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SummaryMeditative action and emotional gameplay
The GoodICO is a descendant of cinematic platformers as defined by Prince of Persia, though with a heavier dosage of environmental puzzles. It also has something from Myst in it, with its strange, captivating atmosphere and mechanical devices emphasizing the lifeless beauty of its world. It would have been a fine 3D rendition of those concepts even if it didn't enhance them with anything else. However, the most striking achievement of the game is, to me, its unique ability to express emotions through gameplay elements and immerse the player using simple storytelling devices. In that respect, it reminded me of the only other game I know that managed to do that with as much intensity: Another World.
At first glance, ICO consists of standard platforming activities: the titular protagonist can run, jump, climb, hang from ledges, interact with objects (mostly by pushing and pulling them), and fight sporadically appearing enemies using a simple stick. Being a full 3D game, ICO allows you to view the environments from any angle you like, also zooming in and out if necessary. You can explore every corner of the castle, and there are always plenty of opportunities for physical interaction. Animation is flawless, and the game triumphantly succeeds in conveying two contrasting emotions: the athletic joy of controlling a lithe, agile protagonist, and the overbearing feeling of his vulnerability as he carefully walks on a narrow plank suspended above a gorgeously lethal abyss or exhibits visible signs of effort when pushing a box that seems too hard for him to handle.
Puzzles are quite numerous, and most of them require thought and understanding from the player. The game first introduces the basic elements of the puzzles (jumping, climbing, pulling levers, pushing crates, igniting bombs), and then mixes them, making the tasks increasingly difficult. There is always enough subtle variety in the puzzles, and particularly impressive is the way they are made an integral part of the castle's architecture. You gradually realize that all the puzzles in the game are parts of one huge puzzle - the castle itself. Once you complete the last one you feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment as the castle ceases to be an enigma to you. Exploration and puzzle-solving are thus seamlessly integrated and never feel disjointed.
What really makes ICO so special, however, is the presence of the princess Yorda and its incorporation into the gameplay. Ico is quite capable of climbing any ladder or jumping over wide gaps; but since the princess is not strong and quick enough to perform those actions, you need to figure out how to help her, often having to solve other puzzles just for that - pushing crates that will make higher platforms accessible, lowering down passageways so that she will be able to pass, etc. This simple mechanic compels you to become emotionally attached to your in-game companion in a way no other game did before. One of the most endearing gameplay elements in ICO is your ability to hold the princess' hand whenever you think she might be in danger - that way you make sure she stays close. If you lose sight of Yorda, you can always call out to her.
But not everything is that simple: shadowy creatures will attack the princess at every opportunity, and you'll have to rescue her before they pull her into their dark dimension. They often appear in groups and will do whatever they can to impede you as you frantically wave around your primitive wooden weapon, causing them to evaporate into black mist. They can't kill you, only knock you down; but if Yorda is gone, the game is over. In fact, you'll probably have more Game Overs from unsuccessful attempts to rescue the princess than from miscalculated jumps or comparable platforming hazards, which reveals another beautiful and meaningful detail of the design: the game is finished when somebody else dies, not you.
The whole plot of the game revolves around protecting Yorda and escaping from the castle. Yet this simplicity is precisely what makes the story so involving and touching. The feeling of being strong and important, conveyed through the gameplay mechanics - merely because of the necessity to protect someone rather than by having higher levels or better weapons - is what magically turns the story from a generic "save the princess" kind of tale into a very different experience. Here the game is similar to Another World, which also established a unique connection to an in-game character and also knew how to tell a touching story without words - though ICO achieves that even without scripted events or cutscenes.
The game is hauntingly atmospheric. There is a lot of detail in the graphics, and their technical quality is surprisingly high, considering the game's early release for a new console. The game boasts some truly impressive 3D architecture created with modest means and very little variety in color. The gigantic castle belongs to the most magically absorbing video game locations ever. The huge semi-outdoor levels in the upper part of the castle, where you stand on a bridge and look onto the sky, thinking of the free world that is so close yet so far away, are truly breathtaking. Light and water effects are particularly well done, although there is very little water in the game. Character graphics deserve a special mention: Yorda has a mysteriously angel-like appearance and looks very fragile thanks to the strange white aura that surrounds her. The contrast between the hostile environments and the seemingly weak, helpless little heroes is astounding. You really feel how scared and lost those two children must feel. There is no music in the game, but the sound effects are exceptionally well-placed. Just try crossing a castle bridge and listen to the wind.
The Bad"Monotonous" is not a word I'd like to use when talking about ICO, since it sounds pejorative, but I assume some players would apply this adjective to the game. With the exception of the final segment, ICO consists of one location only: the castle. While there is considerable variety within its walls, the empty hallways, cold rooms, and sunny outdoor constructions may become tiresome to navigate after a while. There is also a bit of backtracking you'll have to do, so players looking exclusively for dynamic games might be disappointed.
A bigger problem is the fact that this repetitiveness applies to combat as well. Arguably the game's weakest aspect, combat is thrilling at first, but once you realize that every hostile encounter in the game (with the exception of one boss battle) is almost exactly the same, the level of excitement drops considerably. I don't think the existing shadow combat mechanics needed any modifications, but a different type of enemy or perhaps different objectives in the battles would have added a bit of variety to the game.