Posted by TheYouthfuls (30 posts) -

This article contains spoilers for the entire game (and very minor spoilers of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons). If you haven't I suggest you go and play Ico before coming back to read the rest.

So last week on my show ‘BEN BEATS GAME’ (in which I beat at least one game each week), I set myself the goal of finally getting around to completing Ico and Shadow of the Colossus on their PS3 HD collection. I played them all the way through in the same week, finally experiencing these supposed classics and judging them fairly, including any and all flaws I may have found. However, despite any of the criticisms I might throw at the either game from time to time, they all pale in comparison to how incredible every other aspect is.

Let’s start with Ico. It’s one of the most focused games I’ve ever played; it’s about minimalism, it’s about environmental puzzles, it’s about a boy and a girl holding hands. That final point presents an adorable and effective mechanic that I see as the game’s greatest accomplishment.

Reminiscent of last year’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the relationship between Ico and Yorda is built primarily through the gameplay mechanics. Such an intimate relationship between the two of them, as well as the player, is something only possible in games. For example, a book can stress how close two characters are, their reliance on one another and a movie can depict this in various ways. This means that when they are separated you know it’s a terrible thing, you can feel sympathetic towards them. What you can’t do is truly feel like you yourself are missing something. That’s where games like Ico and Brothers come in; Brothers creates a huge impact when you are unable to control one of the brothers at a point. During Ico it becomes routine to go back and get Yorda, meaning near the end when you progress without her by your side there’s not only a character being missed, but also a core mechanic, an actual bond between the player and the character that can only be developed through gameplay. By utilising this, Ico has stuck with me just like Brothers simply due to a mostly ambiguous relationship between a boy and a girl.

Graphically Ico holds up thanks to the unique design and architecture. The setting of a prison is intelligent in that it means the developers were able to get some stunning environments out of a relatively small amount of fairly impressive textures, with the prison setting being an excuse to have these repeating textures considering conventions of a prison imply repetition of the same bricks and design. Instead of many minor details, Ico goes for grand scales with lengthy stone bridges and magnificent doors filled with interesting symbols. However, when zoomed out, as most of it is, the repeating textures are much more noticeable and can take away from the experience. The game looks good because of the pleasant aesthetics, but the design is still based enough in realism that I believe it would benefit from a full remake to improve these shortcomings in textures and anti-aliasing (or lack thereof).

The puzzles in the game are well thought out and executed with only a few things holding some of them back. One of the problems is that while I love the cinematic camera that moves on its own to give a distinct presentation and feel to the game making most screenshots look gorgeous, it creates a problem for some puzzles; they are reliant on your surroundings and you aren’t able to rotate the camera around Ico, leading to some confusion of where things are exactly, but mainly making it difficult to get an easy sense of your current location. Due to some camera angles only showing you the corner of an area, you generally have to spend some time going over the same area just to make sure you know what you’re doing. To get around this, many (including myself) will likely just interact with as many things as possible and eventually see how they fit together. It’s likely that this feeling was intentional, but doing stuff like pushing a box down to another level without knowing exactly why I was doing it made me think more about why the designers put it there and that they wouldn’t let me do this because it would mean I’d be stuck. Unfortunately this took me out of the experience a few times as I saw the environmental design as something constructed by designers (as they are) rather than a real place that could exist. It’s not necessarily an outright bad thing and the feeling of seeing my random decisions come together can be satisfying, it just makes me feel as if I’m going through the motions quicker than other forms of design; get to a new area. Find things to interact with. Interact with all of the possible things. Either the puzzle is solved or I see how to solve it. It’s a more personal sentiment, but I feel that looking at everything, imagining how it all comes together, then trying that out is a better experience. But a restricted camera made doing this inefficient, despite loving it from an aesthetic design point.

Something that Ico has which is absent from Brothers is recurring combat, and it shows as time goes on to be the worst part of the game by far. I’d say Ico is primarily a puzzle platformer that focuses on utilising the environment. Then there’s this combat thrown in, which while it fits with the story, it doesn’t feel satisfying and especially when many shadows are thrown at you it becomes extremely repetitive. The goal of these shadows is to capture Yorda and the fact that the player can’t die means that you’re only worried about her, thus building the relationship and the idea that you need each other. The player requires Yorda to progress through certain doors, and to stand on switches, but Yorda needs to be protected from these shadows. Pulling her back from the shadow pit she gets dragged into is the best part of this combat section, adding the most tension and physicality to the situation. Other than that the combat makes sense considering you’re just a boy with a stick, but doesn’t quite excuse how awful it is. However, you can run past the shadows in various situations which I believe adds to the tension; if you fail to run past effectively your punishment is experiencing some boring combat!

