"Ico [was] one of the first games that tried to evoke emotions from the player. Ico was the starting point and proof that emotions can exist in games, kind of a wake-up call for designers. " - Josef Fares , creative director of Brothers : A Tale of Two Sons & A Way Out, in an email to WIRED.
A lot has been said for ICO and I have a lot to write, so I will keep it concise and in a review format for readers readability and my own challenge.
This 'Review' will be judged by :
Brew - Brewster's adoration laden brain which the game is fed through yet am determined to deliver a review based on what did and still pleases me.
A Critique of the game through modern eyes intending to inform anyone who has yet to play it.
Gush - short over sharing segments from the game experience and which further support why I think it is good and why I am correct, why you should listen and then play etc.
along with our Intro the the section which...
This was SONY's action adventure for their newest console. Dark cloud was still away off. Metal Gear Solid 2 was months away. God of War was in the womb. On release ICO was called a 3D Prince of Persia.
Any comparison to Zelda or other franchises would inevitably lead to disappointment, as may have been the case for some older gamers and I could not find the budget for the game to call a Sony produced title 'limited' in resources.
Brew yeah, I couldn't make a better comparison.
Early in the game when if the first time you've climbed up the highest part of the castle, the camera zooooms out to give a sense of scale. If the player has not grasped the concept, they will now. Two small characters are lost in a huge cursed and crumbling fortress and you are not alone. There is a nice look to the PS2 original but 512x224 resolution is tough for many and rightfully so.
Brew This short PS2 puzzle platformer is a landmark game in terms of design. The visual and audio design holds up. You jump, fight and think(puzzles) and while the game does not do any to a remarkable degree, it was in 2001 and continues to be worthy of great admiration. I feel this game put a lot of work to communicate its concept to you and it is done with efficiency and simplicity.
I played this in around 2006 because it was hard to come by a copy when you live in a field surrounded by several layers of field. So in my post-Mario 64/Banjo gaming experience, this was not the height of platforming or exploration or even color. But ICO offered an unique experience of its own. A somber and dark fairy tale game from Japan with entirely unique lore.
Gush I understand the game had a small development team compared to other launch titles but the modern day experience of ICO may be hard to find enjoyment in if you have played any 3D platform released in the last 20 years.
I appreciate simplicity in pause screens and this game smoothly eases in and out. An interesting tidbit is that the animation of falling rocks was all animated manually as it was far too early into the PS2 lifecycle to integrate a complex physics engine. I couldn't tell but I'm not an animator or even a keen observer. The games ending with the castle collapsing was actually something added in late in development in order to make the experience feel more conclusive.
Others design limitations meant ocean and fog were included to overcome draw distance issues (at least one team member referenced silent hill as their previous work) but these issues are naturally soothed over as just nice backdrop to the characters in the forefront.
This cel-shaded art style is the reason the game still looks good and the HD release, while straining on its old-school fabric, compliments the devs efforts.
Critique The design is shoddy. The camera is unsatisfying and uncomfortable. The combat feels included for padding (successfully). You only progress with the story because there isn't anything else to do. There are no real button prompts, in-game tutorial or much general direction at all, besides that camera. A map would be nice. While the game always knows how to use its environment to its strength, the commitment to art direction means movement works with scripted camera placement, meaning that it pulls the screen into it's intended glorious path/angle. The save menu is clear and sharp with nice music but it has not aged gracefully. The game can feel empty, save for the few animals which fill the still scenery and while the environments are never that difficult to grasp or get an overview of, they have large spaces which include nothing needed to progress. The game has some great linking up of areas to help with the backtracking involved but its really just pretty looking padding.
This game has bombs, it has wooden swords which become flame torches and these upgrade to better steel swords. This game has crate puzzles and enchanted crumbling castles and old doors and gates and by the end you feel as if you have interacted with all of them in one or several ways. There is also a lever button, jump button, attack button and interact button.
