ICO, like the proverbial oasis in the middle of the desert, comes as a refreshing, invigorating surprise. With its stunning visuals of ornate masonry (the likes of which only Devil May Cry can even claim being anywhere near), and a world so completely beautiful and immersive that the gameplay almost takes a back seat to the daydreams of living in such a place, ICO will captivate players all the way through its relatively short play time while defying explanation as a video game. Playing it feels more like committing an act of pure chivalry; an archaic ideal that one would think was as dead as the old-school adventure genre of gaming. If nothing else, ICO proves that there is quite a bit of life left in both.
There is nothing whiz-bang about ICO. There are no mercenaries, no SOCOM pistols, no spiritually enhanced weaponry, and no trace whatever of anything representing a ravenous undead zombie. However, what it does have is a princess named Jorda, who, while speaking a language you can’t even come close to being able to understand, desperately needs your help. She has been imprisoned in a castle by the minions of a mysterious woman, and must escape before it’s too late.
Those initiated in the old-school era of adventure gaming, (the late 80s and early 90s PC adventure titles from, most notably, LucasArts and Sierra) will take to ICO immediately, and will mentally declare that this was what would have been considered the ultimate adventure title back in those days. Even in today’s gaming landscape, ICO proves to be a wonderful, A-list title experience, albeit an unusual (and slow-paced) one. It would be a fair comparison to say that this game shares a bit of what made MYST such a success with multiple audiences, and yet it expands on those ideas to the point where a player would feel that this is what MYST should have been.
The graphics of ICO are subdued, intoxicating, beautiful, and literally awe-inspiring. Throughout most of the game, it’s you, Jorda, and the castle, with all of the scenery brought to life through the lighting, shadows, and the intricacies of the brain-teaser puzzle structure that one hopes would eventually lead our party to safety. The castle itself is the real star of this game, with its elaborate construction being complemented by the dead-on camera system. Whereas in some titles, the camera actually presents players with as big an obstacle as an end-boss might, in ICO it’s your best friend. The views are somewhat movable at times, but for the most part the forced perspective of the camera design is what assists ICO with its presentation, in terms of scenic beauty and gameplay elements. The entire world you have dropped yourself in can even be seen within the game, as the ingenious design affords players to see areas they’ve already passed through (including how they got to where they are now) when they reach loftier heights.
Another simple, yet beautiful trait of ICOs graphical prowess is its use of lighting. Not once does it ever feel like “Hollywood lighting,” nor does it ever seem to come from an un-natural source. Sunlight and torches are the sources here, and the gleam they produce envelops everything in such a naturalistic way that you almost begin to feel as if you’re looking at an actual place on earth. The light is “toyed” with slightly from the elements of a particular environment, so every area of the game feels different and unique.
The animation of the lead characters and enemies they encounter is breathtaking. In an era where any gamer’s eye is able to pick out the un-natural look of movement that sub-par animation presents, players will be hard pressed to find flaws in the physicality of the characters, and this holds true in terms of movement, and the way they react to things happening on screen. This holds true for all things animated within the title, whether it be a creature or a natural resource (water, fire, etc). Even things comprised of shadows are particularly breathtaking. Within a short period of gameplay time, players will forget they’re controlling animated characters, and will begin to feel like they’re actually guiding living, breathing people. I can’t imagine any game designer/animator striving for anything better than that.
ICO is mostly a quiet title in terms of music and sound effects, and this is not only appropriate to the world, but a masterpiece of silence. The sound effects are as one would expect them to be, and when the game does present some music, it’s the kind of thing one would expect to hear in such an environment. The whole title can be summed up as more of an experience within another world than a game itself, and its restraint in the use of noises that would slam a player over the head is a mark of sheer artistry.
To boil it down to its core, ICO is a puzzle-solving type of adventure game with a smattering of 3D action thrown in for flavor. The actual battles that take place with use of a Z axis are easy to overcome, and mostly revolve around the shadow creatures that are constantly on your tail. It is the goal, as mentioned above, for players to lead the princess to safety. This is not as easy as it might sound due to the fact that she can’t move on her own, needs her hand held all the time, speaks a foreign language, and is sought after diligently by the minions of her captor. The gameplay really begins to shine when you realize that the path the hero chooses to advance to the next area is inaccessible to Jorda for one reason or another, and requires rethinking to get her through. Manipulating the environment to bring her home is replete with challenges that, ultimately, like any adventure game worth its salt, lead to that enormous feeling of accomplishment when completed correctly. It cannot be stressed enough that players should get through this title the first time without any outside hints or influences in order to enjoy it thoroughly. ICO does suffer from that old adventure game curse of zero replay potential once completed, so rushing through the first time will just waste your money. The game, from beginning to end, can be completed in three hours once you know what you’re doing, which isn’t nearly enough time to digest all the beauty this title has to offer. Do yourself a favor and accomplish this quest on your own… even if the first time through takes ten hours.
In short, ICO is one of those rare gaming experiences that come along so infrequently in recent days. Fans of the old-school adventure titles are going to adore this game, and a purchase is recommended here without hesitation. However, if you’re looking for Solid Snake-type antics and have an itchy trigger finger, ICO will probably have nothing to offer you… but do yourself a favor and try it anyway. It is the kind of immersive experience that defies words, but conveys emotions across a picture tube perfectly.