Ico is the second full game that I received for ‘free’ from PlayStation Plus that I’ve bothered to play all the way through (The other being Quantum Conundrum back in February). I’d heard about Ico being one of the ‘Most overlooked PS2 titles’ back when it was originally available but I never got around to playing it (My PS2 primarily functioned as a Final Fantasy adapter for my TV set). When the Ico / Shadow of the Colossus combo was announced I thought it might finally be my chance to try it out. I borrowed the game disk from some friends but I never made it a priority and it was unused for months. When Sony made the game free for PS Plus subscribers I returned the disk and finally decided this is getting ridiculous. I should either play the game or give up on it. A quick check at howlongtobeat.com indicated that the game was actually pretty short so there was nothing to lose.
The story is immediately interesting. A young boy with horns (Ico) is locked away in a castle because that’s what’s done with horned boys, for some reason. The boy manages to escape confinement and begins exploring the castle in search of a way out. The castle is huge, but appears to be mostly empty. After several minutes of exploration you encounter a young woman who is locked away in a cage, so naturally you try and help her escape as well.
The young woman doesn’t talk, but the walk-through I used indicated her name is Yorda. Since the goal is for both of you to escape most of the game play involves making the castle accessible to Yorda. She doesn’t have the super-human jumping skills or casual disregard for safety that Ico has so you have to find ways to lower bridges, open doors, move blocks and make it possible to freely move about the environment. Puzzles get very involved and at one point my wife remarked “I can see why you’d need a walk-through”
Periodically shadow monsters appear and attempt to kidnap Yorda. If they succeed Ico is turned into a statue and you have to start over and the previous checkpoint (Which can be quite a ways in the past). The only way to prevent the shadows from achieving their goal is by beating them into oblivion with a dull stick. The shadows can’t do any damage to you but they can knock you down. They aren’t particularly challenging to defeat and I didn’t have any trouble with them after I figured out which button to use to hit them (Square), and how to pull Yorda out of the shadow holes. They are irritating, easy to defeat, and don’t seem to serve any useful purpose other than to break the monotony of exploration. (They do look really cool though).
With the exception of the periodic battles against the shadows, the game is a plain and simple exploration and puzzle game. The castle has lots of interesting areas to explore. The main problem with the game is the contrast. Inside the castle is extremely dark, and outside is extremely bright. I had to crank the brightness setting all the way up to see anything at all when I was inside and I had to crank the brightness way down whenever I went outside. Several areas of the game were so dark that I missed clues on how to proceed and eventually I resorted to using a walk-through to proceed through the game. The game supports 3D and I tried out that mode on my 3D monitor but the brightness problem was only exacerbated by the 3D glasses and I found it unplayable.
My kids were surprisingly interested in the game. I thought it would be too boring for them, or that the shadow creatures would be too scary but they liked the whole concept of helping the girl to escape the castle. I should note however that my older boy was a little upset I was carrying a stick around instead of a proper sword (Never mind that his toy sword is made of cardboard). Eventually Ico does find a proper sword and my son was satisfied.
I can see why some people would think of it as a hidden gem but I am not one of those people. It has a lot to like, but it also has a lot of problems that eliminate most of the joy from the experience. I enjoyed the story and the exploration aspects but the rest of the game lacked the fine tuning and polish that could have made this game a truly enjoyable experience.
- Big castle to explore.
- Interesting story.
- Extraordinarily poor contrast.
Genre: Adventure / Puzzle / Platform