When ICO first launched in 2001, and even as late as 2005 when Shadow of the Colossus graced the Playstation 2, the “games as art” conversation was still in its infancy. I remember playing through ICO a decade ago, astounded by the risks it took using the medium; the dialog was entirely subtitled, fabricated language; one character’s speech was completely undecipherable; and the hand-holding mechanic created a dynamic unlike any other I had experienced. I am getting ahead of myself, though, especially for those that are new to these two games.
Unlike the past HD collections we have seen on the Playstation 3, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus are not technically part of the same series. One of the developers hinted that Shadow of the Colossus might be a prequel to ICO, but that isn’t canon. No, I’m not making this up. They were both developed by Team ICO for the Playstation 2, feature similar artistic direction and an ambiguous, yet not entirely unexplained, narrative. They differ drastically, though, in gameplay.
I remember when ICO was first announced as making its way to the West and how excited I was to give it a try, largely as something different and, for the time, quite beautiful. Most of the game is shrouded in mystery, telling just enough of the story to lend credibility to the motivations of the small cast of characters.
As the game opens, Ico, a young, horned boy, is carried through the woods, to an ancient shrine. There, a mystical sword opens a long-closed entrance. Before leaving Ico in one of countless sarcophagi, his captors apologize, but ensure him that his sacrifice is for the good of his village. Ico’s story would end there, but for a tremor and decayed stone platform that cracks his cocoon and spills the young boy out onto the floor to begin his adventure.
It is only shortly after he begins his escape that Ico meets a shimmering young girl held captive in a cage. Her name, as we find out later, is Yorda and, without each other, neither has a chance of escaping.
From a control and game play perspective Yorda is a nuisance. It isn’t her fault, but so much is wrong with the way the game responds to Ico’s attempts to call her. I often found that if I wasn’t lined up in the exact place, Yorda would shake her head to indicate that she could not make the jump or reach me on a higher ledge. When all else was lost, trying again in a slightly different location often made the difference, finally allowing us to proceed. In a game with puzzle elements, there is nothing more frustrating than finding out you had the correct answer minutes before the game acknowledged it.
If that’s all there was to the Ico/Yorda dynamic, the game would be an utter failure. Instead, Team ICO has built a relationship between these young people that transcends language. While we get subtitles for Ico’s half of the dialog (all of the language was fabricated by the designers), Yorda is a mystery not only to her companion, but to us as well. All of this drives home the point that Ico is a kind-hearted boy who risks his own survival for a stranger whom he cannot even converse with.
The handholding dynamic that allows Ico to more easily guide Yorda works to strengthen the bond between the two youth. The way the animations play out, with Ico often pulling Yorda to run faster drives home a sense of urgency, especially when beset upon by shadow demons. These creatures will focus on Yorda, snatching her up to a vortex in which she is swallowed up. Not only will a fall from a height end the game, but also should you fail to reach Yorda in time to pull her out of the vortex, you’ll find yourself back at the most recent save couch.
Speaking of the shadows, I suggest noting what they all have in common (in addition to the glowing eyes). It will give you insight into the world of ICO that you might otherwise miss.
Unfortunately, the game shows its age often. The years have not been kind to the game’s control scheme when navigating Ico through the environment. In most contemporary games that feature climbing and shimmying, the thumbstick controls are adaptive. By this, I mean that if you round a corner and continue pressing in the same direction, you will continue moving toward your destination. In ICO, you will have to change direction based on the camera rather than simply hold the thumbstick. There are specific points where you will need to unexpectedly change the way you point the stick and, if you don’t, you’ll simply stop moving. It’s frustrating.
Additionally, the game is very particular about placement when it comes to how you jump onto chains or ledges. If you are not perfectly positioned, you run the risk of plummeting to your death. Again, more contemporary games tend to be more forgiving in this regard. None of this breaks the game, but it does show it as a decade old. The combat isn’t stellar and it is often hard to hit your target with precision. While fighting in Ico is something you engage in reluctantly, rather than something you seek out, it’s another part of the game that did not age well over the past decade.
With regard to graphics, the HD upgrade definitely helps the game. Unfortunately, other than an upgrade to what is already there, nothing has been done. This is problematic as the primitive lighting effects, especially those representing diffused light, obscure key architectural points including ladders and ledges. The color palette could have also used some updating as, with few exceptions, the game features too much brown and grey.
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