The Princess and the Draggin'
Every generation the Curse is visited upon the Village and a child is born with tiny horns. The horns grow larger and the child is blamed for failing crops and sickened animals. When the horns are full-sized, faceless riders take the child from the Village, across the water to the Castle. There the child is entombed in an urn and left to die—for the good of the Village. Except that is not the fate Destiny has in store for Ico.
Alive, in his funerary urn, Ico has a vision of a Princess trapped in a cage suspended by a chain, high above him. Freeing himself from the urn, Ico now has a purpose, escaping the Castle with the Princess, even though that means defying the Queen of the Castle. To do so, he will have to overcome the greatest of all environmental obstacles—the entire Castle. He will have to lead the weakened Princess through one gigantic, intricate puzzle while fighting off the Queen’s Shadow Demons who seek to return the Princess to her mother.
Ico has three major elements. First Ico must find a way to navigate through the Castle. He climbs, crawls and jumps well so he is able to find hidden switches, creep along narrow ledges, and swing from ropes and chains. The Princess is in a weakened state, so Ico must lead her through the Castle by pulling her hand or calling out to her and also by finding a less acrobatic way for her to get through the Castle. Finally, if the Princess is out of sight for too long (or certain events are triggered) Shadow Demons rise up from smoky portals and attempt to drag the Princess away.
Ico’s primary weapon is a length of wood he can use to hammer at the demons. He can find a sword (later in the game) which makes quicker work of them and there is at least one (maybe two) secret weapon to be found. The Shadow Demons are cunning opponents seeking to distract Ico while kidnapping the Princess or knocking him off high areas, but they cannot kill him. The game, except for the final sequence, ends only if Ico falls too far or the Princess is taken away.
When playing Ico, I was struck that no extra lines were drawn, no extra words spoken, no extra notes played. Ico is detailed where detail is called for and sparse where it is not. Previous reviews have referred to Ico’s artistic merits and they are definitely there in terms of graphics, sound and music. It is a beautiful game, yet players who play Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
before Ico will probably be disappointed.
Lastly, I was initially annoyed with the mechanics behind the Princess. She comes when called and goes where dragged, but as a character she offers little. In terms of game play, she is used to open certain magical doors, so she is mostly a key shaped like a girl. But there is something sweet about Ico’s interaction with her—the way he protects her, how he holds her hand, the way they sit together on the couches which act as save points—and this pays off with one of the best endings I’ve ever seen.
Ico doesn’t take long to play. It takes time to figure out what to do, but not that long to do it. While I appreciate that nothing was added to the game to lengthen game play, I do wish that the NTSC release had some of the features of the PAL release which add to replay—learning more of the story the second time around and allowing a second player to play as the Princess.
The Bottom Line
If you play Ico before Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, you probably think Sands ripped Ico off. If you play Ico after Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, you probably think that Sands really improved on what Ico accomplished. I recommend this game, but you may have been here before and already done that.