ICO

November 10th, 2007 by J. Spiffyman

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Many video games these days seem to have fallen into a rut of sameness. Games often do what the games before them did, because it’s been proven a good formula that sells well. While I appreciate this strategy and have enjoyed many games that have come from it, I sometimes find myself wishing for something different. Game developers that take risks in trying something new are where the future lies, and the more people that figure that out, the better games we’ll get for our generation and the next.

While ICO is by no means revolutionary, it is certainly different, and a delightful breath of fresh air. I’ve often seen it lumped into the umbrella genre of “Action/Adventure,” but this is hardly true at all. If anything, it’s technically a puzzle solving game, but it also blends in elements of adventure and platforming, which makes for an intriguing style of play. For comparison’s sake, it plays similar to the Legend of Zelda series of games, but leaves out the two dozen items and sidequests while retaining the puzzle solving elements. That’s a poor summary of the game however, so let’s jump right in.

The first thing you might notice about ICO is the total lack of explanation of what’s going on. The opening cutscene shows a boy with horns on his head being escorted into an ancient castle by a group of guards, and soon after the boy is stuck live inside a coffin and left alone. What’s weird about it? The entire sequence contains absolutely no words. In fact, in the entire game there’s probably less than a hundred words spoken, and half of these are vauge statements which will make hardly any sense to you. This, however, is part of ICO’s charm. The game has done its best to strip out all the unnecessary bells and whistles you see in most games, leaving you only with what really matters. You won’t be force-fed sappy dialog, backstories, or “How To” tutorials; you have to use your brain and figure out for yourself what’s going on. Speaking of stripping out frivolities, here’s another noticeable change in the familiar: No heads-up display. There is absolutely no health bar, no map, no ammo count, no item screen, no nothing except the game itself. From start to finish the only thing you’ll see on screen are the characters, the environement, and the rare on-screen text. This really adds a level of realism to the game in my opinion, because without all the floating gauges on the screen you can really get engaged with what’s happening, and it makes it feel more like you’re playing an interactive movie.

Once you escape from your stone prison via a small earthquake, you’ll gain control of the boy. Controls aren’t too hard to understand: move around with the joystick, jump, interact, attack, pretty standard stuff. Your range of movement is surprisingly good, and because the environment is so fleshed out, you can get sidetracked really quickly. The camera is one of the weirdest I’ve seen in a game. Rather than follow along behind the character, the camera is stationed in the center of the room and follows you around from that vantage point. Your right joystick can then adjust where the camera points, and you can aim it so that your character isn’t even on-screen! It takes a lot of getting used to, and even then it feels weird, but it’s yet another way ICO breaks the mold of conventional gaming, and if not for the better, at least not for the worse.

Within the first few minutes of wandering around, you’ll run into a white-clad girl in a cage. After a bit of puzzle solving you break her out, only to find that she speaks another language and seems very “out of it.” Sensing that she’s in trouble, you take her with you and thus begin your quest to escape the castle alive. Within the game you’ll find a lot of puzzles that must be solved to progress. Most are pretty simple, and even the more complex ones aren’t so extremely difficult you can’t figure them out with a little logic. The main barrier you’ll find is in the vagueness of the puzzles. Many times you’ll be stuck in a room and not even know what to do next, because the puzzles don’t just jump right out at you. That’s the real puzzle: conquering the distinction between what’s trivial and what’s not on screen. And since the graphics in this game are beautiful for a 2001 PS2 game, that can be pretty difficult at times.

One central element of the game is that for 95% of it you’ve got this wispy girl coming along with you. You can call her to you or tell her to stay put, and using these techniques helps you solve some of the puzzles, such as weighing down two switches at once. The problem is, she get sidetracked very easily, and walks maddeningly slow unless you grab her arm and drag her with you as you run. After a bit you find out that the girl is apparently important. Throughout the game shadowy creatures will appear and try to drag the girl away into a portal. Oddly enough, they don’t actually attack the girl, and they won’t care about you unless try and get the girl back. This is where you get into the scattered fighting sequences in the game. Armed with either a stick or a sword you have to beat off the shadows and grab the girl away from the portal. The kid’s not an exact swordsman, so his attacks fly wildly and without good form, but they get the job done. Fighting the shadows isn’t really too hard, because remember, you have no health bar. You can get knocked down and stunned, but the only way to die in this game is if you either fall off a cliff or the girl is dragged all the way into the portal. Instead, think of the GIRL as your life bar: the more in danger she is, the more in danger you are. Since the focus is on the puzzles and not the combat, I think this was a very good element to use.

As for the rest of the game sans gameplay, there’s not a lot to say. Music is practically non-existent, adding to whole “deserted castle” feel of the game. Dialouge when used is spoken in a made-up foreign language, and sounds nice enough. Sound effects are realistic and prominent, making up for the lack of music. Graphics are brilliant, and a shading technique called “soft lighting” is used to create smooth shadows and gives the game a more otherworldly feel to it. The game is pretty short, perhaps 5-6 hours, but even this works in ICO’s favor, and allows you to play it leisurely and have a good time without selling your soul to it.

ICO flew pretty much under the radar, and even it’s sequel, the equally impressive “Shadow of the Colussous” didn’t generate a lot of talk. Nevertheless, this game is a sure winner and gives you a new experience you probably have never played before. Finding the game may prove difficult, but if you ever see it while walking through the used video game isle, snap it up quickly; you will not be disappointed.

****½

Screenshots* (click the thumbnails for a larger version) :

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Buy from Amazon.com : Ico
Buy from Amazon.ca : Ico

Posted in Sony Playstation 2

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