December 16, 2011 – Confession time – I’ve never played either ICO or Shadow of the Colossus before now. While this deprived me of some truly fantastic experiences of the previous generation, by all accounts I couldn’t be playing them at a better time, now that hey are in HD on the Playstation 3, since the original frame-rates for both games were reportedly atrocious but are now fixed. Aside from the resolution and frame-rate, the graphics haven’t been touched whatsoever. This is both a bad and a good thing. Good for the nostalgic purists, and bad for those who would have liked to see what kind of beauty more polygons could have squeezed out of an already beautiful game.
And when I say it is beautiful, I do not mean in its graphical prowess. It wasn’t especially amazing in terms of particle effects, polygons and geometry during its own time. No, I mean that the art style, and sheer design of the game complement the graphics so well that polygons are practically a non-issue. I feel that this is much the same effect that plays in Minecraft, which is the very definition of normally terrible graphics being perfectly suited for the game. What we have in ICO is a perfect blend of subtle music and art style to create stark, powerful imagery. The beauty is in the purity of the images presented. Where moden games like Uncharted 3 create beauty in lavishly sculpted surroundings and character models that show a wide variety of expressions, ICO relies on the imposing darkness of tall imposing castle walls, an the simple imagery of a beam of light shining through an open window. The image of a girl of white holding hands with a horned young boy.
Hm, I get ahead of myself. For those unfamiliar with the premise, it is quite simple. A child born with horns is taken by armed guards to a seemingly empty castle. All children born with horns are met with this fate, being sacrifices to the castle. The child, ICO, is left imprisoned in a strange egg-like shell. When the guards leave, ICO struggles withing his strange cell, which tips over and breaks open. He hits his head and has a nightmare. Upon waking up, he climbs to the top of a tower and finds a mysterious elf-like girl, Yorda, held in a cage. He frees her, and though they cannot understand each others languages, they set out to leave the castle. Along the way they are besieged by mysterious shadowy figures, all the while being monitored by a greater power within the castle. Without resorting to some pretty serious spoilers, that is the majority of the story. Aside from several key moments, the rest of he game is free of narrative. It is natural to then ask why the game is hailed as much as it is for its story.
Like most of the best stories in the medium, ICO’s story mostly takes place during the gameplay. The simple narrative of a child, lost in a dangerous and foreboding castle, desperately attempting to lead another, more mysterious child out to safety, is most effectively told through the mechanic of hand-holding that is central to the relationship between Yorda and ICO. This image, of two lost children holding hands, together in this dark world, is what makes ICO so inherently powerful.
The mysterious, lonely atmosphere is also fantastic. The melancholy is inescapable. As you trek through winding staircases, shimmy along ancient rusting pipeworks and over broken chasms, the fact that you and Yorda alone are the only two living beings in the entire castle that isn’t some sort of shadow wraith begins to settle in and you feel like the last people on earth. The insubstantial nature of your enemies only enhances the sensation that there is a vast gulf between you and any recognizable reality. The castle may very well have been a dark and cloudy sea. It seems as endless, as lifeless and otherworldly as that great watery deep, except perhaps more oppressive, more claustrophobic, for all the cavernousness of its rooms.
The eventual plot points that are revealed through cinematics and through the gameplay of the final act are all magnificently done, all while remaining in that same style of minimalist explanation, and simple imagery. The story is practically mythical in its telling, like a dark fairy tale. No one should miss the sequence after the credits. It is the perfect emotional and mysterious ending that the story needed, which the final sequence before the credits simply wasn’t quite strong enough to provide. The story of ICO stands the test of time, and remains a classic of gaming.
If there is any one place where the game could be said to stumble, it would be the gameplay. There is no question that the controls do not age particularly well. Between the occasional terrible camera angle (and the frustratingly wild ability to move it) and the sometime imprecise movement controls, players will find themselves dying more than once due to accidents. I cannot tell how many times I jumped at a chain or ledge only to discover that the angle wasn’t quite right so I’d go plummeting to my demise. This becomes controller-smashingly annoying when your last checkpoint is a long string of platforming and fighting away.
