Friday, August 19, 2011

Retro Reviews: Ico

Ico was released in 2001 developed by Team Ico and published by Sony Computer Entertainment.

Ico is a fairly unique game all things considered. In an era of a game presentation becoming more and more complicated, Ico was presented as something relatively minimalist and spartan while giving those who played it a wholly immersive experience that attains an experience that many story-driven games wish they could reach.

Ico is about a boy born with horns, which is considered a bad omen by the people of his village. As a means of removing the omen from the village he is taken by his people to an ancient castle where he is placed in a sarcophagus as a sacrifice of some sort to the ruler of the castle, The Queen. After a quake causes Ico's tomb to crash to the floor, he manages to escape from it and starts looking for an escape from the castle. Soon after he runs across a mysterious girl locked in a cage and frees her. Unfortunately they do not speak the same language but Ico is determined to help the girl, Yorda, also escape from whatever fate she is to face in the castle.

It won't be an easy task as the castle Ico and Yorda are in is ancient, decrepit and filled with puzzles. Not only that, the Queen's minions, shadows, will try to steal Yorda away from Ico to take her back to the Queen. It will be up to Ico to not only fight off the shadows but to lead Yorda through the hazards of castle as well.

The best way I can describe the gameplay would be a somewhat simplified take on 3D Zelda. While not based around collecting keys or items and generally being more linear the use of block puzzles and pulling switches to alter the environment always give me that Zelda feel. Your basic goal is to guide Yorda from one location as another. Sometimes she can be used as a temporary weight but most of the time you just have to make sure not to get too far way from her for if you do, shadows will come. The biggest problem with Yorda is that Ico has to lead her by the hand up and over obstacles though occasionally her limited path finding abilities will have her climb up things and save you the hassle of leading her. She has a tendency to stray but she won't ever go to far and will usually come back if Ico gives her a call.

The battle system in Ico is also very simple. Since Ico obviously isn't a trained fighter what he has for a fighting style is more or less flailing around with whatever weapon he has at the time. It works for the most part but until you get access to swords later in the game, it takes a long time to kill the shadows with the 2x4 you find all over the place and the enemies can swarm you making it difficult to get to Yorda if she is taken to a location far from you. Though to be fair the fighting is not really a focus of Ico, even it is a common occurrence.

Simplicity is also a fixture of Ico's graphics. While beautiful to look at the surroundings are stark, perfectly fitting a long abandoned castle. This makes for a very atmospheric game that doesn't overload the senses with a ton of graphical effects, outside of generous bit of bloom lighting.

There are some signs of the game's origins as a Playstation title especially in Ico and Yorda's movements. There is something about how their models are built and animated that sometimes feel like they just upgrades from how it was on Playstation. There is a ragdoll style effect that is especially noticeable on Ico. Just makes him weirdly gangly despite not being particularly tall for a kid his age.

The music in the game is also appropriately spartan. The songs that are there are memorable especially the credits theme and the weird music that plays when the shadows attack adds tension to the scene. The rest of the background music is environmental sounds that further add to the atmosphere of the world. The voice acting for the game, the small amount there is, does the job well but since the game isn't in English and features I think two made up languages it is hard to judge.

In the end, Ico is a over-looked but classic early PS2 game. And the reason why I review it now is that the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus Collection comes out for the PS3 next month. It'll not only be in HD but us in North America will get the better version that was released in Europe and Japan with extras. Frankly I can't wait. And this will hopefully lead up to Team Ico's next game, The Last Guardian finally getting its release next year. And hopefully like its predecessors will provide an engrossing story through its gameplay rather than overabundance of cut scenes.

+ Very immersive atmosphere
+ Great puzzle design
+ Sparse and gorgeous environments
+ Lack of interrupting cut scenes keep things immersive
+ Beautiful credit theme
- Very short
- Some remnants of Playstation origins evident.

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