Monday, June 22, 2020


ICO Box Front


Just as Sony’s PlayStation videogame console was receiving fewer titles and its successor system, the PlayStation 2, was fledgling, designer Fumito Ueda conceived a game centered around a “boy meets girl” story originally intended for the former system. Technical limitations, however, forced the subsequent game, Ico, onto the PS2, receiving adulation as one of the greatest games of all time, although abominable cover art for the North American version contributed to weak sales. The following generation saw a high-definition remaster for the PlayStation 3 included with spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus. Does it live up to the hype?

Ico generally sports a generic “rescue the kidnapped princess” storyline, with the eponymous horned protagonist leading Princess Yorda throughout a massive castle to safety, with an evil queen wanting her lifeforce to prolong her lifespan, and occasionally sending shadows after her. Although some points of the game have a cinematic feel for the plotline, development of the characters and events is incredibly scarce, and most of the backstory and other elements players can only find on the Internet, with no in-game mention of them. The translation is good, in fact probably the high point of the game, but is largely unmemorable.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the burden, and lamentably, Ico doesn’t fare any better in this regard. Most of the game players spend escorting Yorda out of the castle, with Ico occasionally encountering shadows that attempt to capture her, and when successful petrify Ico, necessitating the player continue from the last stone sofa serving as a save point or more rarely, the last checkpoint, which unfortunately aren’t indicated. Fortunately, when a shadow does take Yorda to one of their portals and sink into them, Ico has some time to rescue her, and must fend off the attacking shadows.

Ico can attack shadows with either a wooden stick, with which he starts the game, or later on, a sword or other optional weapons, which mercifully aren’t critical to completing the game. One thing that somewhat hurts combat, though, is that there is no targeting system, so players may often find their hits cutting air even when they think they’re fighting shadows. How many hits one needs to take to down a shadow is unfortunately up in the air, given the total lack of health gauges for enemies, although Ico himself is basically immortal in combat; however, a sizeable time is necessary for him to get back on his feet before he can defend Yorda again.

Another way to eradicate shadows in an area is for Ico and Yorda to approach “idol doors” that the latter can open. Throughout the game, Ico can hold Yorda’s hand and force her along, although he can separate in order to do things such as solve puzzles. However, if Ico is separate for a significant time, shadows can appear and try to take her away, leading to an unceremonious death and need to continue from the last save or checkpoint. The final boss battle somewhat mixes up things, although death is still easy, and it can be tricky without referencing a walkthrough.

Equally central to Ico’s chief game mechanics are the puzzles and obstacles he must overcome in order to advance, although given the total absence of in-game maps, one can find it very easy to get lost and need to reference a guide, which can be unreliable at times given regional changes to the gameplay. Ico can jump as well, which lamentably creates the added annoyance of carefully-timed jumps in order to advance (and long falls lead to death), with the player potentially spending a few hours trying to continue forth. The camera is also among the worst I’ve ever seen in a videogame, seeming to have a mind of its own, and in the end, the game mechanics are far more frustrating than not.

Aside from a good ending vocal theme and sound effects, the audio isn’t anything to write home about, with Ico being another one of those games that relies far more on ambience to do the job. The game also features gibberish voices, with Ico’s call for Yorda to come along sounding like “Bonsoir!”, for instance, and generally not helping the aurals. All in all, there’s little reason for players not to listen to other music while playing the game.

Although critics have lauded Ico as a hypothetical work of art, the visuals too are nothing to sing praises about, easily still passing for a PlayStation 2 game except for the slight upscaling. The lighting effects and shadows are good, although the scenery frequently contains blurry, pixilated texturing, and the awful camera doesn’t help matters. The character models look decent and have good proportions, but there are a few times where the graphics themselves affect gameplay; for instance, I spent significant time looking for a doorway that happened to blend in with the walls. Generally, the graphical presentation is below average.

Finally, the game is fairly short, six to twelve hours, much of which involves repetition due to death and trying to advance the main storyline, with little in the way of side content, and while a subsequent playthrough allows more ample opportunity to collect trophies or see translated subtitles for the in-game language, a replay would frankly be tortuous.

Overall, while for some unfathomable reason critics and fans have extolled the game (which I attribute to bribery or drugs), Ico in the end lengthens my sizable list of acclaimed disappointments, given its overreliance on many classic Japanese videogame kusottare such as the repetition and stingy save system, not to mention the poor camera, unengaging narrative, below-average music and graphics, and general unenjoyability that makes subsequent playthroughs unbearable. The game definitely shows the blatant unreliability of mainstream and even independent videogame journalism, and while it’s said one person’s trash is another’s treasure, the opposite very much proves true.

This review is based on a single playthrough to the standard ending.

The Good:
+Good vocal theme.
+Decent translation.

The Bad:
-Not short enough.
-Weak control, including lousy camera.
-Frustrating jumps.
-Derivative, underdeveloped plot.
-Minimalist musical presentation.
-Disappointing visuals.
-Not fun enough to replay.

The Bottom Line:
Not nearly as good as critics claim.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 2.0/10
Controls: 1.5/10
Story: 0.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 2.5/10
Graphics: 3.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 1.0/10
Difficulty: Artificial
Playing Time: 6-12 Hours

Overall: 2.0/10

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