Ico, a boy with horns, is trapped in an isolated, desolate, and immense temple where his tribe brings boys with horns to die. With a little luck he escapes from captivity, and comes across Yorda, a beautiful, ethereal princess who is trapped. Ico frees Yorda and together they attempt to escape.
ICO is the first game by Team ICO, and was designed and directed by Fumito Ueda. ICO was originally planned to be released on the original PlayStation but after several delays, the decision was made to take advantage of Sony's new hardware, PlayStation 2.
A novelization of the game was written by Japanese author Miyabe Miyuki and released in Japan in 2004. An English translation of the novel was released by Viz Media on July 19, 2011.
The game begins with the protagonist, Ico, being led far away from his home to the cliffs by villagers who attributed any misfortunes occurring within the village to him, believing that his expulsion will return good fortune to them. They proceeded to imprison him within one of the many tombs located inside a cold, inhospitable and seemingly abandoned fortress.
When he eventually breaks free, he meets the shadowy spirits which come forth from the empty tombs. Just before he has been placed in this tomb he sees a vision of a ghostly girl and after breaking free sees her perched in a cage high above the ground. After rescuing the princess called Yorda she follows him around wherever he goes. Yorda has been kept captive for her whole life in the fortress by her evil mother, called The Queen, and so is seeking freedom. Together they seek the way out of the castle so that they both may gain their freedom and lives.
ICO is, at heart, a 3D platformer played from the third-person perspective. The player controls Ico as he solves various puzzles to allow Yorda and himself to progress through the castle. Many of these puzzles are centered around the player trying to help Yorda reach a location to open doors that only she can unlock. Throughout the game, various enemies will attempt to attack Ico and Yorda. If an enemy reaches Yorda and fully envelops her in a vortex, the game is over, creating an incentive to protect Yorda (as opposed to using her as a meat-shield).
After completing the game once, a second player can take control of Yorda, allowing two individuals to play through the game cooperatively (only in the PAL and Japanese releases).
There are few weapons to be found thoughout the game, but each has it's own properties. Ico will only be able to carry one of these at each time, and it may be necessary at times to switch between implements.
The simple stick is one of the main weapons in the game, and is the first that the player obtains, allowing Ico to fend off shadows. It can be lit on fire by holding it up to torches, which will increase the damage dealt in battle. It has a role in puzzles, allowing the player to relight torches amongst other things. A lit torch will go out a short period of time however, though the stick itself will never burn to cinders and can be relit whenever.
Swords are a step up from the basic stick, dealing more damage in battle. Unlike sticks, swords are able to cut through ropes, which may be needed to solve a puzzle.
The mace is a secret weapon, only obtained after completing a puzzle in a hidden area. Whilst dealing extra damage, the mace is functionaly the same as the sword, being able to cut through ropes.
On PAL versions of the game, players can find a lightsaber-esque extra weapon. It is obtained on a second playthrough of the game, and is found in the exact same way as the mace. After the puzzle is completed, you're awarded with this baby instead. It is the most powerful standard weapon in the game (second only to the endgame Queen's Sword), killing all enemies with 1-2 hits. While the lightsaber initially seems short, having the smallest range of any weapon, it grows exponentially when holding hands with Yorda, allowing Ico to hit enemies from a large distance.
Towards the end of the game, Ico ultimately finds this special weapon seen in the games' opening cinematic. The sword is infused with magical power similar to Yorda's, and allows Ico to energize and open up doors without her help. It is also the most powerful weapon in the game, destroying shadows with a single hit, though you have only a small section of gameplay in which to use it.
Not being a standard weapon which can be carried around freely, bombs are only found in a few locations and are of limited quantity. To explode, a bomb's fuse must first be ignited by a lit stick, before being left alone or moved around. When holding a bomb, Ico will be reduced to a waddle as he carries it around, either being able to place it down or throw it. While the resulting explosions are able to damage shadow enemies, they are more important in solving puzzles.
All of the enemies within the game take the form of shadowy entities most of the enemies in the game are the same taking the form of a normal human shape. Later on in the game, there are "mutated" versions of the basic human enemies, which gain more properties. In addition to cosmetic upgrades like insect wings and extra limbs, they can move faster, and some can even fly.
Spider wraiths can be killed in one hit and do not attempt to take Yorda, rather, they will only attack ICO.
Sentries are the largest and most formidable of all enemies ICO will face in the game.
Audio and visual
The graphics within Ico were among the best ever seen on the Playstation 2. The unique visuals including the use of bloom lighting to create a great contrast between inside and outside and light and dark gained it cult success. Any dialogue within the game was in a foreign language which the player could not understand although subtitles in the players language could be unlocked. The game featured very little music and so created a desolate environment for the player that was in keeping with the story. The music composed by Michiru Oshima and Pentagon was later released as a soundtrack in Japan called ICO: Melody In the Mist.
"Castle in the Mist"
"Who Are You?"
"ICO -You Were There-"
ICO is, in short, a series of environmental puzzles that take place within the castle. The player, as Ico, is tasked with figuring out how to guide Yorda from one room of obstacles, to the next. Puzzles typically involve switches and levers, and often use the game's evocative environment in consistently interesting ways. Some are more cliche puzzles in the gaming world, such as moving blocks and pressing switches, though many are more complex and interesting.
