The first thing that strikes me about Ico is that it is a beautiful game. It looks like a movie with a really good cinematographer—it has a slightly stylized color that conveys the atmosphere of the game and gives a very unique look without suffering clarity. It has kind of a dreamy washed out look to it. Except when the sun hits—suddenly there’s brightness and saturation that almost hurts your eyes much like the real sun.
The story is very vague at first, drip feeding you information along the way and exposing more of what is going on. The opening cut scene is long and slow paced (though not so much to be annoying). It shows the elders of a village take Ico, a little boy who has been born with horns, to a deep within a strange castle where they lock him in some sort of sarcophagus and leave. They tell him that all boys born with horns have this same fate, and that it is for the good of the village. This is small comfort to Ico who quickly breaks out of the sarcophagus and is free to roam the castle.
Almost immediately a young girl is introduced. She speaks a strange language and seems lost and helpless. She becomes part of the central gameplay mechanic as you (playing Ico) have to lead her around the castle and keep her from harm. There is a dedicated button for dealing with the girl. When you are far away, pressing the button calls to her and she’ll try to run over to you. If you are within arms reach then the button causes you to grab her hand. Once you are holding hands she gets yanked around whenever you move. You can help her across chasms and up walls using the same button. It’s a clever device that really helps with the immersion.
Ico is a hard game to describe because it doesn’t have a specific genre that you can shove it into. It’s sort of an adventure game and platformer except that you don’t have an inventory and you don’t have to have dexterous fingers to make Ico go where you want him to go. That isn’t to say there aren’t places where you can fall off and die, but they are the exception and not the rule. The puzzles really fall into the push things around, pull switches and figure out how to get around the castle. It is also part beat-em-up. The enemies in the game are strange wispy clouds of black smoke shaped vaguely like creatures. You have a stick you carry around and you can hit them to make them go away. All they can do to you is knock you down—there is no health in this game and that is refreshing. The only way to die is to let the girl get captured by the creatures. They try to suck her down black smoky portals and you have to pull her out if she gets stuck. This was very different from other games and I really liked it.
The castle is amazing looking too. The way it is done gives you a tremendous feeling of space and architecture. You can see really far away to parts of the castle that you haven’t been to—and when you get there you can see all the way back to where you were. This kind of detail really helps suspend belief and get into the game. You feel like the castle is a real solid mass instead of a video game level made out of polygons.
This is a fairly old game, but the animation of the 2 main characters is great. In fact, everything has a really good feel to it. Climbing ropes makes them swing and sway pretty nicely. The water looks pretty good (not quite as good as Half-life 2 but for a game of its age it’s amazing. The sound it top notch too. Very ambient and atmospheric.
There are only of couple complaints that I have. There were a couple puzzles that were baffling. One involved lighting a candle. It seems simple except that the “candle” looked nothing like a candle to me. I had to break out an internet walkthrough for that puzzle which was disappointing. Especially when I realized I would have never figured it out without the hint. The other big problem is the ending—it is really, really long and doesn’t have any save points. I played for a couple hours in the final stretch and while I didn’t mind the lack of saves (when I died it took me back to a reasonable checkpoint), I really would have been annoyed if I had to turn my box off. Maybe I missed something but it seems inexcusable to force you to play for such a long period of time in order to get to the end.
But in the end the problems don’t detract much from the game. It really is unique and fun which is a great combination. I definitely recommend this to anyone with a Playstation. Go buy it used and play it today. Oh, and if you do play and pass it, make sure you sit through the end credits—there’s a nice suprise at the end.