E3: ICO hands-on impressions

[05.18.01] » Sony's first party adventure finally comes together.

   Sony's mysterious first party action adventure may have failed to impress when it made a very early showing at last year's E3, but the game has resurfaced in much more polished form at this year's show. The company may be pushing the upcoming Dark Cloud as its flagship first party adventure title, but ICO (pronounced ee-ko) quietly stands out as one of the most unique, stylish, playable titles in Sony's booth.

   In the world of ICO, a boy is born once a generation with bull-like horns. Named after the lead character, the game tells the story of this outcast boy, who has been literally entombed in an ancient castle by the superstitious villagers. The playable demo offered at E3 begins with Ico breaking his way out of his stone tomb by rocking it back and forth.

   Once he recovers from the fall, Ico is free to explore the surrounding castle. Though the dilapidated, medieval setting is dark and subdued, the cavernous rooms of the citadel are incredibly detailed and, like Vagrant Story, resemble an actual setting, rather than a collection of disparate "puzzle rooms." Most of the areas in the demo are fairly barren, but a few small details, such as stray birds and floating feathers, add to the spooky, depopulated atmosphere. The outdoor sections, however, have a bright, super saturated look which stands in strong distinction to the gloomy interiors.

   After exploring a few of the castle rooms, Ico comes across a large cage suspended high above the ground. Inside is a forgotten princess, also imprisoned within the keep. Jumping on top of the cage causes it to fall to the ground, freeing her. The ethereal princess is dressed in tattered white rags; the visual divide between the indoor and outdoor settings makes a strong counterpoint to the dark-hued Ico. Immediately after she is freed, smoke-like creatures begin to flood the room. The shadows coalesce into monstrous shapes and attempt to kidnap the girl by disappearing with her into the floor. Ico must fight them off with his wooden staff. Each hit breaks the monsters into smaller creatures, so escape is the only option here.

   After fleeing the shadow beasts, the boy vows to help the young girl escape the castle -- no small task as the princess is totally blind. Pressing the R1 button will call the girl to Ico's side (if possible) or cause the boy to take her hand. Ico can lead her by the hand through the castle, and certain doors are only unlockable with the strange magical power she possesses.

   ICO's exploration gameplay should be immediately familiar. The hero can jump, hang and shimmy on ledges, climb and swing from chains, and pull switches to make his way through the castle, unfortunately the princess can't. She does have some mobility; you can pull her up small ledges and across gaps, but if you move too fast or jump too far, she'll fall behind. The challenge is to make progress through the castle while keeping track of the blind girl and keeping her along side Ico.

   Most of the puzzles seen in the demo involved clearing a safe path by rearranging the rooms and activating bridges. Many of these require you to leave the princess unattended for short periods of time. If left alone for too long, the shadow beast will return, so it's important to keep her close by at all times.

   While the gameplay overall may sound simple, it's backed by a great deal of style in the environment and personality in the characters. The princess emotes fear and confusion when left alone, and steps forward with uncertainty when guided by Ico. Ico's movements display a similar amount of character; his attacks are clumsy and his jumps uncertain.

   The demo ends when Ico and the princess finally find the front gate; the two run forward as the portal suddenly begins to close. The girl stumbles and falls behind and the shadow creatures once again appear to take her away. Ico hesitates and the gate closes. A short trailer movies follows which shows more diverse locations than those offered in the demo, including a large waterfall cavern and a tall, rain-washed exterior tower.

   The only hitch in ICO's gameplay from this early point seems to be the camera. The fixed view employed usually offers the best perspective on the action, but the camera itself seems too slow to keep up with the character's movements. The game is still a way off from release, so hopefully this will change before the final version.

   With compelling setting and characters, innovative gameplay, and stunning, if subdued, graphics, ICO has the potential to be one of this year's most interesting PS2 titles. The GIA will be watching this one closely.

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