Developed by Japan Studios
Published by Sony
Played on: PS3
Also Available on: PS2
Ico is whisked away from his small village and taken to a grand, prison-like castle deep within the forest. His crime; He was born with horns. The guards escorting Ico throw him into a small tomb, where he is shackled. It acts as both his prison cell and his casket. But luck is on Ico’s side. The tomb breaks free from it’s bearings, and falls to the ground, breaking the lock and allowing Ico to escape. As Ico slowly makes his way out of the cell ward, he notices a cage hanging from the ceiling in a nearby tower. In this cage is a girl with bright, white skin and strange markings on her body. Ico is able to lower the cage and free the girl. But right as she walks out to meet her savior, monstrous shadow creatures rise from pitch black holes in the ground. There is only one thing to do. Ico grabs the girl’s hand and runs for the exit. And the journey to escape this isolated hell begins.
Ico is a third-person adventure puzzle game originally made for the PS2. I’m playing the HD remastered version bundled with Shadow of the Colossus, released exclusively for the PS3 in 2011. Both are available for separate digital download from the PSN store. For this review, I’m only going to be talking about Ico.
The goal of the game is to escape the castle Ico was locked away in with Yorda, the girl the player rescues shortly after the game starts. The game is divided into 15 levels, each demanding that a series of puzzles be solved to progress. Puzzles require a lot of movement on the player’s part, with the player having to control Ico so he can shimmy along walls, climb chains and ropes, and push crates. When completing these puzzles, the player will often have to find alternate routes to allow Yorda to continue on. Yorda can only climb onto small objects and walk, so the player must find and create ways for Yorda to get around without using chains, walls, and basically anything else Ico can manipulate. Once the player is able to get both themselves and Yorda past the various obstacles in their way, the player will be able to open an energy door to progress to the next level. Only Yorda can open these so it’s imperative to bring her everywhere Ico goes.
I found the puzzles to be the right level of difficulty. They were hard enough that I had to experiment and think. But they were understandable enough that I could figure it out without having to rely on an online guide. The movement in the game is also well paced. Many of the puzzles require the player to be slow and steady when they are climbing walls and chains. But the player is also forced into trickier movement situations, such as having to swing off of chains and jump between ledges.
And to make the puzzles even better, they have fail safes. If you push a crate in the wrong place or jump on the wrong platform, there is always a way back. You will never have to reload a checkpoint because you made a mistake while trying to solve a puzzle. Except when you jump off a wall and fall to your doom. This was really refreshing, as many puzzles games force the player into a situation where they have to get it right on the first try or reload their most recent save.
Outside of puzzling, the player will occasionally have to fight off groups of shadow monsters that appear from portals. These attacks only happen for one of two reasons. Either the player has completed a puzzle, or the player has left Yorda alone is a different room for too long. During these sections the player cannot die. But Yorda can be abducted by the shadow creatures. If she is carried into one of the portals, Ico will be covered in ash and you’ll have to restart from your last save. But the player has time, as it takes about 10 seconds for Yorda to be completely sucked into the shadow world.
The monsters can be defeated in one of two ways: either Ico will have to fight off all the creatures with his sword, or the player will have to bring Yorda to the nearest energy door. If the ladder is done, then all the monsters die in instantly.
Combat in the game is pretty mundane however. Ico will have one of three weapons: a stick, sword, or spiked hammer. The player only has to spam square and Ico will frantically swing at the creatures trying to carry Yorda off. It makes the combat more of an annoyance than anything else and really becomes more of a chore once the game starts to throw ten enemies or more at the player. But these end pretty quickly so they aren’t that much of a turn-off.
The only thing I found unbearable about the combat was how Ico would get knocked down. Even though Ico can’t die during combat, he can be knocked to the ground by shadows. When this happens, Ico will grab his stomach in pain for five or six seconds. I know this was meant to make the combat more interesting, but it just ends up being a major pain in the ass since it doesn’t make the game any harder. It just adds more time to the already lackluster combat.
The story and gameplay are wholly dependent on Yorda. So let’s talk about her AI. For the tasks demanded at the beginning of the game, Yorda’s AI is solid. The player can ask Yorda to follow them by holding R1. This can also be used to hold Yorda’s hand and pull her along if the button is held when she is standing next to Ico. But as time goes on and Yorda has to participate in more puzzles which demand more brain power from the player, her AI starts to show signs of weakness. There were times when I would call to her to come over to Ico, or follow him up the ladder he just climbed. But she would just turn away and walk in a different direction. While this didn’t do much besides annoy me during puzzle sections, it became infuriating during combat sections. Her inability to stay by Ico made it much easier for shadows to grab her and run off. But this wasn’t too much of a problem either because the monster AI is also kind of trash, with the enemies routinely flying up into the ceiling or walking into walls.
The game’s location makes up for some of these faults. The game looks beautiful. The scenic vistas and meticulous layout of the castle is incredible to look at. When Ico is climbing the side of the castle, the player will be able to hear the wind rushing past them, as birds sing in the background. Even the PS2 version of the game looks spectacular. And the HD remaster only adds to the stunning location. The castle gives off the vibe that Ico and Yorda have great lengths to go through to escape, with many parts of the castle depicted as decrepit and weak, showing signs of structural failure. This also adds to the puzzles, as the player has to navigate around the many holes in the ground and collapsed bridges scattered throughout.
But everything has its problems. Everything in Ico may be beautiful to look at, yet the game’s camera makes it difficult to see anything. It’s has similarities to both fixed camera angles and more modern free movement camera controls, with the camera moving on its own without player input. The player can move the angle of the camera, only for it to recenter on Ico once they take their thumb off the analog stick. This is by far the game’s worst problem. There were times when I would desperately try to line up a crate alongside a wall, only to have some rubble blocking the view. Every time I tried to move the camera, it would recenter on Ico, who is already concealed by the rubble. And it makes keeping track of Yorda a huge pain in the ass when climbing great heights. And remember, it’s very important that the player keep an eye on Yorda, or else the shadows will come to abduct her.
Now let’s talk about the story. The game is almost devoid of dialogue. Yorda and Ico never say much of anything directly to each other, as they speak different languages. Most of the story early on is told through cutscenes and what the player can infer from the world they are climbing and jumping through.
But the end is what really kept me invested. I’m going to be upfront here, the game doesn’t have any save points for the last hour or so. But the story is really good by that point, and I was willing to push through. I won’t spoil anything, but if the story seems slow and maybe even none existent at first, that’s because they save all the good stuff for the end.
I also felt that the story for the most part had good pacing. I’ll admit that there were times in the middle or so when I was starting to wonder where the story was going. Or if there was any direction for it to go. But I was pleasantly surprised with the plot development near the end.
In conclusion, Ico is a PS2 classic that deserved a remastered for a modern audience. The gameplay, story, and location all intertwine and add to one another in many ways, both obvious and subtle. And while I felt that the combat was shoehorned in and found the camera controls to be unintuitive, overall I feel like the game is great. It has a lot to offer, and I’ve found myself thinking about it more and more.
I am giving Ico a seven out of ten
Story is fleshed out despite near lack of dialogue
Puzzles that are challenging yet fair
HD remaster and PS2 original look great
Story has some pacing issues
Combat is repetitive
Camera is awful
Yorda’s AI causes some issues near the end of the game
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