19 October 2011 Mr ARC
With the current onslaught of HD collections prevalent on Sony’s console, the ICO/Shadow of Colossus collection stood way above the rest in my wish list. Having never played the games before but hearing such praise and nostalgia from other gamers, these games from the PlayStation 2 era amidst the likes of Gears of War 3 and Forza 4, promised an escape from the types of experiences synonymous with this generation of consoles and an antidote for the onslaught of shooters that will dominate the Christmas period.
Since ICO is new to me in its entirety I had the advantage of being objective when playing the game. No Zelda-like investment of hours or flashbacks to gaming days gone by, a new and fresh experience that I could enjoy for the first time.
The first thing noticeable about ICO is that it feels empty and desolate. A fragile world that is beautiful in its simple ways. Because of this you notice the smaller details, the distant animal noises set the atmosphere and the lack of music throughout the game only accentuates the worldly sounds scattered across the landscape. The game screams a Ghibli art-style that will be unique to a sizable margin of its Western audience.
You play a young boy with horns who gets locked away in a seemingly abandoned castle by the other villagers in an attempt to remove the ‘bad omen’ they perceive him as. It isn’t long before the boy finds Yorda, a young girl ethereal in appearance and unable to speak his native tongue. This lack of direct communication helps to build a wonderful sense of isolation for the characters forcing a kindness and bond between them as they try to escape the walls that confine them.
The gameplay of ICO feels like a mash-up between the level structure of Zelda and the platforming of early Tomb Raider games. The castle essentially is a big dungeon where you make progress between each room and courtyard, often backtracking when new items allow you to access previously closed-off areas. The unique twist in ICO separating it from other similar adventure games is that your main task is not ensuring the boy’s survival, but rather Yorda’s, for whom you spend most of the game holding hands with and escorting from danger. Whilst it is not deniable that you care about Yorda’s wellbeing, here lies the main gripe I have with ICO. The AI is very unpredictable and on the whole frustrating.
Certainly as a result of the era that the game was made, and not the designers’ neglect, Yorda often is unable of performing simple tasks quickly. Waiting for her to climb a ladder is a substantial bug bearer as she wanders aimlessly around the foot of the ladder unable to find a path to latch on to the object. This will be frequently noticeable, and at times extremely tedious, but thankfully you can grab her by the hand and pull her in the direction you are heading for the most part of the game. It certainly would have been a much smoother experience to not have relied on a computer controlled AI as the main narrative of the game, but she is what makes it unique.
After comparing the game to footage from the PlayStation 2 version the visuals are much crisper and the distances look cleaner. The infrequent use of lower textured objects does sometimes look out of place but on the whole the game transcends into the HD period confidently. As the game is set in a single castle the locations are repetitive and the structure appears similar to something made from resources in Minecraft. That said, next to no loading times and a lack of cut scenes between areas is a great achievement for a game these days, let alone one from last gen.
Unpredictable AI aside, the game is a great balance between challenging and rewarding, without being too frustrating. The puzzles are enough to give you a mental workout without feeling the need to introduce your controller to your neighbour’s garden. The main difficulty you will find (other than getting Yorda to climb a ladder) is interacting with platforms and certain mechanics used to traverse obstacles. Sometimes it is hard to tell if you are doing something right and the game is not responding correctly, or you are missing the solution entirely. Take for example a point in the game whereby you are required to launch yourself into the air via a steam-powered wooden block. This took the best part of half an hour, upwards of five YouTube videos and multiple walkthroughs to understand the correct way to jump into the air. The solution/timing of the action, I might add, made very little sense in the context of what I was trying to achieve. It is parts like these that will require patience and perseverance and since the EU version includes harder puzzles than its US equivalent, online guides will not always provide you with the support you require.
The game may not seem long at around six hours of gameplay, but as with the Portal series trying to solve puzzles will clock-up additional time, and honestly whilst I enjoyed the world of ICO, it isn’t one that I would wish to be in much longer. It is a refined and well presented experience that is the right length for the type of game it is. The game has some replayability thanks to hidden easter-eggs and the inclusion of Trophies will give some incentive for second playthrough.
ICO is a game that harks back to a simpler, harder generation of gaming. If you are used to having your hand held, relying on on-screen prompts and auto-saves ICO is not for you. If however you wish to be challenged, and lost in a surreal world that is both beautiful and unique, then make sure you pick up a copy. It takes patience, and despite its many flaws, the parts that make it great far outweigh anything negative I have to say.
As a game on its own it might not be the best indication of what the HD collections have to offer, but as a companion to Shadow of Colossus, ICO is an essential purchase and I can now understand why the game has such a dedicated cult following.