In their attempts to create the next generation of games, most developers stick to the credo that more is better - dozens of locales, huge quests, epic soundtracks, gripping speeches of high melodrama. ICO, the first project from a new internal team at Sony Japan, takes nearly the opposite route from the epic blockbusters that usually mark a system's high watermarks. The game takes place in a single environment, stars a mere three characters, features a single type of enemy, has almost no music to speak of, and has dialogue that would likely fit on a single page. But each of the game's limited elements are so expertly constructed and thoroughly developed that the finished product is a game of subtle charms and quiet beauty, and is like nothing else you've ever seen.

  Welcome to the all-Bjork caption review.
One Day

    ICO's simple premise reads like a fairy tale, but one with more in common with the Brothers Grimm's troubling stories than the sanitized modern versions. In the village of the eponymous lead, one boy is born out of every generation with a pair of horns. His birth is taken as an omen of ill things to come and by tradition the child is sacrificed upon his twelfth birthday. The game begins on this day, with a slow boat ride across a still sea to the abandoned fortress where Ico is to be entombed. Left for dead in a stone sarcophagus, the young boy manages to escape, only to find himself trapped in the larger prison of the castle. Though the keep is seemingly deserted, Ico finds another captive, an adolescent princess trapped like a bird in a cage. Though the two speak different languages - the player is only privy to a translation of Ico's dialog - they become quick allies and the bulk of the game is taken up with their attempt to find a way out of the castle with the player, as Ico, solving puzzles and forming a path for Yorda to follow.

Human Behavior

    The story is always simple, with only a handful of key scenes sketching out the plot, but the game retains the fairy tale mix of wonder and dread throughout. When the story does come to the forefront, it never fails to grab you again, thanks in part to the wonderfully developed characters, expertly directed cutscenes, and a villain that makes up for her lack of screen time with sheer charismatic menace. Contrary to almost every preview of the game, the young princess is not blind, nor is she helpless, exactly. You are more given the feeling that she simply has never been out of her cage, that she never knew escape was an option. She trusts Ico completely and, though the boy seems to struggle under the responsibility, he has a steely determination to protect her.

It's Not Up to You

   How is a game able to pull of this kind of complex characterization without the use of dialog? Simply put, ICO's leads are the two most realistic and emotive characters ever to reside within a video game. The two say almost nothing over the course of the game, but their actions speak volumes. Though frail and seemingly unused to the outside world, the ethereal princess carries herself with a grace and competence that stands as a strong counterpoint to the awkward Ico. She's not a playable character as such, but Yorda responds to almost every action you take. Move a crate or hit a wall and she starts back in surprise. Take her by the hand and she looks down at Ico with an affectionate gaze. Leave her alone, and she will eventually wander off to chase the birds that are the castle's only other living inhabitants, or examine an item that may lead to the next puzzle solution. Two programmers from the ICO team were set aside to write Yorda's AI, and the results are more than window-dressing. Protecting Yorda is a large part of the basic gameplay, but you'll find yourself wanting to save her simply because she seems so human. Though he is player controlled, Ico himself has been given just as much expressiveness in his motions and truly seems like a very real, often overwhelmed, twelve year-old boy. The fact that all of this was accomplished with no motion capture is even more impressive.

Hidden Place

   Like the two leads, the castle in which the game takes place is incredibly realistic and well developed. Though the solitary keep is the only locale in the game, its high parapets, underground caverns, and vaulted halls manage to offer up new stunning vistas at every turn. The sheer scale of the overall structure is massive, often dwarfing the two lone figures, but what is more impressive is the way that it all fits together. Unlike many exploration-based games, ICO eschews backtracking in favor of a crisscrossing network of overlapping passages. You'll often find yourself at the top of an area, looking down at the ground you traveled over hours ago. Every inside has an outside and, as you move from one area to another, you'll see the places you've passed fade into the background, while your future destinations loom before you. ICO's setting may have its roots in medieval themed fantasy, but it always seems like a real structure, where every structure has a purpose and a place in the larger whole.

