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ICO (イコ)

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ICO at heart is simple yet it is hard to put into words the experience and things that await you in this stylish game from Sony. ICO in many ways it reminds me of the Canadian sci-fi film Cube, where a group of individuals are trapped within a cube complex, each room contains a puzzle or trap, failure to solve this results in being trapped forever or death. The individuals soon realise that only by working together can they ever hope to solve the cube and escape. Substitute the cube and its environments for a grand and mysterious castle while retaining the puzzles and in essence you have ICO. Of course some may suggest the comparison to be lazy and ICO does have many original features but the influence of film is here to be seen in a far more beneficial way to gamers than shown by Metal Gear Solid 2. This is director Fumito Ueda first game but as he formally worked at respected Japanese developer Warp (D, D2 and Enemy Zero) his time there was obviously not wasted because ICO bears the trademark Warp atmosphere and sense of unease.

In ICO you take the role of a young boy who from birth has been cursed with horns, this designates you for sacrifice and when the time comes mysterious horsemen take you to a complex castle on the coast. There is no struggle or emotion as the ritual has been carried out for longer than anyone can recall. You are placed within a tomb in a room, which contains a series of identical tombs, no doubt previous children who have been sacrificed for generations. Not content with the fate that has been dealt to you, ICO manages to break free from the tomb but knocks himself unconscious in the act. Whilst lying on the castle floor you are haunted by a dream of a young princess, calling out to you to rescue her. Soon enough after recovering from the fall you discover the frail young princess, caged at the top of a high tower and thus the adventure begins. As you make your way through the complex you realise that evil is very much part of the castle walls and will stop at nothing to prevent you or the princess escaping.

To progress in the game you need to solve puzzles otherwise the next room will be out of your reach. At first the puzzles take a simplistic form and can be solved by pushing a large block or pulling a lever. Soon however the difficulty begins to increase as one puzzle becomes spread over several rooms thereby requiring more thought and planning from the player. The touch of genius comes in the form of the princess who given her almost ghost like state is exceptionally weak. As mentioned previously, only by working together can you hope to escape the castle. Certain pressure switches to open doors will require two persons and you can only save together, if one of you dies, then it is game over. The princess also has the power to open the icon doors which you do not for most of the game however given her fairy appearance it seems appropriate that her personality is similar. She will often run off chasing birds or enjoying the panoramic surroundings, leaving you to solve the puzzle. Very much like a annoying five year old on a shopping trip, at times you will need to drag her by the hand and ignore her rants as you cannot understand them.

Atmosphere is everything and nothing, depending on your point of view. In ICO it plays an important part, minimalist music and calming sound effects wrapped around some of the most stunning environments seen in any game. ICO isn’t the longest and most challenging game that you will ever play but I doubt if I have spent as much time looking at the surroundings. To rush through the rooms and outer environments is to miss an important part of the game. The pace of ICO is very leisurely and is illustrated by the save points that take the form of stone sofas. Evil comes in the form of various shadow creatures intent on pulling the princess into another dimension. Given their form these creatures are easily dispatched with a stick or sword in simple and undemanding combat. Their appearance adds a welcome change of pace and provides a sense of unease whenever you have to leave the princess by herself.

Thankfully given the drops and dangers that lie in wait for you ICO is a joy to control and takes advantage of the analogue buttons. The game camera, which could so often spoil such a game, does a tremendous job of panning out and moving just as you would hope. The visuals are stunning but not for full-blown 3D acceleration or the resolution, rather the epic and believable world that has been created for you to discover. It won’t take you long to complete ICO if you are semi-intelligent but you won’t feel cheated because it is very much a case of quality over quantity.

The game has been tweaked for the PAL market meaning that along with an excellent 60hz option you have the benefit of more depth rendering those import copies redundant and shallow. Feedback from the American release has been taken on board along with things the team wanted to do but had to put aside to make the release date. On a second play through, enemies will appear in random places and you will be able to understand what the princess says making it worthwhile doing so. During cut scenes you will have control of the camera and both the 50hz and 60hz modes are excellent and the game comes in a nice package as the final touch.

ICO is a difficult game to pigeonhole as it combines puzzle and platform elements with a fabulous storyline without you becoming tired of any. Yes it does involve jumps, switches and ladders but in a totally refreshing way. The story and approach certainly help and because of this I’ve no spoilt any of the surprises that will await you in the castle. ICO is fantastic, a treat, one of my favourites of 2002 for sure. Sony can make decent games that don’t involve the bloated and stale car genre and here is the proof.