ICO (PS2) Review

Click here to view the ICO (PS2) description page for saves, walkthroughs, screenshots and more information.

Review by tankMage (October 2018)

Score: B+

Mysterious Mysteries

   ICO is one of those games that can pull players into its world by virtue of its storytelling and atmosphere. Though ICO possesses a certain magic, the actual gameplay is rather mundane. While exploring a mysterious (and at times creepy) castle, players will leap from platform to platform, push boxes around, climb up a preponderance of chains, and fight shadow creatures. In fact you’ll do battle with the same creatures over and over and over again. However, the manner in which ICO is presented and its minimalist design offset the mediocre gameplay. In fact, I think this title is worth playing for the story alone, though it is told in more of a visual and emotional manner than through dialogue.

Story

   Ico, a young village boy with bull horns, is taken to a dilapidated castle and left in a strange stone pod as a sacrifice. With some luck he manages to escape from the pod and meets a mysterious young girl named Yorda. Not much is explained about why Ico has horns, who Yorda is, or what purpose the castle serves. Hell, there’s hardly any dialogue, because Ico and Yorda do not even speak the same the language. ICO’s cryptic story is a strength, however. It lends the game a sense of mystery that would be lacking otherwise and leaves much to the player’s imagination, plus there are hints scattered around that give players something to ponder. The story does tend to sag in the middle thanks to an almost total lack of narrative for hours on end. ICO’s “less is more” approach to plot development pays off in the end as the final act is exciting and wraps the everything up in a satisfying manner without dumping a bunch of exposition.

Graphics

   ICO has a great visual atmosphere that is enhanced by excellent use of camera angles and the castle’s imposing architecture. In terms of graphics this game can’t compete with modern titles, but there’s a craftsmanship to the world that holds up. Sweeping camera shots over massive bridges, dimly lit tunnels, and towers that soar to dizzying heights bring the action to life in a way that is rarely accomplished. The character models also managed to retain their charm. Yorda and Ico are well conceived, expressive characters that move in a way that rivals even today’s character models. They also have an almost cell shaded style that makes them stand out in a world of dingy walls and dusty courtyards.

Dark Souls seems to have borrowed some ideas from ICO…

   Even the strange shadow creatures that inhabit the castle are interesting and unsettling at first. The creatures take on a number of forms that look like something out of a nightmare, some resemble spiders, while others are winged harpy-like beasts. All of them possess glowing eyes that leave trails across the screen, which makes them all the more malevolent in appearance. Unfortunately, there isn’t much variety in terms of monsters and the creatures get boring quickly.

   ICO’s physics engine shows the game’s age, however. Ico’s body clips through the giant chains he has to swing on to get to platforms, certain animations are very stiff, and items that fall or are placed on the ground sometimes lock into place in an unnatural way. The camera, while very reliable for the most part, swings too sharply at the wrong times. One moment you’ll be pushing the analog stick to the left to run across a ledge, the next Ico will be clinging to the edge for dear life because the camera decided to swivel at mach speed.

Music and Sound Effects

   Much of your time in ICO will be spent in near silence with ambient effects in place of music. Wind whistling through parapets, bird songs, and rushing water add texture to the visual atmosphere of the castle. There are also a lot of other sound effects, such as Ico’s foot steps and the sound of chains rattling has he climbs them. I doubt there’s anything terribly special about this game’s ambiance and sound effects, but as someone who has been playing much older games that tend to have little variety in this field, I appreciated what ICO had to offer.

   What little music plays in the background is unusual and experimental, which was a plus in my book. There’s also voice acting in ICO, but it’s hard to say if it is good or not, because Ico either speaks Japanese or some made up language that sounds like Japanese and Yorda definitely speaks in an imaginary tongue. With that said, the voice acting manages to communicate the dialogue’s tone.

User Interface

   Ico moves in a very natural manner which translates into the controls. Players shouldn’t have any problems once they learn what each of the buttons do. Many of Ico’s actions are automatic, so if you fall off a ledge he’ll grab onto it, which makes the gameplay feel smoother. Combat feels flat thanks to the fact that all of Ico’s attacks are packed onto one button. This also makes fighting the shadows even less entertaining, since you just have to mash the Square Button to strike them. This game also used the vibration function on the controller a bit too much in my opinion, but ICO was an early PS2 game, so it is understandable that the development team may have been a bit too eager to use a feature that was still novel at the time. There are not really any menus aside from the start and save screens, which is in step with the minimalist style.

