Developer/Publisher:  Sony Entertainment
Year Released:  2001

Review by Steve Ramsey (September, 2003)
Despite not owning a Play Station 2 console, I bought this game a few months ago. I had heard good things about it, and saw it cheap, and figured that one day I would have the means to play it. Those means arrived recently, and in between bouts of real life I got to experience the world that is Ico.

Quite simply, everyone who likes the sort of games reviewed on Quandary should take a look at Ico. There are reasons why many probably won't, and not all of those that do will stick with it to the end, but it has some extraordinary moments and qualities that go to the heart of what makes a good adventure.

Why might you not play it
Briefly, why will it not appeal to every Quandary reader? The reasons might include the following:
  • It is played with a console and therefore uses a game pad.
  • You can't save whenever you want to but only at certain places.
  • You have to fight.
  • You also have to jump and leap and climb and push and swing.
  • There is no inventory.
  • It uses a third person perspective and camera angles change independently as you move.
  • You can die.
  • You don't take notes and traditional puzzles don't exist.
  • On one interpretation, the objective is one dimensional.

Let me be clear that I am not railing against these things. I am simply observing that I know a lot of adventure game players who choose not to play games that contain these aspects. I would not want to mislead any of them with the second half of this review.

Nor would I want to mislead them by forgetting to say that some of the above observations are tempered in the way they operate. For example, fighting is more nuisance value than a major tribulation, particularly once you acquire the sword. You can also run away from a lot of it. Also, dying is relatively hard to do. It doesn't occur through a gradual loss of health points, and there are really only two ways to die. One is falling from a great height, but if you inadvertently get too close to an edge and topple over, Ico will catch himself and haul himself to safety. The other is if your companion is irretrievably captured. Unless fighting has either of those consequences, you can take as many hits as you like and you will not die.

Why you might play it
But irrespective of your views on all of these things, here is why you might play it anyway (provided, of course, you have access to a PS2.)

First and foremost the game has heart. Ico is a boy of 12, taken from his village for having horns on his head and imprisoned for eternity in a sarcophagus in the bowels of a huge castle. He/you find yourself free of your sarcophagus, and with an obvious desire to get out of the castle. But then you find Yorda, a small girl imprisoned in a cage. You cannot understand her but she seems to have as little reason for being held in the castle as you do. So you decide to take her with you.

Without spoiling things, it becomes clear that Ico is not leaving without her, irrespective of the possible personal consequences. It makes for some fine moments.

It also makes for some interesting gameplay. Yorda must often be cajoled, and encouraged, and helped (and occasionally even bossed) into doing what you want her to do. She can't climb walls and chains and leap like you can, so not only do you have to find a way through the castle (manipulating and overcoming the environment is the main challenge in the game) you have to find a way for Yorda as well.

Like many positive experiences, the little things matter. The opening sequence is a case in point. Watch it subtly move from a seeming ride through a bright and colourful forest, to a moment of utter and gloomy despair. Colour and perspective intensify the transition. The journey to where you ultimately find yourself indicates the magnitude of the task then ahead of you.

Many small things add to the overall product - watching Ico and Yorda run hand in hand, the role that light plays, the sparing but selective use of music.

Cutscenes work well and some are worth mentioning. The first time I opened a part of the main gate and the final battle stand out. As too does the bridge scene once you get outside.

To me, the bridge scene was a defining moment in this game. It proved I cared about what I was doing, which is often held up as the reason why people play adventure games. It was also emotionally powerful. The only scene that has caused me the same emotional response was encountering the small boy who wants to play I Spy in Blackstone Chronicles.

The wraiths too are an impressive enemy. They want to steal Yorda and return her to the cage. If they succeed, your game ends. They will appear at certain places in the game, but also if you leave Yorda alone for too long. Black and wispy, seemingly made of smoke, they scurry and scuttle about, nagging away at Ico and Yorda.

Finally, the end of the game is ambiguous enough to leave you satisfied but thinking about what it might all mean.

Do yourself a favour
So you may doubt that you will ever manage to leap onto the water wheel and then up to the critical switch, you may think you can't possibly catch the flying wraith that has Yorda in time to prevent it dragging her through its portal, you might wonder where on earth your sword has gone as wave after wave of blackness crashes upon you in your battle with the Queen, but you should give it your all. It is well worth it.

ps - on the version available in Australia, and I believe throughout Europe, if you play the game a second time, Yorda's speech is translated. There is also a change to one of the puzzles. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2003. All rights reserved.

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