Ico is one of those games which is remembered fondly as a precursor to greater things. This game reminds me of others in that regard, making me think of Dark Cloud from Level 5, Metroid on NES, or any of a million firsts in a legacy. Granted, Team Ico’s catalog is much less full than either Level 5’s (a developer mostly known for their long, charming RPGs) or Samus’ titles. Nevertheless, I feel as if the two games they made have been so clearly different, inspired, and executed so well that they deserve their reputations as classics of their generation.
Personally, I’ve found Team Ico’s first game to be full to the brim of atmosphere and quiet beauty that it slightly outshines their opus, Shadow of the Colossus. That’s no small compliment, given that Shadow of the Colossus has been called a masterpiece by some. Indeed, if you put them side by side, SotC has superior graphics, more interesting gameplay, more “Oh. My. God.” moments, and this cool Ocarina of Time feel to it that should put it head and shoulders above it’s predecessor.
Having said that, Ico felt like it had more of a sense of mystery and exploration. There was no sword-reflected guiding light to tell you exactly where to find your next challenge in Ico. Shadow of the Colossus did that, and I felt as if I were cheating instead of exploring the nicely-sized valley it takes place in when utilizing that feature. Ico never had that sense of gaminess that comes from doing bite-sized levels (Colossi tend to be huge bites, but I hope you see what I mean), which means that, in Ico, there is really no good point at which to put the controller down. Ten-more-minutes-itis is a sign of a good game if I’ve ever seen one before. I’m not trying to diminish the efforts of Team Ico with their second game, nor am I trying to say that I think anyone is wrong for loving SotC to death, all I can do here is relate bits of the experience I had while playing Ico.
I played this game when it was new, having already slathered all over the EGM previews and E3 coverage to eventually getting my grubby hands on a copy of the game at my local EB, and it was a ton of fun. What first struck me was the power with which the plot was driven, which is shown with minimal dialogue between characters who cannot understand each others’ spoken languages. I had not really seen this kind of storytelling done successfully outside of children’s books and artistic foreign films with any sense of depth before playing Ico for the first time. The story is not very complicated, but the themes are strong and the apparent intentions of the characters are sometimes unclear and confusing. That confusion to me wasn’t a bad thing since I feel it was intentional and that I, as the player, am right in doubting the purpose behind the journey of both the brash young Ico as well as Yorda, his evanescent yet stubborn counterpart. That confusion isn’t quelled after the ending cinematic either, so I still find myself thinking about where else the story of those two clashing personalities could have swung.
The second thing which I noticed in this game is how stupid and secondary the combat feels. I feel that this is the greatest obstacle between Ico’s would-be mass appeal and its cult-favourite status. Yes, there are very good games which don’t revolve around combat and Ico is certainly one of them, but there aren’t any top-grossing video games which don’t heavily feature combat in some way, shape or form. The enemy-types are very few and that leads to repetitive combat and a feeling of impatience whenever the enemy was about. With very few exceptions, there are seldom any differences between one scripted fight scenario and the next. Even environmental hazards during combat are easily maneuvered when they are present, which they are often not.
Everything good about the game seems to hold up fairly well over the course of 13 years except for the graphics, which are chunky and fairly low-resolution. The HD remake helped a bit with the resolution issue, but the models weren’t changed at all. It really shows in the blockiness of the environment, not to mention the disparity in the smoothness of the model animations and the and the strange polygonal look that they share. Looking past the graphics is easy though, because the vastness of the dungeon design and the weird paranoid atmosphere really add a sheen to the presentation.
The puzzles are easy but they don’t feel out of time. The castle itself is vast and impressive, only slightly less so when compared to the scale of some modern games. Several scenes serve to show you the scale of the castle and smallness of the character models with respect to your surroundings. The overall effect can sometimes be a sense of coming up against impossible odds even though none of the rooms are overwhelmingly challenging.
In conclusion, this game is certainly worth a playthrough. The HD remake is a great graphical improvement over the original PS2 release and vastly less rare, so I feel like that’s the only way to go with this one. Yorda!
Featured artist credit: Fung Chin Pang