Japanese game creators are known for putting out bizarre video games with silly concepts. “You’re a mosquito and you must bite that woman’s breast” or “play through this maze that simulates an acid trip”, I’m not joking those are both real games. Japan may produce some whacky games, but they also produce a ton of brilliantly beautiful fresh concept games. That’s what happened in 2001, when SCE Japan Studio, Team Ico and Sony Computer Entertainment teamed up and released “Ico” for the PlayStation 2. Put on your horn hat because we’re rescuing the princess in this Ico review!
Ico has very little dialogue in the game but gives hints on what is happening. The game starts with a young boy being taken to an abandoned castle by a group of men on horseback. He is placed within a stone tomb and locked away as the men leave. This boy will be the main protagonist named Ico, but he isn’t just any boy, he is a boy born with horns, maybe six or seven inches long on his head. The men have placed him in the castle to be sacrificed.
After an earthquake occurs, Ico can escape from his broken stone tomb. He begins to explore the castle and discovers a young girl named Yorda who has been imprisoned. Despite not being able to understand her, (you can’t either) Ico and Yorda work together to escape from the castle. During their journey, they encounter dark shadow creatures who come up from the ground or fly down from the walls. These shadows try to forcefully take Yorda away and drag her into shadow pits. Ico does his best to beat them off (LOL) with a stick.
Ico believed the castle to be abandoned but just as the two are crossing a bridge leading to safety, a dark queen appears who rules the castle. She informs Ico that Yorda is her daughter and will never permit her to leave the castle. The Queen then destroys the bridge separating Ico and Yorda as Ico falls off and lands unconsciously.
When he wakes up, Ico is beneath the castle and slowly begins to work his way back up, finding a magical sword in the process that effectively fights off the shadows. Ico finds and confronts the Queen who has turned Yorda into a stone statue. She informs Ico that she plans to begin a new life using Yorda’s body. Ico fights the Queen, using the magical sword to block her shadow attacks and eventually kills her. With the Queen dead, the castle begins to crumble and Yorda starts to turn back into flesh. Ico has been badly hurt in the fight with the Queen, his horns are broken and he passes out again. Yorda carries him to a small boat and sends it away on the water.
Ico regains consciousness on a beach and begins to explore it. He finds Yorda’s body on the shoreline back in her normal human form. She begins to wake and smiles at his as the game ends. For those who have read my previous reviews, you know how much I enjoy a great plot. Ico has a mysterious plot that made me continually wonder what was going to happen next. I was hooked and made sure I completed my Ico review.
There’s been a lot said about the controls of Ico and how difficult it can be to get Yorda to follow your instructions. In my Ico review, I didn’t struggle that much with her but there was some learning curves. As Ico, it’s up to you to help Yorda navigate the platforming puzzles but pushing box stones around or directing her to jump. It’s humorous sometimes to watch her struggle with your instructions, after all, she doesn’t speak your language. You can grab her hand and make her follow you which is what most people end up doing, especially when the shadows come.
It was rare that the shadows were able to abduct Yorda away, but they did pull it off a few times. Ico can attack them with a stick to swat them away from himself or Yorda, but if they grab her, they’ll fly off with her and try and take her to a shadow pit where she’ll disappear. Ico can grab her hand and pull her out but you have to make it to the pit before she sinks.
Back in 2001, Ico was a beautiful game with its graphics. There’s a lot of bricks and stone but it was an amazing castle. It was a refreshing sense of gameplay too. Up to that point I can’t name a game that had a style, concept, and controls like Ico. Everything about the game was fresh and exciting. Who was Ico? Why did he have horns? Who was this Yorda and what’s up with her mom who hates her? Ico was a big question mark that everyone was dying to solve.
There’s a real sense of fear when you play. I’ll touch more on that in the memory section of this Ico review, but being on the edge constantly about shadows appearing wore me down. I cringed every time I went through a door or discovered a new room because I knew those shadows would be appearing at any moment. Don’t confuse my fear for Ico being a horror or thriller game, it’s not at all. It’s just something about the shadows freaked me out, the wait was worse than the actual fights.
Besides fighting you’ll have to do your fair share of puzzle-solving on which room to enter, or how to get Yorda up broken stairs or climb a wall. It’s not too difficult, but the solution is not always right in front of you. Some puzzles took me a few minutes while others took around 15 minutes to figure out.
I remember when this game came out there was a lot of hype around it. I used to read PlayStation Magazine religiously in middle school, and this game was fresh on the market. I didn’t know what it was about, just that it was supposed to be a great game. I wasn’t able to play and complete my Ico review until just a few years ago when I received the HD version of it. For some reason, I kept freaking out internally about the black shadows coming to get Ico or Yorda. It was a strange time in my life, I don’t know why it made me so uncomfortable waiting on the inevitable. It felt like a panic attack was always right around the corner and sometimes I had to force myself to keep playing. It was a strange feeling, but I’m glad that hasn’t happened with other games. I do remember that I got stuck on the witch. She was difficult until you figured out the trick to beating her, then I beat her with no issues, but I suppose that’s how it goes for almost every boss in video games.
Ico Review Score:
Ico showed off what the PS2 could offer with its concepts, gameplay, and unique story. The game had minimal dialogue, minimal fighting, and it took place in a huge empty castle but everything came together making a terrific game that many remember. By far, the worst thing that happened with Ico was the terrible North American box cover. It’s so hideous, who thought that was a good idea? The European box is way better, so do yourself a favor and google it. So many games ask us to rescue the princess, but Ico presented a brand new way to do it.
Ico scores a 9.2 out of 10.
What would you write in your Ico review? What were your thoughts on Ico when it first came out? Why does he have horns and who is he? Did you hate the anticipation of the shadows like I did? Was the Queen a difficult battle? Let me know your thoughts and memories, I’d love to read them!
If you want to own Ico you can purchase a preowned copy of it for the PS2 on eBay for between $10-$25.