Brew The whole packaging of these gameplay elements and insertion into such a unique setting, the atmosphere, graphics, sound and platforming puzzles have remained timeless.
Few of this games building blocks were of its own but they are harnessed for its own world building and its puzzles never feel like something simply designed for gaming but rather actual obstacles inside of an ancient decrepit prison. Say what you will but in a modern context this game has very little fat and the final boss boils down to a simple mixture of puzzle and combat in a scenario reused by several other games years later.
Critique My opinion is bias. But even bias cannot get past that combat. This combat is basic, repetitive, boring, slow, too simple, and it doesn't inform the later final boss much in any way. At least it doesn't have a grip meter when you hang from ledges. The action button (circle) does things in this game I discovered by accident. On my first play through I think I read the manual to discover the button had a use (the scandal!) and while everything is fast and smooth to interact with like ladders and crates, the rope swinging is just awkward and you need to forgive someone who cannot find much fun in this game. The platforming can be imprecise, the camera is wildly over sensitive, akin to a child wielding a power hose and
I appreciate just having one button to call and hold Yorda's hand. The main character's (ICO) jumping feels good to me but there are several leaps of faith. Certain design lines and shadows on walls which far too closely resemble the ledges you can grab onto, this lead to a few deaths even on my fourth playthrough.
Gush From what I can tell this game has accurate marketing. It showed off the atmosphere, style and tone of the game. Basic things which seem partially impossible nowadays. Smaller compact puzzles that is more about interacting with certain smaller pieces of a castles interior and outer courtyards architecture, water wheel cycles and gate pulley systems, and bombs.
Prince of Persia (the old 2D one) had the idea of beating the evil wizard that you had to work through castle rooms and traps to reach the top and save the princess.
Brew This game uses all these building blocks and does not reinvent them but simple arranges them their own the unique way. Their way was a little odd when it came out, it was big risk and not for everyone but it expressed something great with such simple means. I like pretty much all of the finale.
Critique 'TIS ART!
Gush It is still a solid adventure with a setting that informs a lot of the story. The scope is narrow but it explores all the darkest depths and greenest pastures of its castle setting. The game is also kind enough to not waste your time, with the overall thing being done in a weekend if the puzzles don't stop you.
ICO's soundtrack only really makes an appearance during cutscenes, save menus and story moments, which are few in number.
Brew ICO has a very good soundtrack. The sound design of echoes, monster wings offscreen crumbling stonework and the clang of your sword doing nothing against it only ever adds to it, imo(minimize). I think atmosphere was at a certain standard around this time, looking over at FFX and MGS2 who both communicate grand scores on a cinematic scale, this game went for quiet and stillness which I find refreshing but I poorly represent what everyone seen or thought back in 2001.
Critique The pre-main menu cutscene and the games credits have the best pieces and both successfully allow the tone to sink in. The sound design can feel uneven and even muffled to a foggy degree. This was balanced better in the HD game but the music seems to transcend this issue.
The sound effects are still solid and pronounced with every interaction with all the puzzle chimes and reactions to high falls or sudden deaths. The game could feel too still and quiet for some tastes and the music when fighting monsters is just flat out annoying most of the time.
Gush Sounds good to me.
There was a time when this game, released alongside the likes of FFX and MGS2, it was considered a game with minimal story.
Brew Nowadays it seemed like a Japanese take on a gritty fairytale that fortunately skips laborious backstory. Nowadays some indie tiles are so minimal they're entirely ambiguous. I never saw this game as replayable but I love revisiting it.
Critique Now I don't know if this was ever considered an indie title but this game is short, not very replayable, not very difficult and it expects a lot from the player. Consume for educational purposes only.
Gush Dip in every few years when you know every inch of SOTC. Or just watch someone stream it to avoid those damn combat segments.
So yeah ICO is... possibly worth your time.
Brew It is fun time. Go play.
Gush Try it.
Critique Cautious recommendation for only the digitally commited.
LOOK WHO CAME: