The lights are on
Ico is one of the titles most commonly used in the "games as art" debate, but regardless of your opinion on that issue, you can appreciate this mysterious and charming adventure. What starts as a simple puzzle game evolves into a memorable journey unlike anything else in gaming.
You control Ico, a boy with horns who is brought to a temple to be sacrificed. However, he breaks out of his stone cell and must escape the enormous and ancient structure. Despite being largely abandoned and ravaged by time, the temple isn’t completely empty. Ico encounters and frees Yorda, a young woman in captivity. Despite the fact that they can’t speak the same language, they come to depend on each other in their search for a way out.
In one sense, much of the game is an escort mission. Ico needs to stay close to Yorda in order to fight off shadowy creatures that appear, and many of the puzzles involve creating a path for Yorda so the two characters can continue through the temple. However, the most remarkable thing about Ico is how it conveys a bond between the heroes. It doesn’t feel like you’re hindered by Yorda; fluid and expressive animations (not to mention simple things like hand-holding) give you the sense that these two people have a developing relationship. This subtle, minimal way of portraying characters is surprisingly effective.
Even though you are technically able to fight the shadowy creatures that come for Yorda, the gameplay is much more focused on puzzle-solving and navigation. Combat is not deep, complicated, or even very important; the real challenge is finding out how to overcome obstacles. Old machines, rickety elevators, arcane doors – these are your main foes, and the secrets of the temple slowly unfold as you discover how to progress. That may be a vague description, but I don’t want to spoil anything, even though the game came out in 2001. However, if you are interested in playing Ico, the PS3 version (which comes bundled with Shadow of the Colossus) is a great option.
In my opinion, Ico is best played in a single sitting. It should take around six or seven hours, but the unbroken immersion pays off in many ways. Ico isn’t the only game to build a rich world and interesting characters, but the fact that it does so with minimal exposition means that you need to soak up the environment in order to fully appreciate everything. If you put forward the effort, though, you’re treated to an enthralling journey from beginning to end.
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