When it comes to PS2 games launches Europe seems like a far away island in a distant gray land. Regarding the great lack of variety of games on the market it’s very hard to think of or actually find arguments to buy a PS2. Until now the game support didn’t make it possible for the console to establish a characteristic image, something people would really associate with the power of the PS2.
Many hoped for ICO to finally explain to the public what truly lies inside this black box; and so it does, ICO seems like a first step into a brighter future. The game is different in many ways. First of all ist package design, a carton box including some screenshots of the game printed on postcards. The unusual coverart reminds of some early work of Mr Dali, creeping shadows, unlogically constructed buildings, green sky, yellow soil and two small figures, hand clasped thightly together, running off into the far distance. But is not only the package that makes ICO unique among others...
I hear her silent sobes, while I’m away...
It is Ico, a boy of only 14, who has had the bad luck of being born as a horn bearer, a personified bad omen and he therefore has been sealed away by his own people in a place with no return, a mystic castle without exit due to magically sealed doors.
No exit? Not quite:
Still puzzled by the new sight of things Ico par hazard encounters and rescues Yorda, a fragile female, who appears to be some kind of elflike princess, formerly locked up in a cage floating high up in the air.
It is Yorda, who has the power to unlock the magically sealed doors.
As Ico will soon discover Yorda is being hunted by dark creatures, Inklings.
Defenceless as Yorda is, it’s again Ico’s turn to prevent her from getting captured and sucked into the darkness she initially escaped from. They share the same fate, and it is fate that brought them together, now it’s their turn to trigger the wheel of fortune.
This is the beginning of an unforgetable adventure, a boy with horns and a mysterious princess, a wordless friendship without hope, on their escape from the clenches of death.
One step, two steps, three steps....
On the run jumping, fighting, climbing, swinging and swimming-since Eidos Tomb Raider the standard-repartoir of a new-age adventurer, however ICO offers innovative and unique technics:
When Yorda is close to Ico it is possible for him to take her by the hand and drag her around. If Yorda waits for him in a distant place Ico has the opportunity to yell for her so that she comes over. Yorda’s movements are determined by her fear and fragility, only the touch of Ico’s hand grant her the security and protection needed in order to move on without hesitation. When she is unable to reach a certain location, it is up to Ico to help her either to find another way or by the means of physical support, be it a path-blocking bolder or just an hand reached out to encourage her in risking a jump.
Origin of simplicity
SCEA did a great job of keeping control as simple as possible.
There is nothing similar to a life bar or an item screen, not to mention experience points or stats, in ICO. The only reason for dying an early death is either falling down from too high platforms, or Yorda being sucked into darkness by the Inklings. The little protagonist with horns is able to jump, scream, fight and perform various other actions. Handling is reduced to a minimum and still regarding the great variety of actions, each of them is assigned to as single button. Although even a novice gets familiar easily with the control of his alter ego ICO offers still a great challenge to more advanced players. The main game consists of putting together ancient machinery by solving puzzles of all sorts and fighting dark Inklings. These Inklings appear as dark shadows in different shapes, where some are big and muscular others are thin and weak, but winged and therefore possess the power of flying and attacking from the air.
All of these weirdos share one common goal:
Capturing Yorda and draging the gracile princess back down into their dark dreamless realm, through portals that open in the ground.
To accomplish their dirty mission the Inklings work together, some attack to draw Ico’s attention from Yorda, while others take her hostage and fly off to a portal very far away. Fighting Inklings is not much of a deal but it might occurr that you simply run out off time to save Yorda. Weither you stay close to her or fight the evil wisps in some far away place you have to figure out by yourself, but in general you are better off choosing the first option. The fearful movements of the silent and mysterious Yorda the desperate struggle of Ico against the black shadows combined with the new methods of interaction between the characters add very much to the atmosphere and underline the prinicpal theme of Ico, a theme of friendship and love in a place of danger and despair. Both Ico and Yorda’s character design appear heavily influenced by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited away), which gives each of them personality and debth.
At this point it is necessary to mention that no motion capturing methods have been used in order to create the enormously realistic and swift animation, everything was drawn by hand, which amazes even more.
A mixture of night and day, love and hate...
The visual appearance of virtual surroundings is hard to put in words. The entire world of Ico reminds very much of a complex and weird dream came true, beautifully combined colors, earthy tones in the castle, bright blue and light green tones on the outside, illuminated either by the sun or by candlelight, shadows creeping over the walls, birds making haste to rise into the air as soon as being approached, hyper realistic waterfalls, ancient looking wind mills, the incredible construction of the castle itself, heights that make you feel dizzy –all of these images create a new generation of virtual worlds, this is not only a mere attempt to create art artifically, it actually is art, eventough it comes in kitschy from time to time. But nobody ever stated that art mustn’t be kitschy.
If you need me just call, I’ll be right there..
From the musical point of view Ico tries to find new ways of creating atmosphere. In other games of similar kinds „music“ is defined as some kind of background melody that should keep the player tuned as long as playing. SCEA made a very risky decision releasing Ico with hardly any music at all, but according to my opinion, they did well. The very few tracks of game music a spared out evenly across the whole game:
Drum beats while fighting evil shadow creatures, a beautiful opening and ending theme(vocal), conclusion melodies after figuring out an ancient mechanism and a beautiful opening and ending theme(vocal).
All of these tracks are professionally arranged and leave nothing to complain about. Most of the time you are only accompanied by sound of the distant ocean washing up and down the shore, or the howling of wind – which together with the vast emptiness of the castle and the very realistic sound effects forms a refreshing audiovisual experience. Voice-acting is solid, either in some strange ancient tongue or in japanese. Fortunatly they reduced spoken-word translation to optional subtitles, for it would have been a great loss and pity to hear semi-professional european voice-actors instead.
After clearing the game once it is possible for a second player to participate the journey by taking over Yorda’s role of a lost defenceless soul.
Even in Multiplayer mode ICO convinces in terms of playability and control.
Together with the option of enabling different filters, which let the game appear like an old movie, makes it worth playing it for a second time, just for visual pleasure.
ICO is a game as well as a small piece of art, innovative and complex it finds its own way through the monoton gaming landscape and I do hope that more will follow.