ICO
 By Adam Houkal

Publisher: SCEA     Developer: SCEI     Console: PlayStation

Ico is a fine example of the old adage "less is more." Separately, nothing about the graphics or gameplay is especially noteworthy, but when taken as a whole, Ico provides one of the most compelling and emotionally resonant experiences to be had on the PS2. Score

Gameplay

Graphics

Sound

Replay Value



Every generation, the village bears witness to the birth of a cursed child, a boy with horns. Subsequently, any evil that befalls the village is blamed on the boy's very existence. You are that boy, known as Ico, entombed within a mighty fortress to satisfy the angry villagers' demands. But you somehow manage to escape your miniature prison and soon stumble across another captive, this one a young girl. She doesn't look familiar; indeed, you realize that you don't even speak the same language. Yet without your assistance, she will surely succumb to the rigors of the castle. Together, equipped only with your wits, you must navigate the castle's cunning obstacles and make your way to safety.

Ico is, in a word, stunning. Yet it's difficult to pinpoint why. The graphics are fairly simple in construction and even display a bit of the trademark PS2 jaggies. Most of your journey takes place in and around a single (albeit quite massive) castle. Furthermore, the only enemies you encounter throughout the game are mysterious creatures formed of thick black smog. Much of the beauty comes from the intensely gorgeous lighting effects used both indoors and out. Even the relatively simple image of sunlight playing off a tree's leaves or floating lazily through a castle window is realized with breathtaking perfection, creating a world that genuinely feels alive.

Also worth mentioning is the brilliant character animation. Ico and the mysterious girl Yorda come to life on the small screen with unparalleled grace. I was reminded immediately of my first encounter with Prince of Persia on the PC. The characters move with such stunning fluidity that you're immediately drawn into their world. Rather than relying on page after page of unnecessary text, their character is convincingly established through body language.

The soundtrack is extremely low-key. In fact, for much of the game there's no music at all, only the howl of the wind or the muffled sound of your footsteps against the stone floor. Key plot points are emphasized through the use of simple, haunting melodies. One enchanting moment occurs when Ico watches, mesmerized, as Yorda takes a tentative step from the cage in which he found her imprisoned. Environmental sounds also play a big role, from the chaotic crackle of a fiery torch to the gentle rhythm of a pounding rainstorm.

The elegance of Ico's presentation extends to the simple but effective control scheme. Your main goal is to lead Yorda through the castle safely. The R1 button is used to grab her hand or, if she's further away, to call her to your side. Generally, you'll have to navigate a level first and prepare it for Yorda's passage through clever use of the limited resources available. In some areas, you'll have to protect Yorda from a horde of ominous attackers; combat is also handled by a single button.

If there's anything to complain about, it's that the game is over too quickly. I finished Ico in just over 7 hours. None of the puzzles are particularly tricky and the combat, though sometimes hectic, is never very strenuous. Yet you're compelled to play more even after it's over, if only to appreciate the game's superb craftsmanship like you might enjoy a cherished film. There are few tangible rewards for finishing the game a second or third time, but the experience itself is worth having more than once.

Ico is undoubtedly the most beautiful gaming experience I've ever had. If there was any justice in this world, it would sell a million copies overnight. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that everyone will enjoy the moderate, almost tranquil pace of this puzzling adventure. Still, Ico stands as a proud testament to the video game-as-art aesthetic. The stunning play between shadow and light, the amazingly fluid animation and a haunting soundtrack combine in one brilliant game. Buy it.



     

Graphics

+ Immense environments provide a perfect contrast to your small, vulnerable characters
+ Lighting is amazingly well done, indoors and out
+ Exquisite animation brings Yorda and Ico to life
- If only it were in a higher resolution


Sound

+ Hauntingly simple melodies play at key moments throughout your quest
+ Sound effects are unassuming but perfectly appropriate


Gameplay

+ Ingenious puzzle design does not punish exploration and experimentation
+ Plot unfolds gradually without the intrusion of too much cumbersome narrative
- Can be finished in less than 10 hours


Replay Value

+ It's fun to just wander around the environments and show off to friends
- There's not much tangible justification for repeated play

Disclosure: Core purchased this title for review directly from retail.