Genre: Adventure / Puzzle / 3D Platformer | Players: 1 | Developer: Team Ico
ICO is an adventure game unlike any that the PS2 had seen before. You play as the titular character (pronounced Eee-co), a young lad with horns on his head. His adventure begins in a large room inside a larger castle. You'll have a fair idea why he’s there, but won’t know why he was chosen. Was it because of the horns or some other reason? We also don’t know why there’s a second individual, a caged female, perhaps a little older than Ico, who doesn't speak the same language as the boy. If they’re to escape before whatever it is they've been offered up to comes for them they must somehow overcome barriers and work together.
Unable to communicate verbally the pair exchange meaning via gestures, inflections and discernible emotions. If you want her to follow you the best way is to grab her hand and lead her. United by circumstance you become guide and protector. The bond that develops between them is all important, and mostly it’s up to you to create and sustain it. Is it a love story? Perhaps. It’s certainly a story of chivalry and mutual respect. If you fail to take an interest in that aspect of it then you may as well quit playing before you've even begun.
There’s no tutorial, no HUD and no objectives other than escape. To do that you’ll be required to solve puzzles and overcome challenges, including avoiding the clutches of the creepy shadow people that rise from the ground, determined to drag the girl into their shadowy existence.
As you progress though the castle you’ll catch glimpses of areas you've been and areas you've yet to reach. You know walls are basically just textures arranged at right angles, but it feels solid. The higher you go the more the defiant wind howls, carrying with it the call of the raging sea and the occasional bird. The prevalent atmosphere is one of wonder coupled with unknowable dangers.
The camera is a point of contention for some people. It’s fixed like a movie camera, but you can pivot and zoom at any time, even during cut scenes, and it’ll swing or pan as you run by to encompass the enormity of the environment. If you had complete freedom to move it wherever you liked then the puzzling aspect would be less effective and it would be arguably less dramatic visually.
Combat is simplistic. You hit things with a stick. You might be lucky and have something other than a stick, but the available actions never change. It doesn't matter. Like everything else in the game, it gives you only what you need. Even Michiru Ōshima's beautifully evocative music is minimal. The ambient sounds of the castle are the soundtrack the majority of the time.
I've maybe made it sound less than perfect in some ways but only because I don’t want to give a false allusion. It’s a game that doesn't rely on gimmicks. It uses emotion as a narrative device, wherein a small person can make a big difference, and for which an understanding of friendship is a key requirement.
5 flights to freedom (and stairs) out of 5
Note: ICO was re-released in 2011 as one half of The ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection HD. For more info on SotC, click HERE.