the word “innovative” is among the most attention-grabbing adjectives for a video game to me, and that word often gets used when discussing the PS2 adventure game ico. although it didn’t make much of an impact when it was released in september 2001 (despite great reviews), it has gone on to achieve a significant amount of attention since then from critics, gamers, as well as designers.
i came to the game pretty much completely fresh, and the first thing one notices (aside from the great visuals) is the fact the game has minimized all of the usual trappings such as a prologue, tutorial, dialogue, NPCs, story, and even background music and the character’s status and inventory. the title character and the girl, yorda, he soon meets and who accompanies him for the rest of the game have no life bar, and ico only uses three different sword-like weapons throughout the game. the game only ends when ico falls from a great height or if he fails to rescue his companion from being abducted by the small variety of shadowy creatures that serve as the game’s only enemies.
given the lack of flashy game elements, the game gets boiled down to such a degree that almost all the focus is on the “puzzles” and the “action”. much of the game’s attention seems to come from this stripping away to the barest essentials, and although i definitely appreciate that school of design it certainly wasn’t enough to bowl me over. the game certainly has a unique feel, but i was initially disappointed that the game’s core mechanics felt very much like prince of persia: the sands of time, which i played a couple of years ago. that game had followed ico by a couple of years, so some of its uniqueness may have originated with this game (although much of it can probably be traced further back to the original prince of persia games); but as with sands of times i got a bit bored by the fact that in ico the “puzzles” don’t really require much thought and oftentimes they reveal themselves pretty straightforwardly once you survey the area and take note of where the levers, crates, ledges, and ropes are for you to push, pull, and climb up on. likewise after the first few fights the rest are pretty much equally forgettable.
once i realized my attention wasn’t going to be focused much on the gameplay, i ended up noticing and then admiring the world of the game instead. the character design is fantastic: the boyish gawkiness of the main character is reflected in all of his movements and makes a great contrast to the quiet presence of his ethereal companion. the game’s central gameplay mechanic, having ico grab yorda’s hand to lead her to safety, is simple but so pervasive that it becomes more and more poignant through repetition and the passing of time and the further they travel in their attempts to escape the castle that imprisons them. the castle itself also feels like a real place and provides a memorable backdrop.
all of this was still not convincing me that this was a good game, let alone a great one, however. it wasn’t until the last third of the game that i suddenly began to truly enjoy the game. part of it may have just been the accumulated appreciation of all of the game’s tiny details that made the whole experience more than the sum of its parts. but part of it is that despite the game’s minimal amounts of character and story there are some beautifully memorable moments later in the game (most of which unfold through cutscenes) and a fantastic ending.
despite a memorable ending, after having finished the game i’m still not entirely convinced that the game deserves all the superlatives it’s been given. but it’s still an enjoyable experience, particularly if you haven’t played any of the more-recent prince of persia games. i had a taster of its “spiritual sequel”, shadow of the colossus, which gets similarly praised. i definitely enjoyed my experience with that game so far, and it may prove to be the more truly “innovative” game. the search for innovation continues …
some ico-nic links:
– entry at wikipedia which includes the far-superior european boxart
– guide at IGN
– the PAL release had several extra features including this special ending. this FAQ at gamefaqs mentions and alludes to some of the other changes. it also includes all of the game script.
– gamespite.net recently included this game in their top games of all-time review. their article is pretty typical of the kind of lavish praise the game gets, although i’m still not quite convinced. time may tell.