maanantai 18. maaliskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Ico | PS2 | 2001

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure / Puzzle
RELEASED: September 24, 2001
AVAILABLE ON: PS2, PS3 [Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Classics HD]
DEVELOPER(S): Team Ico, Bluepoint Games (PS3)
PUBLISHER(S): Sony Computer Entertainment

In a time Grand Theft Auto III was THE game you gamers wanted to get for your PlayStation 2, critics were trying their best to drag you away from all the killing, senseless violence, complex gameplay and general sandbox-style mayhem by praising a little game called Ico to high heaven and beyond. The simple, strange, yet beautiful debut of Team Ico had been in development for as long as four years - creator Fumito Ueda originally created the concept to be unleashed on the original PlayStation. Ico ended up selling poorly in both the United States and Japan, but Europe seemingly had a soft spot for Ico's unique ways, as the game's sales in Europe went well over a double the amount of copies sold elsewhere. Back in the day, you could say the name of the game and no one would've known what you were talking about. Some years later, Ico became a cult title ranked high up on just about every "best games ever" list ever made, in the wake of its spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus. In 2011, the once shunned, now worshipped PlayStation 2 adventure made its way to the PlayStation 3 in high definition, along with its epic "prequel". I guess it's finally time for me to investigate what made Ico so special, and how it has stood the test of time.

Gimme a hand

A young boy named Ico is imprisoned and left to rot in the crypt of a dark castle by the people of his village, who consider his recently sprouted horns an ill omen. After an earthquake shakes the castle's foundations, Ico is able to break free from his coffin. As he explores the castle to find means to escape, he crosses paths with a fellow prisoner - Yorda, the daughter of the castle's queen. After learning of the queen's plans to use Yorda's body as a vessel for her dark, malicious soul after her own body has perished, he decides to help Yorda escape as well.

Goodbye, cruel game.
My history with Team Ico, part one. Strangely enough, this part one is not about Ico - I will save that for the next review. Back in 2006, I read a rave review on a game called Shadow of the Colossus. In this review, there was no mention of a predecessor - the game was simply considered a unique masterpiece, one of the finest "new franchises" to emerge on the PlayStation 2, financed by Sony themselves. I thought the description of the gameplay sounded kinda strange, but I was moderately fresh off the freight train they called God of War - if someone had the balls to call this Shadow of the Colossus one of the finest new games on the PlayStation 2, and it was published by Sony, it just had to be off-the-charts awesome. So, the next time I had some extra money on me, I marched to the local supermarket - the only place I had the slightest hope of finding the game where I'm from - and paid the damn €70 for it. If the game was to indeed turn out as good as I had surmised, I had quite the treasure on my hands by the mere looks of it - it came in a fancy cardboard box with a few art cards, in a time collector's editions were not that common game. So, I went home after school, slapped in the disc, played the game for a few hours. Those few hours later, I took the disc, put it back in the box, went to sleep with a smile on my face. Never played the game again.

I liked how Shadow of the Colossus was different from just about every other action game I had ever played - but that difference was not for me. It was a great game, just not my kind of game. My copy of the game just sat on the shelf for a few years. Then I got familiar with a schoolmate of mine, who was my neighbour back then and now I consider him a bro. I once borrowed the game to him, and he loved it - he absolutely adored it, and cursed life for not finding a copy of his own for a decent price at that time. A while later, his PlayStation 2 broke down, I borrowed my console to him, and he broke it as well. Despite of being in a very dire financial situation and in need for a lot more than a new PlayStation 2 of his own, he BOUGHT ME a new PlayStation 2 unit, informing me of his little mishap afterwards. I considered this such an unselfish and noble deed, that I decided to reward him. Even though he didn't have a PS2 at that moment, I knew he was going to buy himself a new one as soon as he could, and he's always been a collector, so I decided to give him my copy of Shadow of the Colossus as a gift. I knew he'd appreciate the game more than I ever could. By that time, he had secured a copy of Ico - a game I knew by name, very faintly, but never knew to be the spiritual predecessor to Shadow of the Colossus.

To be continued...

Ico is a very, very strange game, even nowadays... but when it came out, it challenged just about every trope and cliche in modern gaming. While other development studios kept pushing the envelope in violence and profanity, and/or pushing for more and more diversity in gameplay, Team Ico created a very simple, minimalistic love story. Very little dialogue, just three central characters to begin with, just three enemy designs, with the main focus on level design, atmosphere and on touching the player on an emotional level, the theme being loving and caring for someone. With its long-delayed, yet great success, Ico laid grounds for dozens of indie developers to explore and flourish with their minimalistic designs. Not only those, Ico also went on to influence today's greatest commercial success stories, such as Assassin's Creed and Uncharted. The influence isn't right there in black and white, but I find it pretty obvious, considering the importance of "climbin' shit", as Nathan Drake would put it.

