[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]
(Feel free to catch up on my earlier post on Ico before reading on.)
I finished Ico yesterday, and quite honestly, I'm glad it's over.
First released for the PS2 in 2001, Ico is one of those games that pleased critics throughout the gaming world, but never really moved off store shelves, much like the excellent Psychonauts. However, unlike Psychonauts, it actually deserves its place on the gaming fringes, because for all that it has wonderful visual design, animation, specific gameplay mechanics, atmosphere, and emotional punch, it just isn't fun to play.
You play the game as the titular Ico, a small horned boy from a tribe of horned people, who has been taken in chains to a giant castle by the sea, apparently as some sort of sacrifice to the castle's ruler. However, once inside the castle, you break free, and also release a fellow captive, a young girl called Yorda. Together you begin an epic quest to escape the castle.
Ico is a fairly spry young chap, which is good, as the game is a platform-puzzler of the "climb the rope, push the block, pull the lever" variety. He can run, leap fair distances, dangle from ledges, swing from hanging chains, and deliver a mean punch with a wooden plank or other blunt instrument. Yorda, on the other hand, isn't quite so agile, but is possessed of a decent share of brains, and more importantly can use the weird light she seems to be made of to open the ancient Idol Doors which regularly block off progress through the castle.
You'll spend the majority of the game solving platformy puzzles to lower drawbridges, move bridges, open gates, and other such radical redecoration tasks in order to clear Yorda a safe route through the castle. These tasks are broken up by battle sequences which see you defending Yorda from the shadow thingies, who want to abduct her for (initially) vague reasons.
It's been said that Ico is a game about holding hands, and that's quite true. The R1 button on the PS2 controller is used for interacting with Yorda. If you're some distance from Yorda, pressing or holding the button will call Yorda to your current location. She's quite smart, and has no difficulty navigating ladders and jumps to catch up with you, although she's not the fastest woman ever born. When you're close, holding the button will cause Ico to hold Yorda's hand, which will allow you to drag her along at a running speed, or pull her up high ledges or help her across long jumps. You'll be using that button so much that you'll find yourself instinctively holding it down even during the sequences where Yorda isn't present.
It's this relationship between Yorda and Ico that's the game's greatest strength. Literally every aspect of the game reinforces the bond the two have. The environments (which look stunning) are full of agoraphobic wide-open spaces, dizzying heights, and haunting deserted hallways and waterfalls. The world of Ico is a lonely place, and you'll be grateful for the company.
The only way for you to die in the game is for Yorda to be abducted, or for you to sustain a fall from which you can't get back to Yorda. Literally, the only thing you have to fear is separation. In fact, if you leave Yorda alone for too long you risk having her attacked by shadows while you're off-screen, so you'll be wanting to keep her close whenever possible.
The animations are fantastically emotive. Watching Ico or Yorda perform a long jump and only just grab the lip of the far platform is breathtaking every time, and Ico pulling Yorda to safety as she dangles over a near-bottomless drop is powerful every time you see it. In fact, when Ico is in danger of falling, not only will you see him looking a mite worried, but you'll also hear Yorda gasp worriedly. Saving the game is accomplished by sitting on one of the castle's stone couches side by side with Yorda, and when you're stumped by a puzzle you'll occasionally be saved by Yorda pointing out the solution for you with a cry of "Ico!"
In fact, so good are the animations that the game's single most emotional moment comes about three quarters of the way through the action, where during a cutscene you'll see Yorda using an animation that until that point has been the sole province of Ico. Trust me - it's good.
Having so successfully leaped the hurdle of creating a dependant secondary character without making them annoying or whiny or stupid or frustrating, it's a shame that Ico drops the ball when it comes to creating an environment to interact with that character in.
Oh, sure, the castle looks fantastic. It's full of dank dungeons and sun-bleached courtyards and idyllic grassy outcrops. What's more, it's consistent - when you're high up on the battlements, you can see the courtyard you were in an hour ago, right down to the puzzle torches you had to light to escape it. You'll revisit the same rooms again and again, crossing progressively higher bridges as you open more gates and solve more puzzles. You really get the sense that you're actually in a castle, and not just a collection of annoying puzzles.
But the puzzles are annoying, and badly designed by any reasonable standard. While your overall goal of "escape the castle" is fairly clear, and even the subgoal of "power up the two generators to open the gates" eventually emerges, that still leaves a lot of space in which to throw up your hands and say "how?". Most of the time, you have no really clear idea of what you need to accomplish in order to progress. Often it involves interacting with some object of the environment cleverly disguised as uninteresting background. You'll be expected to jump on water-wheels that don't look like you can actually stand on them, to cut ropes that you can barely distinguish from the wall, and to randomly throw bombs at things and hope they blow up.
Here's an example - about halfway through the game Ico and Yorda come to a collection of bridges. To progress, you have to go through the following steps:
1) Leave Yorda behind (always risky as she can be randomly attacked, causing you to die)
2) Climb a high tower, shimmy down a chain, and then throw yourself at a vertical piece of bridge to cause it to fall over and provide a platform for Yorda, even though nothing else in the game has ever responded to you colliding with it during a horizontal jump.
3) Get a bomb, and light it.
4) Throw the bomb at another tower which is mostly off-screen and looks like decoration.
5) Watch as the tower falls over in a direction that has nothing to do with where the bomb was, hits another tower, and knocks it over to create a bridge to a platform that you had no reason to suspect you needed to reach.
It's worse than that, too, because you never really know the scope of the puzzle you're trying to solve. Sometimes when the path is blocked you have everything you need to progress in the room you're currently in. Or sometimes you need to leave Yorda behind and race two or three screens forward to solve a complex block-and-chain puzzle before Yorda gets eaten by monsters.
The constant threat to Yorda means you never really want to explore. The game punishes exploration severely, meaning that mostly what you want to do is cower in a corner and hope it all goes away - or, as I did, get a walkthrough and slug your way through the game room after painful, painful room.
It doesn't help that the save system is also a little scatterbrained. As mentioned, you save by sitting on a stone couch with Yorda. This means you actually need to have Yorda with you to save. Sometimes you'll be able to save after every individual puzzle and/or fight sequence. And sometimes you won't be able to save for very, very long stretches of the game. Particularly worth noting is that for the last 15% of the game, which represents roughly an hour and a half of gameplay if you're playing from a walkthrough, there are no save points at all. That's right - an hour of the game's most annoying jumping and climbing sequences, followed immediately by the final boss fight and credits, with no save points.
Ico is a stunning work of art, there's no doubt. But it's not really a very good game. If you are going to buy it, make sure you get the PAL version, which features improved AI for Yorda and a ton of bonus replay features for anyone masochistic enough to actually play the game again after finishing it the first time.