Even after all these years, little has softened the magic of ICO’s castle world. Chances are you didn’t play it back in 2002 when the game was met with critical applause and absolutely no response at Western registers. Now, re-released in HD (and stereoscopic 3D), and bundled with the equally sublime Shadow of the Colossus, you really have no excuse. ICO is a supreme adventure platformer that still shines with personality and inventiveness.
It was also a game that took true steps forward for game design – and in doing so, cemented itself for years to come in the face of imitators.
The story is porcelain-fragile; you’re a boy from a mysterious clan, deposited in a sprawling castle and left to die “for the good of the village”. That’s about as much background as you’re given – and the game kicks into full swing immediately, leaving you to work out the running, jumping, grabbing, swinging and hand-holding necessary to get yourself back out.
The boy isn’t alone though. Within the first few minutes, you stumble on princess Yorda, imprisoned high above you in a cage. From this moment onwards, she becomes your responsibility – and this bond, literally formed through your character leading her by hand throughout the castle complex – underpins the action and the risk in ICO. You see, her freedom as well as yours, becomes the focus of the game.
Thwarting your progress are the smoke-like shadow monsters that emerge from black portals. These beings are tied to a greater story that we won’t spoil for you – but provide a constant but well-balanced challenge between bouts of climbing and switch throwing.
The move to high definition has really served to point out the simplistic beauty of the original game. While level geometry isn’t all that impressive, the texture work and lighting effects, as well as the naturalistic animations still shine. But the real beauty of ICO rests with the little details; the way you drag Yorda by the hand, and she struggles to pull herself up over obstacles or across gaps. I still marvel at the way she reacts to loud sounds next to her, startled by the boy smacking a crate with his wooden ‘sword’.
The level design remains deeply inventive, if a little simplistic by today’s standards. The castle structure is entirely interconnected, but each room or space contains its own puzzles and challenges – and these are often tied to areas nearby, too. Dragging crates, detonating bombs and lighting torches all affect areas you’ve visited at times, making a little bit of forward thinking and backtracking necessary.
It might not sound that incredible, but there’s an element of climbing and traversal that, for its time, was just about unmatched – and has since only been bettered by games like Assassin’s Creed – and with the automatic camera and some very clever level design and vertical puzzles, it make for some arresting moments.
Likewise, the soundscape is equally sophisticated. The soundtrack itself is minimal, apart from the title choral theme. You play in meditative silence, broken only by the clomp of horse hooves, the faint chirping of birds, flapping of wings and, critically, the haunting rush of wind through the ancient stone corridors. You really do feel alone in an ancient place you shouldn’t be.
That evocative effect is where ICO ultimately succeeds beyond just about every adventure game that has come before it and arguably since. This is a very engrossing, sometimes disturbing work of fiction. You develop an uncanny bond with Yorda in your need to protect her. The game drip-feeds the story just right, leading the player through a gorgeous landscape and eventually to a powerful ending. It’s short, remains as sweet as ever and has never looked better – so why hold back?
Posted 04:35am 18/10/11
Recently bought a PS3 for the soul purpose ( ha harrr ) of Dark Souls after playing through Demon's Souls twice on a few characters. Will definitely be after this one after a fleeting glimpse of it back when it first came out. Glad to hear it holds up to the test of time.
Posted 04:37am 18/10/11