Platform: PlayStation 2
Things are not looking good for a young boy named Ico. He was born with a pair of bull's horns sticking out of his head, and according to the rules of the village, any child born with horns must be sacrificed to appease the gods. So on his twelfth birthday, poor Ico is taken to a HUGE and ancient castle and locked inside a sacrificial sarcophagus. Fortunately, fate is smiling on Ico as part of the castle crumbles and frees him from his cell. But he still has to get out of the castle... After dreaming about an ethereal princess, Ico awakes and finds her trapped in a bird cage. Upon freeing her, the two of them make a desperate attempt to escape the dangerous castle, and are constantly ambushed by black spirit demons who wish to reclaim the princess.
Having had its fair share of development problems, this title was originally supposed to come out on the PS1, but I'm grateful that it didn't. This game is easily the most graphically rich and visually impressive title I've seen since "Ecco The Dolphin: Defender Of The Future" (2000). The level design is superb, the architecture is amazing, the textures are incredible, and the lighting effects are spectacular. Fog, mist, and atmospheric haze are put to great use, and I think this is the only title I've ever seen that incorporates a rainbow effect. The sun is also dynamic, creating harsh or soft shadows and additional atmospheric effects as clouds pass by. And the trees are simply astonishing. In addition to all of this magnificent eye candy, another area where the game stands out is in its touching character animation. The way that Ico and Yorda lovingly gaze at each other, the gentleness when Ico takes Yorda's hand, the way Yorda runs to Ico when he's taken a bad fall, the encouragement Ico gives Yorda to follow him, and so on. The subtle body language between these two characters is fascinating (and a little scary), and it's through their interactions with each other that we get emotionally involved in the game. Lastly, there's the actual gameplay, which is simple and straight forward. Controlling Ico takes some getting used to and the camera doesn't always allow you to see everything that you want to. However, the controls are never frustrating, and the camera always lets you see what you need to see - often with dramatic cinematic elegance.
The puzzles are elegantly simple and for the most part it's obvious what you need to do. Yorda will sometimes even point you in the right direction when you're stuck. The puzzles are also extremely well designed so that you can't break them or get yourself trapped. The difficulty of the game is just perfect for someone like me, and the length of the game is appropriate as well. It took me about twelve hours to finish the game, and I never had to resort to cheating or looking at a walk-through, which is pretty damn impressive for me. In this age of developers trying to "improve" their games by making them longer and more difficult to play, a game like "Ico" is a welcome breath of fresh air. What makes it work so well is its combination of incredible visual storytelling, thoughtful and intelligent level design, and strong character development. It's truly a character driven experience and not simply an exercise in running, jumping, and climbing. In a way, it's like a perfect combination of old school game design and cutting edge technology. I hope to see more games like this in the future.
If there's one thing about this game that I didn't like, it would have to be the way that Ico tends to yank Yorda around when they're running. It seems uncomfortably forceful, especially considering how tender their other exchanges are. It bothered me so much that I would go out of my way to gently walk with her instead of running everywhere. Other minor niggles are that the characters often seem frustratingly small, and the complete lack of background music is a bit disturbing (although the ambient noise is definitely appropriate and sets the proper tone).