Graphics: No matter your opinions regarding the adventure genre, the PS2, or kids with horns, there’s no denying that Ico is, flat out, one of the most beautiful games ever crafted. Landing on the PS2 with the same impact produced by the brilliant environments of Myst on the PC, Ico has broad swaths of genius all over it. The castle, for example, feels real, in the sense that it seems to have been designed with some fixed, yet altogether evil purpose in mind. As much as it’s terrifying to contemplate the imprisonment of cursed souls, the chaotic design of their prison makes sense, and serves as a stark contrast to the more rationally designed castle. Stunningly enough, though, the castle has fallen into such disrepair that while you can almost feel the life that once inhabited these walls, it’s still clear that it hasn’t done so in a long, long time.
Puffs of dust kick up as Ico jumps, hangs and leaps, and beams of sunlight scintillate with motes of that same dust in almost every room. Speaking of the lighting, the visuals take a surprisingly realistic approach to light levels by washing out areas of the picture in the same way that the eyes’ desperate attempts to protect the retina rob brightly lit areas of their detail. When you consider that Ico, with all its shadowy monsters and seemingly unstoppable villains, falls awfully close to the Survival Horror tree, we should jubilantly acknowledge that, yes, we can fight enemies in the daylight. Of course, those same enemies consist entirely of shadowy darkness, which makes it all the more terrifying when they leap out of their dark pools to attack, animating smoothly and even shape changing to grow wings as they haul Yorda off to her doom.
Of course, no review of Ico would be complete without mentioning the brilliant animations of its main characters. Ico himself is surprisingly animate: looking around, leaning, and occasionally adjusting his grip when hanging from ledges. Our horned-hero also moves exactly like the twelve year old boy that he is. While most adults, for instance, run in circles slowly, Ico will gently lean into his circle and spin about with wild abandon. His interactions with Yorda are also surprisingly boyish, as he obviously likes her, but has no real time for her to fall behind. As he turns or starts to run, the impetuous boy will almost yank the poor girl off her feet, but at the same time, every time you load a game the two of them wake up hand in hand and begin their adventure anew. Obviously, Ico was a title designed from the heart, and the visuals carry clear evidence of that passionate development.
Interface: Ico puts forth an elegant interface, though it lacks any sort of adjustment for sound and musical volumes, meaning you’ll have to rely on your stereo or TV for that. Conversely, Ico‘s brightness controls are integrated into the game, allowing you to dim the output or brighten it up further without having to rely on your TV. As simple as the controls are, they can be fully remapped if necessary. The memory card interface is equally easy to understand, as it presents ten slots that record your current stage and gameplay time for simple comparison, making the physical interface incredibly accessible. As far as the in-game aspects of interacting with the system, it should be noted that Ico has no visual interface at all. Health bars, inventories and all the usual trappings of this genre have been scrapped entirely; instead, Ico‘s on-screen appearance gives you all the indicator you need of his current armaments and status.
Gameplay: One must resort to imagery to properly describe playing through Ico. In essence, this game is tantamount to a beautiful dream, the work of a master painter and the best tale of a bard rolled into one. While conversation is kept to a minimum (Ico can’t understand his charge), the story tells itself as these two desperately try to escape from their prison and Ico slowly gains greater understanding into the nature of his curse, his captor and Yorda. One of the great dangers of stringing together this kind of tale is that the story will overshadow the gameplay so much that one is either forced to admit to playing a graphic novel, with minimal interaction, or to a release that’s so terribly crafted that all of its best intentions are lost due to its unplayability. Fortunately for us, neither of these dastardly pitfalls could trap Ico, and our young hero’s controls are intuitive, responsive and absolutely perfect. The puzzles have been carefully thought out, and while they start fairly simple, they grow increasingly complex and start requiring you to carefully leave Yorda behind to pin down certain switches, or manipulating several parts of the environment just to get past the next barrier.