Towards the end of the game, combat takes on new meaning with the subtle reveal of shadows with horns. There isn’t a close-up of them, no zoom-in to show you that these horns are there with some significance, nor any dialogue from them or anyone explaining the story, it’s left up to the player much like the rest of the game. Because the prison is for children cursed with horns, we are left with the assumption that these shadows (at least at the end) are in fact the souls of these likely dead children, or something of the sort.

As previously mentioned, Ico has a large focus on minimalistic design. This is very apparent in the music which is either non-existent or subtle, even in the combat scenarios. This changes for the fight with the horned shadows, instead of the typical track, a more depressing one starts to play which represents the depressing situation of both Yorda (she has been turned to stone) and these shadows. Then there’s the final boss music which filled me with just as much despair as the track before. Essentially all of the music in Ico is fantastic; it’s subtle when it needs to be, and more overt when there’s a real point to it. I absolutely adore this use of music. The main theme: ‘You Were There’, is the only piece featuring (beautiful) lyrics, making it all the more powerful when heard at the very end. I wish it wasn’t used in the HD Collection menu so that the end was the first time I had heard it, making it even more effective of a song.

Yorda carrying Ico out to the boat when he is unconscious is the first time we see her take the more prominent role of a carer, as Ico has been throughout the rest of the game. While they may have been relying on each other, it’s clear that the player is the one doing most of the work, which makes sense from both a narrative and gameplay standpoint; Yorda appears to be fragile and it’s obvious that the player character should do more work so that a complete experience can be had. But at this final moment Yorda returns the favour by saving Ico and parting ways. Thanks to this finale, we are given a satisfying end to their relationship in a cutscene that justifies its existence because of the fact that we never control Yorda and our character is incapable of being controlled at this moment. I have to commend Ico for its sparse use of cutscenes; they are only used for truly huge events within the world and story that likely can’t be achieved without the developers having control over everything. This was such a sad ending before the post-credits sequence. I was saddened because Ico had risked so much just to go back and get Yorda, but instead ended up with two broken horns and no Yorda. This is the second part where I felt affected emotionally by their relationship and events impacting it, the first being the initial separation. The final part was in the post-credits sequence which could have easily been another cutscene, but to engage the player, the developers give you control over Ico wandering the beach, eventually coming across Yorda washed up. This moment overwhelmed me with a great deal of happiness at their reunion; Ico’s goal had been accomplished and Yorda had been returned to her normal state. While I would have been fine with the first ending, the very final sequence was so effective at driving home the relationship built between the characters and how much it meant to me that I can’t imagine the game being quite as complete without it

So overall my thoughts on Ico are incredibly positive, and despite beating it in a single 7 hour sitting I didn’t become too fatigued at any point; a testament to how these mechanics and story intertwine to create an experience that is a joy to play from start to finish. One that I would recommend to anyone who appreciates subtlety, slow pacing and ambiguity.

- Ben Lucas (@TheYouthfuls)

P.S. Those interested in some thoughts in video format can go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erERUNFyZn8

#1 Posted by mosespippy (4103 posts) -

You should probably add to the disclaimer about spoilers for Brothers.

I think you might have missed some details. It's a castle, not a prison, and those boys are sacrifices, not prisoners. Maybe that's all explained in the second playthrough, where all the subtitles are in the same language, I don't remember. You also say that Yorda bringing Ico to the boat is her first time in the role of carer, but we've already seen this when she tries to save Ico from falling off the bridge.

The combat is super crucial to the experience. Ico dies if Yorda dies. That alone builds the relationship in ways few other games have. Both characters need the other in order to survive.

The lack of cut scenes is probably the result of this originally being developed for the PS1 before it got delayed to the PS2 and having to work around the limitations of that hardware. Even if they had the extra power to handle more cut scenes, the game was already planned out in such a way that they aren't needed. I kind of wish more developers had to work within limitations.

Overall this is an interesting read. The screen shots kind of don't serve any purpose without some sort of caption or pull quote though.

#2 Posted by TheYouthfuls (30 posts) -

@mosespippy: Thank you for the feedback! I'll add a disclaimer for minor Brothers spoilers.

While it may be a castle, that section does feel distinctly like a prison and I think I went to that because it is essentially a prison holding Ico and Yorda captive, so rather than wanting to explore like a typical castle, you want to escape as if the entire thing were a prison. While I believe the combat is crucial and does add, that doesn't stop it from eventually feeling like more of a chore than a life or death situation.

I heard about how it was meant to be a PS1 game, although I think it's likely that lack of cutscenes are also due to the minimalist style and cutscenes are typically grandiose, something which goes against that. Shadow of the Colossus only has 2 big cutscenes so I think the team aren't all that interested in filling their games with cutscenes, which I really appreciate.

