reviews\ Nov 4, 2001 at 7:00 pm

ICO - PS2 - Review

Getting tired of the same old recycled storylines, graphics, characters, and gameplay? Ever get the feeling like everything has been done before and things just get churned out according to some obscure marketing professional's formula? Well, fear not, console gamers, Sony has released a game upon the PS2 console that has taken the "road not taken" - and yes, "that has made all the difference."

Robert Frost references aside, Ico is veritably a poetic addition to the console gaming world. An adventure title at heart, Ico tells the story of a misfortunate young boy who has suffers from a stigma that damns him: a pair of horns. These horns condemn him to be sacrificed for "the good of his village," and the opening scenes show the journey made by Ico and the escorts meant to lead him to his doom.  By some chance, Ico's prison cell collapses, and he finds himself free, but seemingly alone in the midst of this "temple". In just a short time, you will begin to explore your prison and meet your wraith-like companion, a princess, trapped like a bird cruelly inside a steel cage.

So begins the adventure of Ico. With nothing more than a stick in one hand and the hand of the mysterious beauty in the other, you must become the savior who fends off the dark spirits and ultimately defeats the evil which not only seeks to destroy you and your companion, but also the world. The focus of gameplay is not on combat, but rather puzzle solving and plot development. Many times you will have to help coax or physically assist your delicate companion along the way, such as helping her up large obstacles after you have hopped up first. You can also climb walls, chains, and use various platforms to proceed. Battle, when it does occur, is one of two simple button attacks - which is either good or bad depending on what you're looking for in a title. The only thing that will change about your attacks is the acquisition of swords through puzzle/quest solving. Just remember, this isn't an action title, nor should you expect it to be. 

The real highlight of Ico is the imaginative and artistic way the graphics were handled. The sheen of the majestic black horses shines as one of the first examples of just how good the graphics are in Ico, and from there you begin to notice the strange aura that seems to accompany the game. The settings are both very open and very detailed at the same time, the dank and lonely prison recreated with an artist's touch. The thing I really noticed was the exceptional amount of detail that went into Ico's movements. When doing just about anything, his figure is extremely animated and detailed. A prime example is watching him shimmy up a chain, his clothing flapping and his legs flailing as he ascends. Another interesting effect is a strange brightness which emanates from your enemy's glowing "eyes." Because so much of the background has a lovely and effective matte effect, these bright pinpoints of light stand out almost 3-dimensionally. At times, there are contrasts and details that feel as if the developers were trying to work optical illusions into the visuals.

Sometimes a little means a lot - and this is certainly the case in the audio department of Ico. Sounds are subtle but meaningful, often giving you clues or indications of the situations you are in, or about to be in. The language, much like one of my other recent favorites, Klonoa 2, is completely invented and translated for you as you go along.  

And now, a word of warning: Ico is rather short. Most gamers will complete this title in less than 10 hours, unless you perhaps get stuck by some puzzle which evades your logic and you absolutely refuse to peek at the strategy guide. Seems to be the case with many otherwise higher ranking games lately; wonderfully created, but sometimes disappointingly short. There's really not any variations for replay - so people who don't care to buy such short-lived pleasures may want to rent the game at least for the experience.

In the end, I enjoyed Ico a great deal. It seemed to disregard the conventional structure of many modern games and take it's own unique form. From the simple way Ico gently calls the princess to take his hand and help her, to the atypical visual work which forces you to look twice at what you're playing - Ico can charm even the most un-"adventure"-ous gamer. 

Gameplay: 8
Adventure genre fans with a taste for eye-candy will adore ICO. There is battle included in the game, but it's almost non-existent, and barely more than just a simple swinging motion that doesn't take more than button pressing to master. The game runs smoothly and without a lot of load times despite the truly impressive graphics. May be a little slow for many short-attention span gamers and maybe a bit short for people who hunger for a more lengthy gaming experience.

Graphics: 9.2
Wow. It's definitely something to be experienced - not just seen. The shadings and visuals are almost ethereal. While many shades of grey and muted tones are used, the game's appearance doesn't drag into the monotone. It's hard to explain, but the ICO team created an atmosphere, not just a game world - it's almost as if the graphics were rendered as art, not just as game settings.

Sound: 8
There's a strange lack of sound in ICO, but when you do hear something it is done well. It sort of goes along with the graphics, it's almost as if the placement of the music you do here was done under a more artistic influence than just as a fill-in for background sound.

Difficulty: 7
While battle does exist in the game, it is reduced to simple button pressing - the focus is more on puzzles and plot development. The game's difficulty is also of the adventure nature, it's only as hard as that puzzle solution that's sometimes evading you right under your nose.

Concept: 9
Historically, adventure gaming has not found a welcome home in the console world. ICO breaks that streak - offering not only a real adventure title for fans of the genre, but also one that has done some pretty out-of-the-ordinary things with the game's environment. It's almost as if the game is saying; "That's it, I'm not going to conform like the rest of them." ICO dared to break out of the mold of a typical console title, and in doing so has really raised the bar in the artistic aspects of game development.

Overall: 8.5
ICO is an "art-house" game in a world of Hollywood-esqe world of action flicks. You get the distinct feeling this game was meant to be savored, not devoured; contemplated, not just consumed. A rather short game, the title will nevertheless leave a lasting impression on you with its rather avant-garde approach. It will most likely be a winning choice for the adventure gamer looking for something new and different in an elusive genre.


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