ICO is a third-person action-adventure game developed by Team ICO and originally published by Sony Computer Entertainment for the PlayStation 2 in 2001. Players control the eponymous Ico, a young boy with horns who is imprisoned inside an immense stone castle by members of his own village, who believe his horns to be a curse. There, Ico encounters Yorda, a mysterious girl who has also been trapped, and together they attempt to escape the castle and its shadowy inhabitants. Designed and directed by Fumito Ueda, ICO is the first game developed by the Team ICO studio and was originally planned to be released for the first PlayStation; after several delays, the decision was made to transition development onto Sony's new PlayStation 2 hardware.
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.
ICO was remastered in high definition and re-released on PlayStation 3 in a bundle pack alongside its spiritual successor, Shadow of the Colossus, on September 27, 2011. The remastered games were released separately in Japan.
The game's opening cutscene shows the young Ico with his hands bound as he is taken through a dense forest by three adult members of his village on horseback. The forest soon gives way to a steep seaside cliff separating the mainland from a gigantic ruined castle standing atop a rocky outcropping in the sea. After descending the cliffs and crossing the channel between the outcropping and the mainland by boat, the villagers gain access to the castle's secret entrance by brandishing a magical sword which can open the castle's idol-shaped stone gates.
Ico is led deep into the castle and soon reaches a large chamber, where he is imprisoned by the other villagers inside one of the many stone sarcophagi lining the chamber walls. The superstitious adults believe that as a boy born with horns, Ico must be sacrificed for the good of the village. Once the three men exit the chamber, the floor moves to seal the chamber's entrance; this causes Ico's sarcophagus to shift slightly, which Ico capitalizes on by forcefully tipping it over from the inside.
Although he frees himself, Ico is knocked unconscious by the impact of the fall and has a strange dream in which he climbs a large spiral staircase and sees a shadowy figure inside an iron cage. As dark fluid drips from the edge of the cage, Ico is suddenly sucked into an inky black void that appears on the wall behind him, waking him from his dream. After coming to, Ico begins exploring the castle and soon discovers the same staircase from his dream.
This time he finds a pale young girl named Yorda trapped in the cage and quickly frees her. Yorda speaks a few phrases in a language that Ico cannot understand before being unceremoniously abducted by shadowy creatures that attempt to drag her into a nearby void in the floor. Ico fends off the creatures' attack and rescues Yorda, who is also capable of magically opening the castle's idol gates, and together the pair proceed to pick their way through the perilous ruins. Yorda and Ico discover the castle's main entrance and attempt to flee through it, but they are stopped by the Queen, a woman cloaked in shadow who claims to be Yorda's mother. After closing the enormous gate to prevent their escape, the Queen tells Ico to forget Yorda and leave her castle before disappearing in a blast of dark magic.
Still determined to escape together, Ico and Yorda continue their exploration of the castle and eventually manage to activate an elaborate pair of generators that power the castle's main gate. Upon returning to the main gate, Yorda unleashes an unusually large amount of magical energy to open it, exhausting herself in the process. Ico escorts the weakened Yorda halfway across the stone bridge leading back to the forest, but she is suddenly struck down by an energy bolt from one of the castle's generators. The bridge then begins to retract from both sides, separating Ico from Yorda by a large gap. Ico boldly leaps back across the gap, nearly falling into the sea before Yorda catches his hand to try and hoist him up. Unfortunately, the Queen returns at this very moment to retrieve her daughter. She spreads her magical darkness over Yorda's form, petrifying the young girl and causing her to lose her grip on Ico, who plummets down toward the water.
Some time later, Ico reawakens atop a large cage hanging from the underside of the castle's rocky supports. After carefully climbing back up through the castle's ancient waterways, Ico stumbles across the hidden door previously used by his tribesmen to enter the castle from the water. He also retrieves the magical sword that his tribe left behind, allowing him to open the idol gates without Yorda's assistance. Ico reaches the sarcophagus chamber again and finds Yorda's petrified form surrounded by several shadow creatures, whose ghostly shapes have solidified to strongly resemble humans with horns like the pair on Ico's head. Although the creatures are easily dispatched with the magic sword, Ico is forced to destroy a total of thirty-nine shadows in this chamber before opening the path to the Queen's throne room.
Ico finds the throne empty, but as he turns to leave, the Queen reveals herself; here she finally explains her plan to possess Yorda in order to extend her own life. After ordering Ico once more to abandon his quest, Ico lunges at the Queen with sword in hand. However, he is instantly knocked backwards by her powerful magic barrier, snapping off one of his horns in the process. Dazed but still alive, Ico retrieves his weapon and approaches the Queen again, this time shielding himself from her magical attacks with the power of the sword. As Ico attacks the Queen repeatedly, her protective barrier weakens and finally falls, allowing Ico to impale the Queen through the chest with the sword. With her final breath, the Queen tells Ico that Yorda can never leave the castle and dies in a spectacular explosion of dark magic. The force of the blast throws Ico against the throne room's opposing wall, knocking him unconscious and severing his remaining horn.
Meanwhile, back in the sarcophagus chamber, Yorda absorbs the magical energies of the castle's numerous sacrifices and reawakens in a new form cloaked in magical darkness. As the castle begins to collapse, Yorda discovers Ico's unconscious body inside the throne room and carries him safely to the castle's lower entrance. She places Ico in a boat and pushes it away from the castle toward the opposing shore, watching Ico slowly drift away and out of sight as the remainder of the castle sinks into the sea.
Following the game's ending credits, Ico awakens on a sandy beach next to a cliff where his boat has washed ashore. Walking the beach's length, he finds the unconscious Yorda lying on the sand, who begins to wake up as Ico stands over her. In the original European release and HD re-releases of ICO, players who complete the game on a second playthrough can also watch an extra post-credits scene on the beach in which Ico and Yorda share a watermelon.
ICO is 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 as well as the remastered release which is based on the PAL version of the game).
Occasionally black shadow creatures appear and attempt to kidnap Yorda - Ico's only defense against them is a large wooden stick, sword or mace and he can 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 game 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.
There are few weapons to be found throughout 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 functionally the same as the sword, being able to cut through ropes.
In 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.
The graphics within Ico were among the best ever seen on the PlayStation 2. The game's unique visuals, including the use of bloom lighting (for the first time in a video game), 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.
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.
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.
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-"