Occasionally black shadow creatures appear and attempt to kidnap Yorda - Ico's only defense against them is a large wooden stick, sword or mace, with which he can quite easily fend off these would-be abductors using simplistic combos. These encounters make up the whole of the game's "combat" - the game is decidedly bent toward exploration, puzzle solving, platforming, and slowly developing a minimal but powerful narrative.
The player moves Ico around the world using the left analog stick. When pressing it in any given direction, Ico will move in the corresponding direction. The controls are pressure sensitive, so a light tilt will result in Ico walking, while fully pressing the joystick will make Ico run. Many areas of the game require precision aiming, so it is important to be sure you are moving Ico correctly. The right analog can aid in this process, as it adjusts the camera. Ico can look around the environment using the right stick.
Ico jumps using the triangle button. Ico has many platforming sequences, so mastering the jump is key. Jumping is required both for clearing large gaps, and reaching higher platforms. For jumping great distances, it is usually wise to run and gain momentum before jumping. Ico can also jump backwards off of ladders and ledges. When Ico jumps towards a ledge, pressing the left analog stick towards to edge will make Ico grab it. Once he has grabbed a ledge, he can maneuver from side to side using the analog stick, or climb up onto a ledge using the triangle button. To drop down, use the X button. Sometimes, you will come across ropes or chains. Ico can grab on to these and climb up using the analog sticks, or swing and jump off of them to make a great leap. To swing, use the circle button, and jump off with the triangle button.
The circle button is the primary action button, and has a number of uses in Ico. Aside from swinging, the circle button is used to interact with switches, push and pull objects, and grab things in the environment. Some items that Ico finds, such as swords, bombs, or sticks, can be picked up using the circle button. When carrying items like bombs, Ico can either throw or drop them where he stands. To throw, press the circle button while running. To drop them, press it while standing still.
In many instances throughout the game, Ico is required to fight off shadows. He does this by using whatever weapon he currently has at his disposal, be it a stick or a mace. The primary attack button is the square button. Pressing the square button will result in swinging whatever weapon Ico has. Some enemies are tougher then others, and require a few direct hits to take down. There are a variety of enemies, some fast, some slow, some walk, some fly. Each will require a different strategy when battling. The shadows in the game will all focus on capturing Yorda when she accompanies Ico. If an enemy grabs Yorda, Ico should immediately stop that enemy. If a foe carries Yorda to one of their holes, they will suck her down in. If this happens, Ico must pull her out. If he does not, she will be captured, and the came will end.
Among the most prominent gameplay aspects in Ico is guiding Yorda through the environment. The player's number one task in Ico is protecting Yorda. Using the R1 button, Ico will call Yorda to his location. When she is nearby, the R1 button will grab her hand. When holding Yorda's hand, Ico can guide her around the environment. When Ico is on a high ledge, he can call her, and use the R1 button to lift her up on to the ledge. The R1 button will also catch her when she jumps. Essentially, the R1 is a universal button in regards to Yorda. Yorda is also important for progression, as she opens up special doors which Ico cannot.
The player saves their game by sitting on stone couches scattered throughout each level.
ICO has become something of an exemplar of the argument for "games as art", and this is certainly not without undue reason. The game's artistic style, focusing on oversaturated lighting, immense environments, and minimalistic use of sound, evokes a strong emotional reaction in the player - Ico and Yorda's prison is beautiful. Much praise has also been given to the emotional connection developed between Ico and Yorda, through subtle animations (like the way Yorda follows as Ico pulls her hand) and a very poignant ending, the emotional investment in the game becomes profound.
ICO, despite selling fairly miserably in the U.S. (no thanks to atrocious box art), has left a substantial legacy in gamers' minds and the industry as a whole. It established Fumito Ueda and Team ICO as visionary developers, paving the way for their follow-up and pseudo-prequel Shadow of the Colossus. The Ico-Yorda relationship has found echoes in later portrayals of male-female relationships in games: the newest in Ubisoft's Prince of Persia franchise features a female NPC following and assisting the titular Prince in a fashion almost overtly reminiscent of ICO.
Connections to Shadow of The Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus and ICO are said to be set within the same world, Shadow of the Colossus presumably taking place long before ICO. Some of the most prominent similarities are the horns which the protagonists have. While ICO has horns throughout the game, Wander (the main character in Shadow of the Colossus) gains them over the course of the game. Most speculate that Wander is an early ancestor of ICO, perhaps the first in the lineage of the "horned boys" spoken of in ICO or potentially even Ico himself. The sorceress in ICO would take these horned boys and use them as sacrifices to give herself power and longevity. She did this likely because this line of horned boys is apparently infused with the power of a god, due to the events of Shadow of the Colossus.
Another, smaller connection often made is between Yorda and Mono, the two female protagonists in ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, respectively. The two resemble one another, Yorda looking like a more "divine" version of Mono. Both are very mysterious characters, and there is little to reveal much about their histories, especially Mono in Shadow of the Colossus.
Many speculate that Team ICO will continue to flesh out the lore of the two games in the future, possibly with their upcoming Playstation 3 title The Last Guardian.
ICO is set to be re-released on the PS3 in a high-definition bundle pack together with its spiritual sequel, Shadow of the Colossus, on September 27, 2011, as well as a Japan-only standalone release.