In some regards, Ico is the antithesis of most macho console games. There’s little in the way of narration aside from a couple cutscenes, but the mysterious plot is one of the most intriguing aspects of Ico. There are no health bars and the simplistic combat often has the young protagonist armed with only a wooden plank. There aren’t any bosses aside from the final enemy, but there is plenty of hand-holding and puzzles. All of these things come together to form a unique and memorable game, but some of the elements end up being just as derivative as the games Ico tries to diversify itself from.
Come on, I know you can’t swim but there’s a first time for everything.
In the vague opening cutscene, we see people clad in strange armor bringing a young boy with horns to an ancient temple. They lock the child, Ico, into an odd-looking device and tell him not to be angry because it’s all “for the good of the village.” That’s about all the background information that Ico gives, aside from the back story contained in the manual. This little tidbit is just the start of a minimalist storyline that requires gamers to use their imagination and fill in some of the blanks on their own. It might sound frustrating, but it suits the low-key nature of the game perfectly.
The horned Ico manages to break out of the device and is free to look for a way to escape the enormous temple. Early in his escape, he comes across a glowing girl that not only looks like she’s from another world, but she also speaks an unknown language. Ico and the ghostlike Yorda seem to be the only people in the crumbling ruins. The horned boy takes it upon himself to flee the ruins with Yorda no matter how much he has to sacrifice.
Yorda! Yorda! Damn it, where is that girl?
Even though these two never really talk, it’s easy to feel a connection between them through the gameplay. Since you’re controlling Ico, it’s necessary to hold hands with the delicate Yorda and guide her through the different areas. She needs help leaping from one platform to another and Ico is always there to lend a helping hand. Yorda also needs certain areas cleared out in order to progress due to her limited physical ability. Ico, on the other hand, is much more capable. He can climb and swing from chains, jump far distances, and drop from ledge to ledge when it’s needed. Unfortunately, escorting someone throughout nearly the entire game can grow tiresome. There are times when the luminous Yorda can be a bit of a pain. She seems to get confused when Ico yells at her to come. Sometimes she’ll just kind of stand around and then move very slowly, while other times she has difficulty climbing a ladder.
The constant escorting may not be for everyone, but there are plenty of times where Yorda is left behind and Ico has to clear the path on his own. Puzzles are the heart of Ico; it’s just too bad they aren’t as original as the rest of the game. Most of them consist of the same tired box-pushing and lever-pulling common in nearly every other game. Some of the puzzlse are original, but most of them follow the same formula and end up requiring little thought.
There you are. C’mon then, let’s get back to the castle.
While the puzzles may be generic, it’s easy to overlook that fact since the atmosphere is so unique. There are times when you forget all about the clichéd box-pushing and just enjoy the surroundings. The collapsing, ancient interior of the ruins balances the lush outdoor environments. Green trees, an abundance of sunlight, and the surrounding sea make it hard to want to leave some areas. Also, admiring the view from vertigo-inducing heights is a sight to behold. Ico finds himself climbing many high altitudes in order to advance his escape, so it’s not rare to look down and simply soak in the dazzling view for a few moments.
Solving puzzles, reaching dizzying heights, and holding hands aren’t the only things Ico has to do for Yorda: he also has to fight for her. Shadow-like monsters occasionally come out of the ground and try to take Yorda away. While the most they can do to Ico is knock him down, if they capture Yorda and he can’t get to her in time its game over. The combat is a simplistic one-button affair, and there are only a couple different weapons to use. Despite the lack of complexity, the fighting is usually exciting. Fighting tooth-and-nail to rescue Yorda can be intense and suspenseful, especially if she’s on the verge of being fully taken. It also helps that the combat is somewhat uncommon, so it never grows old.
Okay Yorda, the plan is just to jump, okay?
Then again, it’s hard for any parts of Ico to become tiresome since the game is over so quickly. The whole thing can be beaten at a leisurely pace in around six or seven hours. It takes a couple hours less than that if you know exactly what to do. Making this even worse is that two of the areas are almost identical, which makes it easy to breeze through them. There’s an interesting sidequest in the game, but it’s just not enough to add to the lasting appeal. Apparently there were some secrets and extras in the European and Japanese releases, but US gamers were given the short end of the stick and had these features cut out. That is something that usually doesn’t happen too often.
Despite the disappointingly short adventure, Ico is without a doubt one of the more intriguing games around. The minimalist approach and stunning atmosphere elevates the game above the many generic titles surrounding it on store shelves. However, the game would have been more unique if the puzzles didn’t involve so many of those boring boxes and levers. Despite that issue, the tale of Ico and Yorda is one that needs to be experienced if you’re looking for something different in a videogame.