I came to play Sony’s ICO through word of mouth. The whispers began at E3 and grew to full out acclaim when the game was released this past fall. So when a copy of ICO came across my desk, I jumped at the opportunity to experience the adventure for myself. That was two months ago. Since then, I’ve had the toughest time writing this review. The game reminds me of last year’s hit movie, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, in that it has an artistic style all its own, one that words just don’t seem to do justice. But one thing’s for sure, besides being a sleeper hit, ICO is arguably one of the best PlayStation 2 games of 2001.
ICO tells the tale of a young boy, born with a set of bull’s horns, who comes of age and is imprisoned in a colossal castle where he is to be sacrificed, according to village practice. Encased in a standing stone tomb, ICO manages to escape when an earthquake causes his cell to topple and break apart. In wake of the event, ICO notices a beautiful princess, locked high above the ground in a giant birdcage. Thus ends the long-winded but incredible introductory sequence. At this point, players assume the role of ICO, our horny hero, as he attempts to release the princess and guide her through the castle to freedom. While it might sound like a simple game plan, the Queen and her minions have other ideas for the princess, as they seek to take her to the dark world.
ICO is best described as a puzzle game with elements of action and adventure mixed in. The first such puzzle requires you to free the princess from her cage, after which each new area of the castle, and abroad, presents a different challenge for our newly found duo. The task is made more difficult by the fact that the princess isn’t as mobile as our diminutive hero, thus you’ll spend much of your time forging new pathways for her to follow. You’ll also have to keep an eye out at all times. The Queen and her minions are constantly searching for the princess and if she is captured, the adventure is over.
The game’s control scheme is extremely simple to grasp, thus combat is not very taxing or sophisticated. Instead, the emphasis is placed on solving the game’s puzzles, several of which are quite cunning. Unfortunately, ICO isn’t a particularly long game, lasting short of ten hours. The only other gripe with regards to the gameplay is the fact that the story is enigmatic at times.
Visually, ICO is a beautiful sight to behold. The grand environments create a fantastic stage for the adventure and the detail found in the textures, lighting and environmental effects are nothing short of superb. To top things off, the character animation for both ICO and the princess is perfect, highlighted when ICO grabs the princess’ hand to guide her through an area of the castle. On the audio side of things, the sound effects are kept quite simple and while ICO boasts a rich soundtrack, it isn’t used nearly enough during the game. There’s far too much silence when there could be music to contribute to the mood and atmosphere of the moment.
When all is said and done, ICO is a finely crafted adventure game that combines exotic locales with mind-teasing puzzles. The ride may be a bit short in the end, but it’s one that you won’t soon forget. If the words “puzzle”, “action” and “adventure” are part of your gaming vocabulary, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of ICO for the PlayStation 2.