Combat, of course, breaks up the potential monotony of all this puzzle solving, and while the moves aren’t complex or on par with what we’re expecting from Soul Reaver, the task at hand is not necessarily to fight all the time. Wily players will note that when Yorda activates a gateway, every enemy in the room is instantly destroyed by its magic, and many seemingly impossible fights become a puzzle where you must get Yorda to the gate rather than fight back a horde of shadows. When necessary, though, you can always expect the fights to be vicious and challenging; Ico, you see, can’t be killed by the creatures alone, so they will often just bat the boy away and then focus on stealing Yorda away. As Ico, you must learn to put Yorda’s safety above your own, and tense moments where the girl is almost lost to the shadows are common. In one instance during my run through the game, Ico was knocked away from Yorda, but so strong was the blow that he fell a good fifteen feet to a narrow ledge below. Cursing quietly, I was forced to navigate a series of ledges up to the original platform, then sprint across it and onto an elevator that took me down to Yorda in the last seconds to pull her free. Ico is full of moments like this one, and while it’s a bit short (eight to twelve hours in the hands of an experienced gamer) the experience is like pure gold, undiluted by baser metals and worth every penny you’d put into its purchase.
Multiplayer: As Ico has no multiplayer mode, this criterion has not been rated.
Sound FX: The active sounds of Ico running, the shadows attacking and the rare snippets of dialogue may be amazing, and some of the best produced on the PS2 to date, but the real stars of this show are the ambient effects. In the world of Ico, wind rushing across a bridge suspended over a chasm sounds entirely different from wind howling among the parapets, and again distinct from that same wind blowing through a shattered window. The chirping birds and quiet rustle of trees in the castle courtyard are a sharp contrast to the more deserted areas of the keep, which only crackle with torches burning quietly in the background. Even the subtle echo applied when Ico is underground in the castle’s waterworks dramatically alters the entire sound of his actions and the environment.
Musical Score: While the music in Ico makes only rare appearances, the effect is to highlight a particularly important part of the story or a vicious attack by the shadows. Watching through the introduction will give you a quick sense of both the tone and quality of the score, which are lyrical and excellent respectively. Using largely period instruments, the score swells up with all the power of an orchestra in full swing and then fades away again as quickly as the audience at the end of a performance. The end result makes you wish that there had been more music, while still leaving you so very grateful that it wasn’t overused.
Intelligence & Difficulty: One part adventure, one part platformer and one part survival horror, Ico keeps you on your toes and forces you to adapt to new situations constantly. While leading Ico through the various levels might not be that hard, keeping Yorda safe, and with you in the process, is an incredibly challenging task. You will have to think laterally in order to solve many of these puzzles, and yet with careful examination of your surroundings, the puzzles become quite clear, and actually make sense in an “insane person designed this castle to be confusing” kind of way. The AI also acts intelligently, since the shadow creatures have clearly been given one simple instruction, “return Yorda.” To this end, they will ignore Ico entirely unless he intervenes and starts knocking them clear of their task. At this, they will turn upon him, but not single mindedly, since they will often try to double-team him while another carries the princess away. This careful design reduces frustration, encourages you to explore and mixes up the gameplay enough to keep even the most jaded gamer on the edge of their seat.
Overall: The PlayStation 2 is quickly turning into a bit of a hotbed of gaming goodness, and Ico further cements this position by proving that the system can do more than just sports and racing. In fact, Ico is one of those rare titles that you don’t so much play as experience. Many adventure games boast this same interactivity and immersiveness, but with its careful blending of genres, delicate balancing act between a story of growing love and mounting horror, and a brilliant system that also incorporates tense moments of action, Ico really lives up to its claims. As much a work of art as it is a phenomenal piece of gaming, Ico capably demonstrates my long held belief that gaming offers as much critical worth and artistic value as any other form of entertainment. Put simply, Ico has to be experienced, and as a PlayStation 2 owner, you owe it to yourself to join this young man as he overcomes his fate and finds his destiny.