“They tried to sacrifice me because I have horns.”
ICO, one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time and one that has been unanimously dubbed a masterpiece by those who have played it and so being extremely keen to see what I’ve missed out on back when it was released some 13 years ago, I picked up the Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection to find out.
The game centers around a young boy named Ico who has been outcast from his village because he was born with horns, which the inhabitants believe to be a sign of calamity, consequently he is ushered to a remote castle and entombed alive. He soon escapes however and discovers another poor soul; a young princess named Yorda who seems to be in desperate need of a decent spray tan, whilst also being mercilessly pursued by shadowy demons determined to keep her imprisoned within the castle walls. That’s pretty much all there is to the premise as it’s clearly been crafted to be a simple tale in favour of stressing the peculiar bond between Ico and Yorda as the game progresses; they both need each other to escape, Ico’s athleticism for practical purposes and Yorda’s magical powers for more novel solutions. A boy and a princess, a minimalist concept perhaps but sometimes that’s all that’s needed.
Ico is completely underpinned by it’s relationship between the duo, it’s established immediately that Yorda is timid and very fragile so she’s not going to be much use in practical terms. As a result, Ico will literally pull her along like you would a child, for ledges that Ico can climb over with ease, you have to gently pull Yorda up, similarly when she jumps far distances she will scurry over the edge before eventually scrambling into his arms. Admittedly, the relationship that develops between them is handled with elegance and is occasionally touching, but gameplay problems dampen the impact of this connection.
I am sad to state that I found the gameplay to be truly awful and considering that’s the primary purpose of a game, it’s a fatal blow to my overall impression of the experience. ICO plays out like a platform puzzler, you control the boy as you help him successfully navigate the various hazards present around the castle, solve environmental puzzles and protect Yorda from the creatures in combat. This is where it all unravels though, as you’re fighting what seems to be endless amounts of generic shadow monsters no matter how many times you wildly wack them over the head with a wooden stick. All the while you’re painfully aware that if you catch a blow, you’ll be down for the count whilst Yorda is carried up to the sky and delivered to the gaping black hole of shadowy doom a few leagues away. This wouldn’t be as big as a problem as it is if for the fact you need to fight these monsters a lot during the 6-hour adventure, the imprecise combat combined with an erratic camera makes playing Ico a completely exhausting ordeal, in stark contrast to the rather serene quality of its art direction.
I recognise the valid point that it’s perhaps designed to be this way, Ico is only a boy after all, thus when he fights it’s with clumsy swings and awkward stumbles. Nonetheless this isn’t a sufficient reason to sacrifice the enjoyment of the player in favour of some perceived authenticity, when he gets knocked down and rolls around on the floor for the umpteenth time, your immense frustration will out-weigh any potential benefits of deliberate vulnerability.
Other major problems include Yorda’s A.I. which is remarkably bad and leads to moments of significant frustration, for instance she needs to be shouted at constantly to go the right way and if she follows you up a ladder sometimes she’ll decide that her heart’s not in it and she’ll go back down again, there really are so many moments where you’ll just want to scream in frustration. Not ideal considering this is the person you’re supposed to lovingly protect and guide throughout its duration.
The design of the game meanwhile is both arresting and bewildering in equal measure, the minimalist tone of the game extends to how it’s structured, thus on many occasions it’s not clear at all what you’re supposed to do and where you have to go to do it. Perhaps modern games have spoilt us a bit with excessive signposting, but when you have to lead Yorda around everywhere, it’s a little tiresome having to check back through huge stages to find the correct path to progress.
Despite this, it’s hard to be overly critical in this regard considering how utterly brilliant the sense of scale is throughout, demonstrating to the player that the principal motif for the game is how the vulnerable duo are dwarfed by the imposing, grand environments they are forced to navigate in order to escape. All too often in games, the sense of scale is entirely arbitrary, with ICO it’s different, the immensity of the castle is crushingly reinforced time and time again and it’s completely jaw-dropping.
Similarly, the art style of the game is striking as it thrives on the mass of contradictions that exist throughout, for instance the castles interiors are intensely gloomy but once you step outside you are bathed in a rich sunlight that only intensifies the lush, green gardens that you’ll come across. There’s a sort of wonderful irony to discover behind it all, the castle is cold, dark and utterly devoid of life yet these mini-gardens of Eden thrive within it; perhaps one could relate this to the overall theme that the developer seeks to establish, that life, innocence and purity can still exist even in the bleakest of environments.
The audio is also brilliant or rather the sweet lack of it, indeed Ico is absolutely mesmerising in the sense that it is entirely bereft of an actual score, there’s an almost ethereal quality to it as you’re traversing the lonely castle environment with the only sound being a howl of wind or the delicate chirping of birds outside. Again, this ties into the themes of the game so well and although I won’t go over it again, it’s a genuinely breathtaking aspect to it and that title track *swoons*.
ICO is a real head-scratcher because under all that sumptuous art and terrific sense of scale, is a game that is simply dreadful to actually play; perhaps it’s just aged horribly, after all 13 years is a damn long time in this medium and I appreciate that it tried to do something different. But if a game is no fun to play, how can your final verdict on the experience be anything other than negative?
+ Sense of scale is brilliantly executed
+ Art style and audio are impressive
– Dire gameplay
– Incredibly tedious
– It’s just no fun