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Review: Ico

Posted Sep-19 2007 by ron
For PS2, runs fine on PS3 (minus rumble), optional NTSC/60Hz mode

Ico is a little tough to write about without giving too much away as most of its value lies in the setting, rather than in its gameplay. We figure this has been a deliberate decision of course and we don't mean to knock the game down for it, but we will have to be pretty vague on the outline to avoid spoiling what is a major portion of the experience.
You play a young boy, with horns on his head strangely enough, who for unknown reasons is entombed alive in a vast hall lined by a large number of sarcophagi similar to his own, in what looks to be an extensive castle compound. After imprisoning him there, his captors leave, but soon something goes wrong – or right, perhaps – the ground shakes and the boy's sarcophagus crashes onto the floor where it breaks open, allowing him to escape an otherwise certain fate.

Ico's protagonist bound in his tomb

Ico's horned main character, bound and left to die.

As you wander about you'll find that the boy's solitude in the castle isn't quite complete. Trapped in a cage he finds a companion, a strangely shimmering girl, whom he releases only to find the two of them assaulted by shadows of sorts. After fending them off they continue exploring together. The game makes it clear at that point that the girl needs the boy's protection against the shadowy beings, but in return offers her ability to open certain doors the boy alone could not pass. You'll have to stick together.
Speaking of "sticking together", there's a controller button you can press to call your companion, and if you keep it pressed, you will hold hands with her while still being allowed to move around. If you *cough* have rumble on your controller, you can feel her heartbeat then, which is eerie and wonderful at the same time.

What are you anyway?

Ico doesn't explain itself through any traditional means. This is not the usual adventure with tons of support characters, generic townsfolk to chat with, shops and the works. It is literally just you and the girl exploring a castle that is a mystery in itself. What little dialog there is in the game is delivered in an incomprehensible fantasy language. If you want to understand anything about the world you're playing in, you will have to find your own interpretations of the things you can observe.

The boy and the girl holding hands

The mystery girl can help you open sealed doors, but in exchange she'll need you to stick around and fend off the shadows.
This is not a cut-scene! Holding hands is an actual gameplay element in Ico. It allows you to guide her, towards a door she can interact with in this case.

At its gameplay core Ico is approximately a 3rd-person action adventure/traversal puzzle but it keeps a very low, simple profile. Your character's abilities are only the bare necessities: he can walk, run, jump, move some smaller objects, climb ledges and crudely wield a single melee weapon. There are no guns, no magic, no amazing transformations, no skill training, and no experience points.
Nothing is supernatural about this young man, as everything he can do still appears plausible for a healthy real-world youngster with all limbs intact. Case in point: in contrast to most traditional action adventures, Ico's horned protagonist doesn't have a magically compressed inventory that would allow him to carry around pianos, crowbars and race cars in the pockets of his pants. Nope. The only things you can carry at a time are a)one weapon, such as a stick, on the belt or in hand, plus b)one more thing to solve puzzles with, with both hands if needs be.

Carrying a barrel

This stick-and-barrel loadout already marks the peak of your equipment in Ico. Also note everyone's favourite puzzle element: the pressure plate.

We've mentioned the weapon, and yes, in Ico you will also be doing combat but it, too, is basic. The enemies will try to capture the girl and pull her into the shadows, and if you don't intervene in a timely fashion you will lose the game. This way they force you to stay close to your companion, or rather be quick whenever you must leave her for a while. When engaged they do not pose much of a challenge however. The combat system is an incredibly simple whack-a-mole affair. You don't even have a health meter.

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