. If they manage to get their claws on Yorda they will carry her to a dark portal in the floor and try to pull her through. If Ico cannot reach and reclaim her before they do it means game over for the player. Fortunately, this won’t happen too often, and the main function of the battles is to increase the tension and to cement Ico’s devotion to Yorda.
It is in the animations that the real subtleties of the main characters’ relationship shine. Though smaller and shorter than Yorda, Ico moves with stoic determination, flinging himself across gaps and scrabbling up walls. He runs with the gangly abandon of childhood, and his legs swing wildly as he climbs ropes. Yorda, on the other hand, is timid and hesitant. She runs with shuffling steps and pauses dangerously at the last moment before she jumps. When they run together, the two link hands and he drags her along behind him. When they sit down on one of the game’s many wrought iron couches (which double as save points) you can almost see Ico’s tension and exhaustion melt away as his head slumps sideways and he falls asleep on Yorda’s shoulder.
The game’s environments are as brilliantly and carefully done as the animations. The castle is vast, the sheer scale of the rooms is breathtaking. Light and shadow are used to great effect, although not technically spectacular they always serve to enhance the mood of the scene. The designs of objects, almost without exception, look natural with none of the awkward angular look of some games. While the backgrounds are muted and in places a little hazy, the whole effect is that of natural lighting. It looks dreamy and dated, like fond memories from childhood. The character designs are very simple, particularly Yorda. While Ico’s look is consistent with the rest of his surroundings, Yorda is startlingly pale. Her face and clothes are stark white and even her hair is very light brown, which serves to emphasize her helplessness and vulnerability. Considering that this game was released so early in the PlayStation2’s lifecycle the quality of the graphics is wonderful.
The sound is no less thoughtfully produced. ICO is one of those rare games where the soundtrack never interferes with the gameplay. Throughout most of the game you’ll barely even notice that the sound is there. Some scenes have a studied silence, a lack of music that adds to the tension inherent in the scene. Where there is music the sound is soft, evocative, and perfectly in harmony with the story. The sound effects rarely seem overstated, footfalls are appropriately timed and you’ll hear the subtler sounds of the castle at a perfect volume. Although there is little voice acting in ICO, what little there is sounds convincing. All the lines are spoken in an arcane and unintelligible language but the timing and delivery never sound stilted. Ico’s dialogue is subtitled in English, but Yorda’s remains unintelligible until a subsequent play-through.
Unfortunately, the translation of Yorda’s lines is one of the only things that is different the second time through. Since ICO is a fairly short game, the average gamer should finish it in about ten hours; it isn’t something you’ll be playing for months. However, with its ethereal beauty and touching characterization it’s something you’ll want to revisit from time to time, if only for nostalgic reasons.
ICO is a stunning, moving masterpiece. It puts a new sweet twist on the classic boy meets girl storyline. It creates characters whose very movements will continually endear them to you. It tells their story through challenging and organic puzzles, and it combines it all in an immersive and harmonious experience. In ICO, Sony has given us a rare gem, a game that presents us with nothing new, but unites all that is best in classic adventure games in a way that is nearly flawless.