The platforming and minor environmental puzzle solving are well executed, but anyone weaned on modern 3-d platformers like Assassin’s Creed will find the climbing controls limiting. Despite the game’s short run-time, some of the puzzles seem to drag a little, and the player will see the same castle courtyard perhaps one too many times. It is hard to say that it feels like filler, when the experience is so good, but it does drag a little in the middle.
Combat can become annoying, partially because of the lack of variety. All of the shades have essentially the same tactics, and once you know those tactics you can easily bait them into opening themselves up for a good thwacking with a stick or slashing with a handy sword. The real threat is when they attack in droves, so getting hit is a higher possibility. You never die from their attacks, but getting thwacked once by one of these creatures will leave you lying on the floor holding your stomach while they grab Yorda, their real prize, and take off with her. All the combat prowess ICO has at his disposal is in the rapid pressing of the attack button, which is a fine enough defense against the shades usually, but the player will be craving more variety in terms of combat options before long.
This simple combat system leaves the player feeling incapable and somewhat helpless, especially when compared to the sensation of power playing characters like Kratos, from God of War, gives. I personally find that sense of helplessness to be a feature rather than a poor design choice. I truly felt like a lost child playing ICO. I wasn’t some great warrior. I was a boy with no real experience trying to protect myself with a stick and the desperate flailing of my arms. The simple combat system helped me inhabit that sensation.
ICO was made in a time before multiplayer add-ons were a vital part of every game package, and the focus of that single player experience shows in its craftsmanship. Despite its short running time (less than four hours if you get really good at it and don’t really die) it was worth the money; to be honest, getting ICO and Shadow of the Colossus together, with better frame-rates at a cheaper price point than when they came out pretty much makes this a must for every PlayStation 3 owner looking for more out of their game time than just cool explosions and endless shooting galleries.
ICO is an indisputable classic. The story and atmosphere are just as, if not more, compelling than they originally were (due to the higher frame-rates and resolution). Despite aging gameplay and the just-slightly-too-slow bits near the middle, it cannot be denied. It was a powerful game then, and it remains one of the great experiences of the video game medium.
STAR RATING: (4 1/2)
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
The beauty of ICO is pretty much all in its minimalist story. There isn’t wasted time on exposition, or on unnecessary background information. Like a fairy tale, it provides you with the exact pieces of information you need to get the most emotional weight out of it. In that regard, the room for spoilers is pretty small.
But what spoilers! The break in the story, when the simplistic running through the castle with Yorda is ended by the return of the shadowy queen, is a fantastically done, if somewhat expected development (one does not simply walk into – or out of, as the case may be- Mordor). The entire final act is what makes the game for me. The utter loneliness without Yorda, the darkness, the rain, the grays and blues that permeate the watery world in the belly of the castle complex, all add layers to the already brilliant atmosphere of the game. The platforming also felt more interesting in these parts, which might partially be because you no longer have to worry about Yorda being ambushed by shadow cretins, thus drawing you rushing back to her side.
I could see how the fight beside stone-Yorda against the near endless shadow children could be considered tedious, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of pity I had for these creatures. They share the likeness of ICO, being children with horns. The fact that these spirits are likely all that remains of the poor children sacrificed to this place makes them tragic figures, and cutting them down to save Yorda as much a symbolic and spiritual process as basic gameplay.
Then the final fight with the Queen. Now that was a boss fight. I felt that it was pretty damn well done. Not too long, but every second of it felt epic. Her power felt so far beyond mine, and yet the power of that place, and of the sword in my hands could just keep her at bay. One wrong move would spell doom, but the player is given every tool to defeat her, which, while not terribly difficult, makes her final demise so great.
The ending seems to be pretty much up to interpretation, but I have a tendency to agree, at least partially, with one opinion that I found online, which is that both Yorda and ICO die in the ensuing destruction of the castle, and that the beautiful scene at the end of the credits is the afterlife; that scene being the seemingly endless, even dream-like beach that ICO wakes up on. But that is the beauty of endings like this. In their mystery they invite every player to make that ending themselves, and thus become a part of it in a way that they might not otherwise be.