Ico HD Review
If distinction was the defining factor of a great video game, Ico could be considered an unquestionable success in the gaming landscape. Foregoing many of the common tropes of video games from its era, Ico strutted onto the scene in late 2001 showcasing a different perspective on game mechanics and design that seemed more like interactive art than a traditional game.
It was a risky proposition and one that turned out unquestionably well in the eyes of most gamers, as evidenced by how the game is widely regarded as a “classic” even a decade after its release. I just recently had the opportunity to play Ico for myself and have come away with quite a different perspective on the game, however, one that may not exactly sit comfortably with longtime fans of Team Ico’s first creation.
Ico follows the journey of a young boy named Ico who is believed to be cursed due to the presence of strange horns growing from his head. In the tradition of his native village, these cursed children are placed in tombs and brought across a bridge to a burial chamber within a large island fortress to die. A fortunate accident within the chamber causes Ico’s tomb to dislodge and break apart and the player then assumes control of the young boy trying to find out where he is and how to escape his current situation.
Along the way, Ico soon discovers a mysterious spirit girl named Yorda who is being held captive in a cage dangling high above a castle-like enclosure. Upon freeing her, the two embark on a game-long quest to help each other escape the fortress together. Since they speak different languages, their on-screen communication is conveyed through physical motion and audible cues, an interesting dynamic that seems to have been intended to show the relationship between Ico and Yorda growing stronger over the course of the roughly six hour experience.
However, the primary failing of the game’s narrative is that this dynamic is never explored with these characters until the game’s last half hour. Aside from these final sequences, the characters show no other growth or change, and the experience feels quite muted because of it. Ico’s setup offered much potential to make its characters endearing to the player through its story but instead relies on the player to draw his or her own conclusions.
Ico is a very minimalistic experience. With no true heads-up-display, a very sparse selection of music heard almost exclusively in the game’s cut-scenes, and a washed-out color palette filled with oversaturated light sources, the player’s focus falls squarely on the character models whose detail and animations make up the strongest part of Ico’s presentation.
Ico and Yorda appear almost lifelike despite the game’s older technology due to their meticulously-crafted animations. Whether it is the way Yorda stumbles when Ico clumsily pulls her along by the arm or how Ico awkwardly swings a stick or sword at enemies, the animations draw the player into the story more than the narrative itself as they depict these characters as unfortunate victims of their circumstance rather than typical video game heroes.
In other areas, however, Ico’s presentation lacks some appeal. While the game’s fortress is a huge sprawling structure with tons of rooms and areas to explore, some are so artistically bland that I had the sensation I was playing through the same rooms over and over again with a slightly different layout. The lack of ambient music throughout the game is quite disappointing too and contributes to the feeling of staleness in the environments. Some light background compositions in the vein of The Legend of Zelda’s dungeon areas would have livened up the atmosphere and made each area feel more unique.
Otherwise, Ico is a technically solid experience. The graphical style is clean and consistent, the game runs at an acceptable frame-rate, sound effects are suited well to the environment, and I encountered no glitches or bugs during my playthrough. The HD re-release of Ico keeps the source game intact but brings out extra detail in the presentation due to a newly-added widescreen mode and support for up to 1080p resolutions.
The meat of Ico’s gameplay experience revolves around its puzzles, which take up the majority of the time spent playing the game and help establish a very relaxing pace. Rather than acting as a series of brain-twisters, the developers have decided to utilize puzzles that test your traversal skills, item utilization, and spatial awareness.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of diversity amongst the game’s areas, traversing these puzzles evokes little in the way of thought or exploration. Most only involve common tropes such as pushing blocks and pulling levers to make different places in the environment accessible to Yorda. The puzzle design does shine in a few spots though, particularly when single puzzles span the course of multiple areas and require large manipulations in the environment to progress.
A primary issue I had with solving some of Ico’s puzzles stemmed from the fact that the game does very little to illustrate to the player what is and is not possible with regard to the game engine. For instance, there are puzzles where the game will require the player to utilize physics to manipulate certain objects in the environment, but since the game never provides a prior demonstration of which objects can be interacted with, these puzzles become more about trial and error than actual problem solving. Secondly, some environments lack any sort of visual identification to clue the player in on where to focus their efforts, so the player has to aimlessly wander around the level until they figure out the sequence of rooms the game wants you to move through next.
The other main component of Ico’s gameplay package is the combat system. In certain areas of the game, a few mysterious shadow creatures will rise from portals in the ground and attempt to capture Yorda to bring her back through the portals to her demise, and it is up to the player to use Ico to defeat these creatures before they succeed in making that happen.
With only a few variants of enemies and a clumsy fighting system, Ico’s combat can certainly feel frustrating at times, but this is offset somewhat by how infrequently it occurs in the total experience. Perhaps the developers strove to make battles a nuisance to convey the struggle Ico goes through to keep Yorda safe, and if that’s the case then they definitely succeeded, although better fighting mechanics would have made the game more fun to play.
It is worth noting that the last hour of Ico stands apart from the rest of the experience, offering a more unique set of locales, more engaging combat, and better storytelling that provides us with a glimpse of how great Ico could have been had the developers been able to fill the entire six hour adventure with the same abundance of ideas and narrative. As it stands though, Ico is still a relatively enjoyable game, and while it certainly doesn’t set any standards for puzzle design or combat finesse, its relaxing pace and synchronous world make it a worthwhile adventure nonetheless.