This review originally appeared in E104, December 2001.
Define Ico as an arcade adventure; define an arcade adventure as a game in which the driving force is discovery and adventure, but one that requires some level of co-ordination to progress. It’s a withered genre now, but 15 years ago it was at its creative and commercial peak, illustrated by the pull-out maps in the centre pages of magazines. Citadel, Castle Quest, Atic Atac: Diagrams of single-screen rooms, lain out side-by-side, moulded into castles and embellished and pencil crayoned into imaginations nationwide. Ico is like one of those castles, except for Ico feels like something better, something more solid. Ico feels real.
From the moment the game gives you control over the hero of the title – a small boy damned by superstition and imprisoned in a gigantic fortress – it’s clear Ico’s emphasis is on atmospherics. Broadly, the exploring dynamic is similar to Tomb Raider, but it’s handled with much more style and subtlety. There are no energy bars, no object lists, no incidental music, just a clean cinematic third-person view and the sound of Ico’s footsteps in the echoing hallways.
Fixed cameras, usually synonymous with survival horror, portray the action, but you can pan them around each room using the right analogue stick. The left stick controls Ico himself, and while the sweeping point of view can confuse, Ico’s uncanny ability to cling to any ledge in the face of fatal drops means Lara’s sudden death syndrome is usually mercifully absent.
That’s not to say you don’t find yourself in situations where pixel-perfect leaps are imperative – an even better reference point than the Tomb Raider series is Prince of Persia, where both timing and logic had to be impeccable – but they’re handled adequately, and preceded by save points.
Besides running, jumping and climbing, Ico can also pull levers, push blocks, and manipulate simple objects to get through the pre-ordained puzzles – and that’s where the focus lies. In essence it’s a linear progression of multi-room mindgames, curled Escher-style into an architecturally stunning stone polygon construction.
With the introduction of Yorda, a mysterious young girl also imprisoned in the keep, the game takes another twist. She’s perfectly captured, so pale she’s almost cel-shaded, but her beauty’s almost incidental: she is innocence and fear, and Ico has to play her protector. R1 calls her towards him, and when she’s close enough she grabs his hand. Simple, kid psychology, like the way she flinches when Ico strikes his weapon against the stonework, or the small movements she makes as her gaze follows the castle wildlife. It works, because it forges a relationship, and it makes the player care.
As well as striving for her freedom, there’s also the same sightseeing drive that pushed gamers through adventures back in the mid ’80s. And what sights; elegant, mournful, and dreamlike, they push you past each of the Boxxle-style puzzles and onto the next stop on your fairytale chartered holiday. Take in the scenery, imprint it in your memories.
Or take this one, perfect, game-defining recollection. When you venture outside the polygonal stonework towers for the first time; when you look back on the ledges and spires that you’ve just been exploring, the chains hanging from windows, the shadows creeping down the walls; when you gaze out across to other parts of the fortress you’ve yet to visit and see them solid, reaching into the sky; when you do all of these things, it’s like you’re looking at a centre-page map, delicately shaded with grey and green pencil crayons. It looks magnificent. It feels real.