We recently picked up the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection for PS3 which comes with two critically-acclaimed and award-winning action-adventure games by Team Ico. The games are similar to the 3D Legend of Zelda games featuring basic gameplay mechanics of running, climbing, swinging a sword, etc., combined with puzzle-based objectives. We finished up Ico last week, so I thought I’d give it a few words here.
Ico is presented in a very minimal way, to its benefit, from the seamless and virtually undetectable tutorial to the simple story. You are Ico, a young boy who is captured and held prisoner in a massive castle because you have horns. You manage to break free of your shackles and set out to escape the castle when you find Yorda, a young princess who is also being held captive. You resolve to help her escape as well and she becomes your companion for the rest of the game.
One of the core gameplay elements of Ico is puzzle-solving. The main objective during most of the game is to discover a way to get from point A to point B by climbing onto platforms, moving blocks, pulling switches, and otherwise interacting with the environment in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. There is a bit of fighting action in defending Yorda from the shadow monsters that try to re-capture her, but it’s mostly about the traversing.
Despite it being such a big part of the game, the puzzling is extremely linear and straightforward. There is basically only one way to traverse any given area in the game, so there aren’t very many “a-ha” moments and there isn’t much critical thinking involved. You would think this would make the game feel like one big straight, boring path, but the linearity is counterbalanced by the scope of the labyrinthine castle. It was quite strange, as Ico reminded us visually of Dark Souls, a game where every area might have a handful of doors and paths to other areas of the game, and you would be remiss not to go back and thoroughly explore every area you encounter. In Ico, each area might only have one entrance and one exit, but the visual style and scope of the castle kept making me feel like I surely must have missed something. Luckily, Nick picked up on the linearity of the game pretty quickly and stopped me every time I started saying “Doesn’t it feel like we missed something way back there?”
Thinking more about the linear style of the puzzles, I have to wonder how this game would be analyzed by Jonathan Blow, in comparison to many modern games that insert non-puzzles into games. In an interview for Edge magazine, Blow said “If you play a linear game where you pick up a key and then get to a door and use it, then the door might as well not be there.” I would say that Ico puts a few more iterations into that process, but the problem-solving is often as basic, to the tune of “I need to get up there. The only thing around is a block. I will push the block over and climb up on it. Now I can get up there.” The only really tough parts in the game occur when the game mechanics (Waterwheel jump) or visual elements (Those were bombs? They looked like pots!) get in the way.
One of the most notable aspects of the game is the “hand-holding.” In order to keep the princess Yorda with you and help her escape the castle, you must hold her hand and lead her along, or call her over from across the room. There are several actions she can’t do without your help (climbing, jumping across chasms), some things she can’t do at all (climbing up chains, jumping down from high platforms), and one thing only she can do (open magically locked doors). Many of the puzzles involve not only finding a way to move to the next area, but figuring out how to get Yorda there with you. If you leave her in an area by herself for too long, she gets attacked by shadow monsters.
These interactions between Yorda and Ico are supposed to be endearing and build up the player’s relationship with the characters, but we had a hard time getting into it. Video games have a long, long history of female characters (often princesses) with zero agency and capability, needing to be rescued by the male protagonist. Ico distills this concept down to its purest form, where you must literally hold the childlike princess’s hand and she is incompetent to the point of being annoying. Leave her alone too long and you’ll find her chasing a bird or being attacked (one time, hilariously, we watched her walk right off of a very tall platform, though I’m sure that was an unintended glitch). Eventually we assigned our own agency to Yorda, imagining her as a jaded babysitter, being dragged all around the house by this spoiled, needy, hyperactive child.
Still, by the time we reached the dramatic and emotional climax of the game, we had become somewhat emotionally attached to the pair and wanted them to succeed, which affected the choices we made. At the very least, you feel like Ico and Yorda are in this together, two prisoners trying to escape their captivity (even though Yorda doesn’t really seem that interested in her own escape).
Despite the simple puzzles and gameplay, Ico was pleasant and enjoyable to play, though it did start to feel a bit repetitive toward the end (one particular area had a nearly identical copy, with the same puzzles, on the opposite side of the map). The aesthetic of the game was gorgeous, and I found myself craning my neck around (which the forced-perspective simulated very well) to check out every inch of the beautiful environments. The story was simple, which is fine as I think you’re meant to sort of weave your own story through your personal adventure along with Yorda. It’s certainly worth playing through once, though I don’t see this one having much replay value.
We’re definitely looking forward to tackling Shadow of the Colossus next!