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SummaryAction and meditation at once... is this possible?
The GoodTechnically speaking, "ICO" is a descendant of platform games. Its style is unmistakably similar to that of Prince of Persia, Another World, and Heart of Darkness. It is an action adventure, which is based on physical (jumping, climbing etc.) and environmental (pulling levers, opening doors etc.) puzzles. What matters in those games are the puzzles, while the combat serves as an additional challenge (like in "Prince of Persia") or as a series of hard, action-oriented puzzles ("Another World"). In this sense, "ICO" continues the platform tradition. Its pure action elements (combat) are secondary to the puzzles and to exploring, which are the core of the game.
David Berk described this game as "'Prince of Persia' meets 'Myst'". Indeed, while the gameplay is strongly influenced by the famous platform classic, its heavy atmosphere and the meditative feeling it evokes could be traced to "Myst-like" first-person adventures (although "ICO" itself uses third-person perspective). But the two other games that I think of now and to which "ICO" can be compared in a certain way, are Loom and Another World. "Loom" is for me the manifestation of greatness that is achieved with modest means, through a simple story and minimum of gameplay. "ICO" has a very simple story, which can be summarized in a few words: you play an Asian-looking boy named Ico, who was born with horns and thus was chosen to be sacrificed. He frees himself, and on his way out encounters an enigmatic young girl, which turns out to be the beautiful princess Yorda. From now on, the quest is both Ico's as well as Yorda's. You have to take care of her and prevents the servants of a dark queen to capture her, at the same time finding a way out of the castle. This is the whole story of the game - hardly anything to attract a player's attention. Yet this simplicity is precisely what makes the story so involving and touching. Although you control only Ico, you have always to take care of the helpless princess. Ico responsible not only for his own, but also for the princess' actions. The feeling of being strong, not thanks to 9999 hit points, ultimate Excalibur sword or level 8 magic, but merely because of the necessity to protect someone, is what magically turns the story from a generic "save the princess" kind of tale into a very different kind of experience. You don't fight for yourself, or for an abstract "world" in this game - you protect an innocent, weak girl. I don't know how about you, but this game touched a certain string in my male self. Who wouldn't dream of being strong and protecting a girl, without necessarily being a knight in shiny armor?
The influence of "Another World" is noticeable in many ways, but most important is once again the ability to tell a story without words. "Another World" had no dialogues whatsoever and yet managed to have quite an interesting story, where the cooperation with your alien friend was much more than a gameplay detail. Same happens in "ICO": there are very few dialogues, most of which really resemble the "conversations" with the alien in "Another World": the only difference is that the imaginary language that is used in "ICO" is "translated" in subtitles, while nobody bothered to translate the few words your friend tells you in "Another World".
Of course, the presence of Yorda is also a useful gameplay enhancement. Even without the princess, the game offers quite a lot of possible actions: Ico can run, jump, climb, hang from ledges, interact with objects (mostly by pushing them), and fight (using a simple stick). Being a full 3D game, "ICO" allows you to view the game world 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. Yorda brings more variety into the gameplay. Often Ico is strong and quick enough to climb a ladder or to jump over a gap; but since the princess is not strong and quick enough to perform those actions, you should think of helping her -sometimes solving other puzzles for that. One of the most charming features of "ICO's" gameplay is your ability to hold the princess' hand whenever you might think she is in danger. This way you can keep her close to you. That wouldn't magically transport her over gaps she can't jump over, or let her climb as swiftly as Ico. In many levels the main objective is to clear the way for Yorda, pushing crates that will make higher platforms accessible, lowering down passageways so that she will be able to pass, etc. If you lose sight of Yorda, you can call her. But not everything is that simple: dark creatures will attack the princess at every opportunity, and you have to rescue her - otherwise it's Game Over. In fact, you'll probably have most of your Game Overs after an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the princess from the foes. Another beautiful detail - the game is finished when somebody else dies, not you.
The combat in "ICO" is fairly simple. You hit your enemies with a stick (there is an secret weapon - a mace - and a sword you gain later in the game), while they are trying to dissolve Yorda into the black void. They will never attack you directly (except in the final part of the game, where Ico is alone), they will react to you only if you have already striken them, and always go for Yorda. But they come sometimes in large amounts and are not that easy to defeat. I found the difficulty level of the combat perfect - it was often on the limit of "Damn, they are taking the princess away!... Nooooo!..", but never too frustrating.
Puzzles are quite numerous, and most of the time pretty hard. The game first introduces the basic elements of the puzzles (jumping, climbing, pulling levers, pushing crates, igniting bombs), and then mixes them and makes them increasingly more difficult. There are no inventory puzzles or anything intellectual" here - just hardcore physical stuff. As boring as the description of those puzzles sounds, they are not. There is always enough subtle variety in them, and particularly impressive is the architecture of the castle - you gradually realize that all puzzles are a part of one huge puzzle, which is the castle itself.
A particular strength of "ICO" lies in the fact that although it is basically an action game, it is nevertheless very quiet and meditative. In spite of all the jumping, climbing, and fights, the game never gets frantic and sinks to the level of kiddie arcade action; the magnificent atmosphere of the game always prevails. It is amazing that a hybrid between "Myst-like" adventures and platform action was not only possible, but could also reach such a high level. Action gameplay, puzzles, and atmospheric, quiet environments are flawlessly integrated into the game, so you won't feel you are "jumping" from genre to genre, but rather become immersed into the game world without even feeling the contrasts.
The magical atmosphere of the game owes a lot to its graphics, particularly to their attention to detail. Even the saving points are so creatively designed: in order to save your game, you have to hold the princess' hand and sit on a couch with her. Ico's actions are wonderfully realistic: he runs just the way a little boy would run; you can feel he is making an effort when he is climbing on a rope or when he is jumping off a ledge. The game boasts some truly impressive 3D environments, that once again are made with modest means, with very little variety in color. There is only one location in the game, the castle, but it certainly belongs to the most atmospheric and immersive locations ever created. Light effects are particularly well done. 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. Water effects are also terrific, although there is unfortunately very little water in the game. Especially charming are the character graphics. Yorda has a mysteriously angel-like look, which doesn't make her terrifying at all - on the contrary, she looks so fragile and vulnerable because of the strange white aura that surrounds her. The contrast between the hostile environments and the seemingly weak, helpless little heroes is astounding. You can really feel how scared and lost should those two children feel in a dark, mysterious castle.
There is no music in the game (one of the reasons for its meditative nature), but the sound effects are fantastic. Just try to cross 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 is so pejorative, but I assume some players would consider "ICO" monotonous. There is only one location, the puzzles can get pretty repetitive, and there is some necessary backtracking to do. I wasn't bothered by those things, but players who look for more dynamic games might be disappointed.