ICO is the story of two people: a small boy with horns and a young girl who is seemingly made of light. The boy, known as Ico, is a potential sacrifice, as is Yorda (the indirect heroine of the game). Both have been imprisoned in a huge stone cavern, filled with tombs similar to that Ico is enclosed in. Together, they must work to escape the tomb and the ever-expanding, mysterious compound. Sound vague? Well this ambivalence, along with a refreshing combination of puzzle and action elements, creates a unique and memorable experience.
Environments play a big role in ICO. Not only must you examine every nook and cranny for clues; you are constantly forced to manipulate the environment in order to make progress. The sheer scale and splendor that ICO exists in becomes another character in the game, though sometimes it may feel more like an enemy. Excellent lighting and water effects enhance the rich landscape, while the variety of levels complete the picture and succeed in drawing you into the game. There are a good number of cut-scenes, but not so many as to detract from flow of the game, and they help further the mysterious story of our two heroes.
The sounds are, at first, noticeably subdued; no trumped up score or trancelike beats here. As the game progresses, sound begins to play a key role. A subtle cry for help tells you when Yorda is kidnapped (by multi-limbed shadow creatures), and that you'd better run to her rescue. The soft pitter-patter of ICO's feet across the cobblestones, the lone cry of an unseen bird, the crumble small stones as you leap precariously towards a ledge; all of these little sounds create an aural extravaganza of minimalism.
The puzzle and platform elements that make up the bulk of ICO's game play are difficult enough to present a challenge, but never so frustrating that you'd consider quitting. An open element of level exploration conceals the linear progress of the game, allowing you to feel as if you are free to do as you please, when in reality, you are following a strict set of events. Most of the puzzles center on how to enable Yorda to follow you. From simply positioning a box for her to stand on to shutting off the water running down a steep ramp, the numerous obstacles in your path vary greatly.
As you explore your surroundings, you must also be aware of your passenger. Yorda will follow you (almost) anywhere, as long as you hold her hand. On her own, Yorda can climb ladders and make short jumps. If the two of you become separated, simply call out for her and she'll run to you- though most of the time it's quicker to just go and get her (Women! Always lollygagging around!).
If you do separate from your new friend and the shadow beasts take her, you'll have to act quickly in order to save her. To accomplish this, you'll need to vanquish these creatures by pummeling them with physical attacks. What mighty weapon does our hero employ? Is it a mighty staff, forged by great wizards long past? Maybe he has magical powers over fire and lightning! No, none of these, for you shall wield the dreaded 2x4! That’s right; a hefty stick is your primary weapon of choice; later a sword comes into your possession, but it is mainly used to chop up rope.
Among all this rope chopping, lever toggling, stick swinging and ledge jumping you might begin to wonder where you can save your game. Why a couch of course! What were you expecting? With such hectic and sometimes frustrating elements, it is always nice to take a break; conveniently, save points abound in ICO. The couches follow a standard pattern of appearance, and with each new quadrant, you can expect a save point.
The control never feels loose, and ICO responds with great ease and success. Through different button combinations, you can manipulate the camera to suit most of your needs; though, as in most third person games, there are times when you'll wish you could move it just a little bit more. ICO's slow pace and lack of time limits really encourages you to relax and enjoy the game. This unrushed feel helps soften the impact any bad camera angle may have on game play.
Some gamers may have problems with the strange feel ICO gives off. There's nothing violent or malicious here, only a mysterious plot and some strange dialogue. The encounters with enemies are quite infrequent, and with only two weapons to choose from, many casual gamers may grow weary of the repetition. ICO seems to fly in the face of conventional gaming, which may lend a great deal towards what makes it so enjoyable. Here is something new, something different.
Other than its strange presence, ICO has no tangible faults. This is a near perfect game, but perfection comes at a cost. The closest games that I can equate it to are the classic PS1 Oddworld releases. With the highly anticipated follow-up known as Shadow of Colossus set to release next month, gamers have another excuse to give ICO a try.