Some games become cult favourites long after their initial release, and puzzle-platformer sensation Ico is a prime example. Although its sales were somewhat lacklustre at first, the runaway success of Team Ico’s second innovation Shadow of the Colossus brought huge attention to their previous work. What this has meant is that while Ico fared poorly in 2001 when it first appeared on the scene, it has since become extremely collectable and as such pretty rare.
Thankfully, Sony’s excellent decision to re-release games like this as part of HD collections means that we can still all enjoy these titles without having to sell kidneys. So, how does Colossus’s older brother stack up?
Escort missions are almost universally reviled by gamers, often requiring you to actively babysit a particular character, the type of person seemingly so useless you have no idea how they survived before you arrived, or indeed remembered how to breathe. Characters such as Ashley from Resident Evil 4 or the alchemist from Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage spring to mind.
However Ico takes this concept and masterfully turns it into something quite wonderful. You play as a young boy with horns, who was about to be sacrificed but escaped through a stroke of luck. Exploration of your immediate vicinity leads you to find Yorda, an ethereal looking girl whom you feel inclined to look after and help her escape with you. She cannot speak to you, however, or at least not in your language, and as such much of the story is told through atmospheric cues and your environment.
"Escort missions are almost universally reviled by gamers, often requiring you to actively babysit a particular character..."
Yorda’s magical powers are required to open certain gates that block your path, but since she can only open them if immediately beside the gate in question, you must help her overcome any obstacles and chasms that might lie in the way. She cannot jump as high or far as you, so often moving boxes and activating bridges is the answer. Don’t stray too far however, as she can be attacked by shadowy creatures who will try to spirit her away through dark portals. If she succumbs to their efforts, you will be turned to stone and the game ends, so make use of a trusty stick or sword to put them down.
Much of Ico’s strength lies in its presentation - for the time it came out, the game is breathtakingly beautiful, and gives a marvellous sense of scale. You are essentially moving two tiny characters through a huge castle complex, and the occasional panning camera shot or view downwards will remind you of just how lonely and fragile they are, clearly a strong hallmark of Team Ico design at this point.
Speaking of the camera though, it really is unfortunately the main shortfall of the game in my opinion. It is not freely movable, as we are used to in so many third-person platformers, but rather orientable around a predefined fixed position, and even then not in a consistent pattern as far as I could tell. There was one section of the game where I was required to climb a section of castle wall, but because of the camera position I could not actually see what I was supposed to be climbing, even with adjustment. It was just by chance that I jumped at the wall in front of me and grabbed something.
Furthermore, the controls are a little finicky, although that may just be the much more refined input options we’re used to fifteen years on speaking. Jumping and attacking always felt a little sticky and a tiny bit delayed, and there was very little sense of any momentum buildup which made some of the trickier platforming sections much more difficult. This was made more noticeable by the fixed save locations, which while generously allocated, did mean that a tiny slip-up on a jump can mean playing through a repetitive sequence over and over again.
"Jumping and attacking always felt a little sticky and a tiny bit delayed..."
That being said, my impressions were on the whole extremely positive. While I do have some (albeit limited) experience with Shadow of The Colossus, I was determined to go in with an open mind, and I’m very glad I did. Ico builds towards the end of its relatively short four-hour story in terms of emotional depth, and requires much in the way of investment from the player. Because so little is told to you in terms of what is going on, I was constantly trying to work out whether elements of the background were symbolic or just structural, a feat I consider to be quite impressive in such a brief tale.
And it is this point that I think brings the strengths of Ico to bear. What truly separates a work of art from a mere game for me is the innervation of a significant emotional response in the player. If this goal is achieved, mere entertainment has been transcended, as far as I am concerned - you have created art. Ico is most certainly that. Visually striking presentation, a wondrous soundtrack and puzzles that, while challenging, certainly do not become brick walls cultivate a very organic and real sense of intrigue and wonder in the player. It certainly did in me.