Since its release in 2001, Ico has become a cult classic. Used copies can't stay on the shelves, and as a result this early PS2 game has become quite rare. But even though Ico has found its niche, there's a reason why it never was able to achieve substantial commercial success. You see, Ico's worth playing to experience the realized art style and characters, but at this point in 2008, or even back in 2001 for that matter, the gameplay is way too simple to satisfy most gamers.
The camera focuses on a lush, peaceful forest. Birds chirp lightly as the wind gently stirs the trees. A faint galloping breaks the calmness and four heavily armored knights on horseback are gaining speed. On the horse in front we can slowly recognize something odd -- a second rider. The boy is frail and has two horns growing from his head. The horses arrive at their destination -- a mountainous castle that is no doubt the largest fortress they have ever seen. The colossal gates have been left open, presumably unused in many years. But the knights decide to take the cave entrance instead; they're not coming by invitation. They disembark from their horses and enter the altar room. They approach the only open sarcophagus, throw the boy in, and leave never to be seen again. You are left with nothing. What has this boy done to deserve such punishment and why does he have such a curious set of horns on his head? All you know is that he is apparently alone.
Or is he? Before you take control of Ico, he has a vision of a girl with ghostly complexion trapped in a cage hanging somewhere inside the castle. Ico violently breaks free of his sarcophagus, and the girl is no where to be found.
This is the beauty of the narrative. Throughout your five-hour journey you'll see very few cut scenes with no more than seventeen words of dialog. It's minimalist, and it works very well for the narrative. Soon after you start, you'll have to find the girl from your vision and free her from her prison. Your main goal now becomes apparent: to escape the castle with this prisoner, your new friend Yorda. Most of the gameplay comprises of you, Ico, trying to figure out how to traverse the castle and pave the way for Yorda, who won't be able to jump quite as high or climb quite as well. You'll climb ropes, push blocks, and light torches with Ico's wooden staff in order to figure out many of the game's puzzles, and get both yourself and Yorda to safety.
In between puzzles, shadow-like creatures will try to take Yorda from you, and you must defend her. But the combat is probably the worst part about Ico. To put it simply, the person who's put the most hours into playing Ico, and the person who's put in the least are both equally effective at taking out these evil creatures. You basically go up to an enemy and hit square as much as you can. Every once in a while the enemy will get a hit on you, but there's really nothing you can do about that. You'll fall down, get back up, and continue hitting them until they eventually keel over for the last time and evaporate. The only way for this game to end is if Yorda is abducted by one of the creatures and taken into one of the black holes that produced them. Ico himself can be knocked down an infinite numbers of times without dying. In short, the combat isn't very engaging and feels tedious.
Some basic tasks like climbing ladders can also grow tiring. Neither Ico or Yorda is very fast at climbing, and Yorda for some reason won't follow you until you've reached the top. So you must climb, then wait for her, and in some cases, hit a switch, and repeat the whole process over again in reverse to get back down. There are a lot of ladders in the game, and as result, a lot of waiting.
Most of the puzzles are very similar too. Basically, you as Ico have the ability to get to a certain part of the castle because of your jumping or climbing capabilities, but Yorda doesn't. Most of the time you'll be opening doors for her by lighting torches or pushing blocks so she can get on top of them and reacher higher places. The puzzles aren't inherently bad, but they're repetitive and not much more complicated than puzzles we would see in something like Vagrant Story for the PlayStation, which wasn't even an action game.
Ico is over very soon after you begin. For most people, the game will take around five hours, and more like four and a half if you're used to playing action games. The atmosphere is probably the best part about the experience. The scope of the world always seems overwhelmingly large and helps add to the alone feeling you get when playing Ico. Unfortunately, most of the environments and colors are faded out and not very detailed and get very repetitive over time. The purpose of the visuals is to invoke an emotion that the story is trying to invoke as well. It's a helpless alone feeling and a hope that arises out of his unlikely companion that drives Ico. If you're looking for a decent story and you're willing to play through some very dated puzzles and combat, Ico is for you. Otherwise, as a complete video game experience Ico falls short.