Until recently, I had never completed the PlayStation 2 title Ico. Despite director Fumito Ueda’s second directorial outing Shadow of the Colossus being one of my all-time favorite games, and The Last Guardian being one of my favorite PlayStation 4 titles, I always felt apprehension towards Ico.
Puzzle games are a genre I’m less fond of in general, so when I first tried Ico a number of years back, I found myself uninterested in the gameplay despite enjoying the general concept and ideas. My outlook on the title has changed however due to a recent playthrough, and I can say with confidence that Ico is an absolute gem almost two decades later.
Ico opens with the titular young horned boy being escorted to a seemingly empty castle as a sacrificial lamb by his local village. As the boy is locked in one of the stone tombs that are arranged in the main hall, the guards ask that he grant them forgiveness, promising that it’s all for the good of the village. We’re given the implication that Ico is far from the first horned child to be sent to his death by villagers, but that concludes the amount of exposition given in regards to the history of the world.
Ico’s narrative forgoes world-building, instead opting to focus on its two leads, with the second being the teenage girl Yorda. Due to an architectural fault, Ico manages to escape his fate and ends up coming across the young girl locked in a cage. Upon freeing the girl, he finds out that she cannot communicate verbally with him. Instead, she is only able to speak in a language he has never heard before. From there, the pair tries to make their escape out of the castle.
The two main two components of Ico are puzzles and platforming. The castle is filled with locked exits and crumbling architecture, but thankfully Ico is relatively agile and is able to jump and climb most objects and surfaces. Yorda is not, however. Being trapped in a cage her entire life, she’s relatively useless when it comes to mobility and traversal. This is one of the places where Ico manages to separate itself from other 3D puzzle platformers.
Each area of the castle not only acts as an obstacle course for the player to traverse, but players also need to find alternate routes for Yorda to get through as well. Yorda can be led by the hand through most areas, but she can only climb certain objects, and she can’t jump as far Ico. What may sound like an annoyance or a hindrance on paper is actually surprisingly rewarding in practice, solely due to the strong puzzle design.
Not only is it gratifying to work through an area and watch the chain reaction of paths unfold to allow further access through the castle, but a lot of the puzzles blend naturally into the environment. One early puzzle, for example, has Ico using a bomb to destroy the support beam of a bridge, allowing him and Yorda to gain access to a lower level of the castle.
Environmental puzzles would only be so engaging if the environments were varied. The developers seemed to also be conscious of this because Ico is a visual treat in this regard. There’s a nice variety in not only the locales themselves but the layouts and construction of the locations. From cramped walkways to open gardens, the game manages to strike a balance between diverse areas, while also making them feel like they belong in the context of a larger structure.
The varying sizes of the castles numerous sections are punctuated by a surprisingly smart and cinematic camera. For a game released in 2001, it’s impressive to see a team implement camera angles that are so dynamic, while also using them in a way that doesn’t feel like a distraction from the necessity of navigating through a 3D space. Even by today’s standards, it can feel quite breath-taking to see Ico climb up a chain dangling next to a tower that absolutely dwarfs him in size.
Combat also plays a part in Ico, although to a lesser extent. It doesn’t act as a means of progression and is instead used to protect Yorda from a variety of shadowy creatures that try to steal her away. While some have criticized Ico’s combat for being repetitive, I felt that it helped break up the flow of the constant puzzle solving and exploration, while also adding some moments of genuine tension.
The constant babying of Yorda probably makes her sounds like nothing but a nuisance, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, she’s a necessity for escaping the castle. Throughout the castle, there are several locked gates that only Yorda is able to open through inexplicable magical powers. Without Yorda, it’s safe to say the Ico probably wouldn’t make it very far, and neither would the player. While Ico does most of the heavy lifting, one is as necessary as the other.
On a more meta level, Yorda is also tied to the save functionality. Saving is done through the two characters sitting on a bench, which is a smart way to subtly make players feel a dependence on Yorda, without making her involvement feel overbearing or intrusive.
While a lot of the underlying design choices behind Ico are incredibly forward thinking and intuitive, it’s Ico’s narrative that really makes the title special, and is the reason why the title is remembered so fondly even after almost twenty years. While the story of two children escaping a castle isn’t particularly deep or layered on a surface level, it’s in its’ execution where its’ excellence lies.
Ico and Yorda simply feel extremely believable and genuine. Maneuvering around the environment in Ico isn’t the same as controlling most character’s that populate 3D platformers. There’s a weight to him as well as a slight delay in his inputs, making him feel somewhat clumsy. His jumps aren’t flawless like Mario, he throws his body forward with a slight flail in his arms. His attacks to fend off shadow monsters aren’t calculated jabs, they’re desperate lunges. It’s a mix between superb animations and the weight behind his movements that make him feel like you’re controlling a young boy and not a mindless vessel for players.
A lot of the story’s impact from the climactic moments that come towards the end of the game hinges entirely on the player’s attachment to Yorda, and it’s hard to not feel some kind of fondness towards her. Whether that comes from empathizing with the obvious loneliness she must have felt being trapped in a cage for all her life, or feeling the urge to protect an innocent person who doesn’t have a means of defense of their own, Yorda is a character the game allows players to become naturally attached to in their own way.
It’s the perfect marriage of gameplay and narrative that not enough games bother to try to take advantage of but is exclusive to the interactive medium. No other form of entertainment allows people to form attachments to characters through interaction, and the designers of Ico embraced that idea and ran with it. While most story-driven games were content with telling their stories solely through cinematics and dialogue, Ico took the ambitious risk of leaving most of its storytelling to gameplay, allowing players to invest themselves on their own terms.
Ico is a game that wasn’t only outstanding for its time but is still excellent to this day. In an industry that can often times feel all too familiar and derivative, Ico has managed to shine through as a totally isolated and unique experience even after 17 years, and that’s a remarkable achievement.