How can I manage my expectations with Ico? Heavily praised, well reviewed, and featured in several “greatest games of all time” lists: Ico is an intriguing game, considered by many critics to be more art than entertainment. I’ve been meaning to play it for a long time, and even when it was released as a remastered classic alongside Shadow of the Colossus, I put it on hold.
I recently signed up with PlayStation Plus, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the two-pack was available in the Instant Game Collection. I’d finally be able to see what all the fuss was about.
The story is refreshingly simple: Ico, a young boy, is exiled to a castle by his superstitious village because he was unfortunate enough to be born with horns. Inside, he discovers a pale girl called Yorda, who happens to have mysterious powers that can move obstacles. The two work together to try escaping the castle, fighting shadow ghouls, solving puzzles, and hiding from the watchful gaze of the castle’s Queen.
Ico spends most of the game with Yorda by his side, and the boy-meets-girl theme comes through strong. They both speak different languages and are clearly mismatched, but the bond they form over time is heartwarming. Yorda’s trust in Ico complements Ico’s dogged determination to protect and escort her to safety. It makes for a simpler story and an uncomplicated experience.
This approach also reduces the game to a minimal level of presentation. There are no tutorial prompts. There is no UI. The dialog is limited, and you can’t even understand Yorda’s subtitles. The levels are sparse and vast, with entire rooms within the castle swallowing your viewpoint. At the same time, the learning curve is gentle – Ico can jump, climb, swing and attack with his weapon of choice. He can also call to Yorda so that she follows him, or he can drag her by the hand to safety.
And love it or hate it, but the latter function features heavily throughout the game. The objective of Ico is to escape the castle with Yorda, and unfortunately it can feel like a prolonged escort mission at the worst of times. Yorda’s pathfinding AI can frustrate, and her slow speed combined with her lack of self defense can fray nerves. The jittery and imperfect movement controls, the bare bones combat and the hyper sensitive camera will undoubtedly result in a few misjumps, air swings and deadly falls over cliffs.
The times I grappled with the controls, however, were few and far between. You will rarely be put in stressful situations where they work against you; rather, the game’s pace is slow and relaxed most of the time. The meat of the game’s content lies in puzzle solving, and while they’re not quite as brain-bending as Braid, for instance, they are enough to keep you occupied for a rainy afternoon (depending on your mental prowess).
Unfortunately, an afternoon is probably what you’ll manage to get out of the game. I was able to complete a run in just under 6 hours. The puzzles in the game trickle new concepts to you, but they are often only presented once. I didn’t even realise that I was able to throw bombs until I was required to do so to solve a puzzle, and then I never had to use that skill again. For all its ambition in execution, the scope of its environments, and the puzzles at its disposal, the whole game is pretty short lived.
But it still makes an impression on you in a series of balances. It looks beautiful, even though it handles a little awkwardly. There isn’t much dialogue, but it’s made up with some touching interaction between the two main characters. It may not last long, but those few hours are right up there with Braid, LIMBO, and Journey when it comes to interacting with a piece of living art.