What happens with you take gorgeous graphics, minimalist design, a great story and mix it all together? Surprisingly, the greatest escort mission ever in gaming. ICO is the brainchild of gaming auteur Fumito Ueda, winner of three Game Developers Choice Awards after it came out in 2001. Let’s talk about why it deserves it.
The game follows the journey of young protagonist Ico, (pronounced Eeko) who is a boy with horns. In his village, horns are considered an ill-omen, so the elders take him to an ancient castle surrounded by water. They lock him in a sarcophagus and leave him to die. After having a strange dream, Ico is set free when a tremor causes his prison to break. When he explores, he finds the girl from his dream, Yorda, imprisoned in a cage. After letting her go, the two, with no common language between them, attempt to escape the castle. Complicating matters are the strange shadow creatures trying to take Yorda, and her mother the Queen, who rules over the ancient palace.
ICO is one of those games that took risks in this modern world of voice acting, HUDs and violence. There are very few cutscenes, meaning very little dialogue. There’s barely any music. There is amazing boom lighting effects, helping cause great shadow-and-light visuals. The lack of HUD allows for an experience of total immersion and helps illustrate how few ways there are to lose. In this game, you only die if you fall a great height or lose Yorda.
Speaking of Yorda, it’s nice to have a person to escort that doesn’t just get stuck on something or place themselves in a bad situation all the time. The game plays like a 3D platformer with puzzle elements. Often you will take Yorda by the hand to lead her to places, and if you’ve left her alone, you can call her to you. She’s not as strong as Ico, so you’ll need to jump and climb to solve the puzzle of getting her from one place to another. Every moment where she leaps over a gap to your waiting hand is a breath-taker as you see him catch her just as it looks like she’ll fall to her death. Yorda is needed to open the doors in the castle, and to save on the couches that you find (best save station ever).
Of course, Yorda is constantly pursued by the shadow minions of her mother. Ico can protect her by using what weapons he finds. These include: a stick that can double as a torch, a sword, and an unlockable mace, as well as bombs for puzzles. Most combat situations are with the creatures either just appearing and going after Yorda, or Ico having to rush back to her after he’s managed to solve a puzzle by leaving her unattended. If you fail to save her from being wisked away, it’s game over.
Every chamber and area of the castle is a bigger piece of a puzzle that must be solved. And when the end game occurs… well, let’s just say it’s one of the most awesomely epic things I’ve ever experienced in a game.
ICO is such a good game, Sony will be re-releasing it with its spiritual sequel Shadow of the Colossus later this year Playstation 3. I rarely buy reissues of games I already own, but I may bend that rule with this game comes out on PS3.