Oye! Fus Ro Dah!
Although very few were around to see it, Ico was one of the most beautiful sights to behold on the PlayStation 2 in 2001, or on the whole market at that. In 12 years, the view has changed a bit. Even the surprisingly sharp HD rendition doesn't change the fact that most of it's of the union of copy and paste - but absolutely nothing shakes the fact that it really doesn't matter. Ico was always meant to be a minimalistic game of epic proportions, and the proportions are what matter. Even if the castle's graphical textures hardly change throughout the course of the game, the concrete level design does, all the time, and it's one huge castle. There's hardly any in-game music and the dialogue is very rare, plus totally incomprehensible due to the two fictional languages used in the game, but the sound department garners in a whole soundtrack worth of points with the song that accompanies the final credits - "You Were There", which is widely considered one of the most beautiful songs exclusively written for a video game.

It went on to influence a whole cavalcade of games, including the more recent Prince of Persia games, which is ironic, 'cause Ico was most influenced by the very original Prince of Persia. Your goal is to make it through a castle and save the princess. The most essential difference between Ico and classic Prince of Persia just as well as any "save the princess" type of story is that the princess is with you 95% of the game's duration. Co-op is out of the question; Yorda can't really do anything except get you through spirit doors that block each level. In each room and level, you have to figure out some way how to get her to the doors; you usually have no problem reaching them, since your movement is not nearly as limited. She can climb ledges and ladders, and you can help her across chasms, but she cannot climb chains or pipes, and she most definitely can't do shit to the dark spirits pestering her. Although they show up rarely, they do so at the most awkward of times.

Nice view. Wanna make out?
Yorda needs to be held by the hand almost all of the time you're with her. She's very reluctant to follow your orders from time to time, and her refusal to co-operate is not always just frustrating, it's also misleading. I had to resort to a walkthrough twice during the game, just to find out I had been going for the exact correct solution for tens of minutes, I was just standing half a pixel off the right mark.

Although Yorda constantly makes you want to scream "back to the kitchen" out loud, all of the game's problems do not stem from her presence; there are even worse problems that present themselves even on the very rare occasions you're alone. The game has a wide array of control issues, all the way from platform jumping to the extremely tedious combat, which is luckily toned down once you get some better weapons than the pathetic torch you have to get by with for the longest time. Well, Ico is quite aged, and it was the first full-length project by its core developers, so I guess I'll have to let problems such as this pass. Kinda pass. Surprisingly, the very dynamic camera is on the mark most of the time. I don't remember any huge problems with this usual grievance.

Ico - the character - does not have any type of HUD or health points. He can't directly take damage from enemy attacks, he can only be pushed down long enough for them to have their way with Yorda (that sounded way dirtier than it was supposed to) and drag her to the darkness. You have a consistently fair time window to save her, but if you've wandered too far away from her, it's of no use to point (or give) your finger at the game - you're supposed to stay with her and protect her at all costs, and that's the thing you've gotta remember from the start. Helping her keep up is the toughest challenge of the game, and it makes the puzzles even tougher than they already are. Even if Yorda's annoying, she deserves credit for making this game challenging and of course, one hell of a unique experience.

Baby, I don't understand one word you're
saying, but I'm sensing a true connection here.
Ico - the game - is filled with, if not jumps to the unknown, annoyingly precise jumps that have a good chance of sending you to a fateful collision with planet Earth. Returning to the game's age, every exit is not a checkpoint, as you will very likely have to see for yourself. For a contemporary gamer who perhaps wasn't even really there when Ico originally emerged, the checkpoints are a true test of will as the puzzles often have several, SLOW steps you have to retake following every time you fail - including having Yorda to climb a ladder, a potentially long ladder, and mind you that she climbs ladders at half your speed. The only checkpoints in the game are the save points, and the spirit doors in the end of each level. There are no more - again, as you WILL discover - before the final level which does not have spirit doors or save points at all.

Although Ico has a lot of potential of slapping the thought of beating it for the heck of it right out of you, I advise you to not follow up on that thought - it's an experience, and it's really not that tough once you understand and are able to sink in all that you can do, and all that Yorda can do. The European version (of both the PS2 and PS3 versions) is slightly different from the original version of the game, and has a couple of puzzles that are really illogical or physically weird. Those are pretty much the only puzzles that initially feel impossible to figure out. I know trial and error doesn't have that much appeal with this few checkpoints, but very often you can engage in it without the severe punishment of death, just epic frustration at its worst. It's how the game was meant to be played. Like it or not. The combat is awkward throughout the line, but luckily there's just one boss fight, and I think that one's even kinda cool.

Ico left a better first impression on me than its "prequel" did back in the day, and it proved to be a good starting point to get reacquainted with the team's work, right up 'til its pretty end. It's a very down-to-Earth, unique journey that I advise everyone into "different" games and with five or six hours to spare to embark on at least once.

+ A simple, yet different and captivating story
+ Unique atmosphere, created with minimal resources
+ Clever level design leads to mostly clever puzzles
+ Ethereal music
+ A surprisingly dynamic camera for such an "old" game

- A SLOW tempo
- Quirky controls and physics
- Thoroughly tedious and unsatisfying, luckily rare combat
- Yorda's occasional refusal to follow code, which can even be extremely misleading at times

< 8.5 >

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