   I’d be remiss not to talk about Yorda’s AI, which is mercifully quite good. ICO is one big escort mission and would have been a miserable experience had her AI been overly buggy or badly designed. For the most part, Yorda refrains from doing the sort of dumb shit AI units are infamous for, in fact she is quite helpful and even hints at how to progress through certain areas. Yorda can be finicky about climbing ladders and ledges, though this is easily remedied by repositioning Ico and calling her over again or by repeatedly calling her while she is climbing a tall ladder.

Gameplay

  Boring combat and mediocre platforming leave ICO’s gameplay with something to be desired. However, puzzle solving and exploration are melded together in an interesting manner. Even with its redeeming qualities, the gameplay is rather average if not disappointing at times, which is mostly a result of the repetitive enemies and dull combat system.

   I may as well start with the thing I like least about ICO: combat. Usually I look forward to stomping bad guys, but the stripped down combat in this game didn’t do much for me, even though it had some interesting mechanics. Ico uses a simple three piece combo throughout the course of the game, which makes sense as far as the plot goes (he is only 12 after all) but isn’t very exciting after a few hours. Throw in the fact that you fight the same enemies from start to finish and you get boring fights. The only way the shadows can kill Ico is by knocking him off a cliff or capturing Yorda and taking her into one of the black portals they emerge from, which is novel at first, but isn’t going to satisfy veteran gamers. Battles are often very predictable as a result of these design choices and it is easy to exploit enemy AI, so much so that fights are more of a nuisance than a challenge. There was one thing I really liked about ICO’s combat and that was the final battle, which felt really climatic after hours of smacking spoopy shadow men with a stick. I won’t say anymore about the final boss, because it’ll spoil the surprise. I should also mention that Ico will find a few different weapons (one of which is hidden) over the course of the game, which make battles go more quickly and alleviates some of the tedium.

Oh No! A spoopy shadow man!

   As for the platforming aspect of the game, there really aren’t any super difficult jumps or situations where the player has to traverse an obstacle course under pressure like a time limit. Though players may run into instances where a shadow creature carries off Yorda and Ico will have to quickly cross dangerous chasms or scale walls to get to her in time. Exploration figures heavily into platforming, since players will have to search for the next ledge or chain to climb from time to time. This gives the game a very plodding and methodical pace that almost contradicts Ico’s fluid movements that make the player want to go vaulting from one point to another, but it also keeps in step with the spirit of the game.

   Most of the puzzles players will encounter involve pushing blocks around or flipping switches. Sometimes you’ll have to light a torch or blow something up with a bomb. All of this should be familiar to a lot of gamers and ICO doesn’t tread any new ground in terms of puzzles, but they are well designed and Yorda’s a presence adds new twists to old ideas. You’ll often need her help to open doors or activate certain contraptions. Guiding Yorda through the castle is a puzzle in and of itself, a well conceived one at that. You’ll often need to find ways to get her across gaps or terrain that she cannot scale as readily as Ico. While ICO’s puzzles aren’t terribly inventive, they do not feel tedious and there is a sense of consistency to them.

   ICO isn’t very long and most people will be able to finish it in a few hours. It would have been nice to see a bit more content in this game, like some bosses or an extra area. A few more secrets in a game that emphasizes exploration would also have been a good way to pad play time. On the same token, I can’t imagine dragging Yorda around for forty or even twenty hours, so maybe it’s for the better that this game isn’t very long.

Final Thoughts

   ICO was considered groundbreaking for its time, I guess having a camera system that actually worked and fluid controls in a 3D environment were something special in the early 2000’s. Today, ICO is remembered more for its minimalist design and narrative than anything else if conversations I’ve had with fans are any indication of popular opinion. While I was not impressed by the gameplay, I have to admit the plot left me with something to consider and the game’s atmosphere left a lasting impression. ICO is one of those games that is worth playing more for the story and setting, which is a rare beast indeed.

Recommendations

Anyone interested in ICO for the PlayStation 2 should give it a try; it doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but it’s fun.