I'll try and integrate the screenshots in a better way next time, for the moment they are basically acting as filler/something to look at.

Thanks again! - Ben

#3 Posted by Aboyandhisblog (19 posts) -

A nice little article, even with the points mentioned above by @mosespippy. Quite agreeable for the most part.

#4 Posted by CorruptedEvil (2385 posts) -

It's the second best game on the PS2, and the best game is Shadow of the Colossus.

#5 Posted by TheYouthfuls (30 posts) -

@corruptedevil: That's the next article I'm working on. So you'll see my thoughts on it here soon! - Ben

#6 Posted by GStats (8 posts) -

Still haven't played ICO. I was kinda hoping they'd release on the Vita. Don't think that's gonna happen though....

#7 Posted by pyromagnestir (4283 posts) -

@gstats said:

Still haven't played ICO. I was kinda hoping they'd release on the Vita. Don't think that's gonna happen though....

I... don't imagine that game working so well on such a tiny screen, just because you need to be able to make out some environmental details to solve some puzzles, and I had some issues with that on a couple regular ass televisions.

#8 Posted by TheBlue (328 posts) -

I am particularly fond of the ending of Shadow of the Colossus because of how it potentially relates to the story of Ico. I definitely agree with a lot of points you made. The camera control, or lack thereof, really makes some puzzles and some jumps unnecessarily difficult.

The mechanic of dragging Yorda around is not exactly a popular mechanic in video games (escort missions are frequently met with groans), but the thing that kept me engaged was the story, surprisingly enough. Meeting the queen and the desire to get Yorda away from her really provided excellent motivation despite its minimalistic presentation.

Good write up though, I'm curious to hear someone's thoughts on the ending of SotC as well, so I look forward to that.

#9 Posted by GunstarRed (5102 posts) -

I feel like I'm in the minority when I say that I think Ico holds up a lot better than Shadow of the Colossus due to its simplicity. I had started it when the collection came out and only finished it very recently. I think I bought the HD collection as more of a curiosity as I had finished it on the PS2 close to 20 times I'm sure.

There's a lot more to be gained from multiple playthroughs and it's no secret that the combat is pretty bad until you can get the secret mace/ Lightsaber which makes it much, much more tolerable. I always loved that you can read Yorda's words on a second playthrough and you can get that secret Watermelon ending.

There is definitely a few platforming sequences in the final hour or so of the game that can test your patience, but that whole end stretch is haunting and beautiful. The battle with the queen is a real standout moment, and fits in perfectly despite being like no other section in the game. I adore the bit on the beach at the end.

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#10 Edited by pyromagnestir (4283 posts) -

@gunstarred said:

I feel like I'm in the minority when I say that I think Ico holds up a lot better than Shadow of the Colossus due to its simplicity. I had started it when the collection came out and only finished it very recently. I think I bought the HD collection as more of a curiosity as I had finished it on the PS2 close to 20 times I'm sure.

There's a lot more to be gained from multiple playthroughs and it's no secret that the combat is pretty bad until you can get the secret mace/ Lightsaber which makes it much, much more tolerable. I always loved that you can read Yorda's words on a second playthrough and you can get that secret Watermelon ending.

There is definitely a few platforming sequences in the final hour or so of the game that can test your patience, but that whole end stretch is haunting and beautiful. The battle with the queen is a real standout moment, and fits in perfectly despite being like no other section in the game. I adore the bit on the beach at the end.

I think Ico has sorta become better with time, as it definitely makes more sense in today's world filled with downloadable games like Brothers and Journey and the like. In its own day it was sort of a curiosity. As such it grew on me when I played through it again recently. The first time I played it (back in 2007 even, so not all that long ago but still before the indie boom) I really didn't like the early combat and just kinda appreciated the game more than liked it but this most recent time I really came out liking it quite a bit.

I guess I'm saying Ico was a bit ahead of its time.

#11 Posted by Bremaine (61 posts) -

I didn't read through the whole article, but I bet it was good. I still have yet to beat the game. I got it recently from a game trading site and I played a bit of it here and there. It's a wonderful game and I really need to get back into it.

#12 Edited by TheYouthfuls (30 posts) -

@bremaine: Thanks man! Yeah I definitely recommend saving the article until after you've beaten the game; best to go in unspoiled and enjoy it to the fullest.

#13 Posted by Shindig (200 posts) -

I never got hugely bothered by the combat. Once you realise there's very little threat to it, you can just coast through it. I recently beat it for the first time and am glad I played it. I'd put it about Shadow of the Colossus.