Devilish looks, Heavenly charm.
Children are a precious gift. Every parent hopes that their children are born healthy without any complications. In a country village of a fantasy world, parents have an even deeper hope that their child will not be "the one" - the one in every generation born with horns. This, it seems, marks a damnation against the village. Curse upon curses!
And wouldn't you know it, a child is born with horns. His name? Ico. His story? That's for you to find out.
On his 12th birthday, Ico is taken to an ancient castle to be sacrificed, entombed away from the living world. By some twist of fate, Ico's rocky coffin has broken open. Trapped behind stone walls, Ico finds someone that shares his sad fate, the ghostly princess Yorda. Together, they must find their way to freedom.
I would speak of ICO the game in the same sentence as Flashback and Panzer Dragoon Saga, two groundbreaking games of their relative eras. The realism of ICO's animation and the strategic maneuvering remind me of Flashback. Panzer Dragoon Saga and ICO share the mysterious girl, newly invented language and terrific atmosphere. Unfortunately, they also share the pains of being short games.
The story is simple, but is carried through by the atmosphere and characters. There's a woeful vulnerability to Ico, the horned boy. You can't help but empathize with the poor kid.
Yorda is a non-playable character, your only friend and the key to freedom, and she has the power to open magically locked doors. Oh, and by the way, she's blind. Guiding her by hand and calling out to her are the only ways to direct her towards the locked gates of the castle. You must also protect her from the shadowy spirits that want to pull Yorda back into the darkness.
For those of you looking for white-knuckle action, you woní‚Â¹t find it here. There's no life bar or any other traditional video game meter. At its heart, ICO is in the vein of classic adventure/puzzle games. Thankfully, the puzzles in ICO aren't key hunts or irritating platform jumps. Rather, traditional goals of puzzle games are still employed, such as the ever-present crates and switches, but the gameplay is fresh and new.
Real physics help differentiate ICO from its puzzle game predecessors. There's everything from torque (greater radius increases power) to the momentum of swinging from chains.
While action is not Ico's forte, there are still battles to fight against the shadowy spirits. Keeping these spirits at bay requires no more skill than a pulsating thumb and keeping tabs on Yorda's safety. The fights are essentially button mashing trials, which makes the fighter in me long for some deeper swordplay. Arguably, Ico is just a little kid without any training, but even an added variation of the attack would have juiced up the battles.
The learning curve is steady and the third-person camera lends itself towards solving the different puzzles. The camera will strategically align you with the details you'll need in order to figure out the different problems.
In one area, I overthought the problem and figured I was supposed to jump off a cliff into a giant watery chasm. While the right answer was much simpler, the watery chasm would be revisited later in the game. The way the environments mesh together as you revisit different sections of the castle in your adventures really adds a lot to the realism of the environment. From atop a rocky promontory high in the sky, you could look down to see the grassy foyer you ran through earlier.
The castle grounds teem with aging bricks and mortar, bridges cast against a waning sun, and even a tired old windmill, yet interestingly enough, the inside is littered with swank upholstered sofas, the save points of the game. Not your run of the mill medieval castle furniture, but what the hey.
The graphics are unique, somewhat reminiscent of an old oil painting. Colors glow as if floating on a canvas (in technical terms, when a medium like linseed oil or Liquin is used to gloss the base pigments. For the interested art nerds, go here.) The textures unfortunately look to be on the low-res side, lending a light haze to the game. However, the water is perhaps the best yet seen in a video game. When Ico passes behind a steady waterfall, there's even a refracted image. Way cool.
The characters animate with eerie realism. When Ico hastens Yorda to follow, Yorda's empty trailing hand swings back and forth in her tiring efforts to keep up. It looks like a real kid dragging his mom in excitement. Subtle touches like these lend unparalleled beauty to the game.
For the most part, ICO uses environmental noise. The chilly melody trickles forth when the spirits return to snatch Yorda away. Ití‚Â¹s like a cue to hightail it away. The real world sounds of birds chirping, echoing footsteps, and tiny gasps for breath add nifty audio touches that flesh out the atmosphere.
For everything that it is, ICO is a painfully short game. I finished in about 7 hours. The game really begs the argument: Would you rather have less fun drawn out across more hours, or highly concentrated fun in a scant few hours? After all, would I still be drawn to block pushing and rope swinging after 80 hours? Not likely. The 7 hours that I enjoyed were fun and well paced. I just didn't want it to end. Too bad there's no replay outside of self-imposed challenges.
ICO is definitely a cool experience, albeit a short one. Accordingly, a rental seems perfect. Take it slow and just enjoy the beauty.