All Neon Like

   While the graphics throughout the game are stunning on their own, special mention must be made of ICO's lighting; rather than choosing to replicate the ideal properties of light, the game's designers have attempted to mirror the way that light and dark are actually perceived by the human eye. The castle is covered with the glaring haze of a humid coastal day and the interplay between the light and atmosphere adds further to the scale to ICO's sprawling locale. When emerging from the keep for the first time, the supersaturated textures used to depict the outdoors cause your eyes to physically adjust to the change and, when you return indoors, it's often a few seconds before you can make out anything in the overly dim interiors. More than this, subtle, seldom-seen effects abound. Strongly backlit objects blur at the edges as the light bends around them. When the sun shines directly in the camera's eye, the entire scene becomes awash in the bright orange light of a setting sun, and you must squint to make anything out. Light and dark are alive and palpable in ICO and, when added to the consistently astounding design of the castle itself, the game is easily one of the most visually striking to come along in many years.

It's Oh So Quiet

   Like most of its other aspects, sound is simple but masterfully done. Only a few important scenes are accompanied by music. However, the little music that is used is well orchestrated and haunting, running the gamut from a melodic mandolin folk piece to the eerily beautiful ambient music that plays a few key battles. The rest of the time you're given nothing but the sounds of the surrounding environments and the solitary couple's echoing footsteps.

   ICO may have a level of artistry and design almost unseen in the world of video games, but thankfully it also comes coupled with some compelling and accessible gameplay. At it's heart, ICO is a platform / puzzler in the vein of Out of This World or Prince of Persia. Although young and seemingly weak, Ico is surprisingly agile; he can jump, shimmy across ledges, and pull crates or levers to solve the many puzzles the castle has in store. Using this small set of abilities, he must navigate his way through the castle while keeping watch over Yorda and making a path for her to follow. Keeping the princess close by is doubly important; not only is she needed to open the special idol doors that separate areas of the castle, but the castle's guardians, strange creatures literally made of smoke, will attack her if she's left unattended.

Cover Me

   Combat is by far the weakest element in ICO. The eerie SmokeMen are certainly fantastic enemies, in both senses of the word, but fighting them is mostly a matter of jabbing a single button repeatedly. It presents little challenge or reward. But, battle is far from the game's focus and usually you only need fend them off until you can make a quick escape.

   The puzzles themselves range from simple to devious, but never quite get hard enough to disrupt the flow of the game. Given Ico's limited abilities, solutions are almost always clear after a little experimentation and, if not, Yorda will often subtly point you in the right direction. More importantly, you never get the feeling that the puzzles were added into the environment, so much as that the environments are puzzles themselves - getting to further explore them is your reward.

I've Seen It All

   All this exploration is complimented by a unique and extremely functional camera system. Every surface, corridor, and ledge has a scripted "track" which the camera follows. Not only does the intelligent camera work help direct the action - lining you up for a difficult jump or swiveling around to show you what lies under an overhang - many angles seem precisely orchestrated to offer the most scenic view of the surroundings. The camera will often pull back to offer a sense of scale in a vast cavern or angle itself to give a view of the surrounding vista. Although the camera is occasionally too slow to keep up with Ico's hurried scurrying, the scripted camera helps much more than it hurts and once again shows the developers obsessive attention to detail.

   It could be said that ICO puts style before substance, that its core gameplay is too simple, that its charms lie too much with its aesthetics - but that's missing the point. ICO's style is so substantive that it's nearly impossible to separate it from the gameplay. The thrill of exploration comes in part precisely because the environments themselves are so fascinating. A player's need to save Yorda is driven by the emotional bond the game is able to create through its astounding animation and AI. ICO is an immense technical and artistic achievement, but the fruit of that is a better game, not just pretty pictures.


   It also could be said that the game is too short, and in one way this is certainly right. Most players will complete it in less than eight hours. But for that short time, the television screen becomes a window to another world in a way that few games ever match.. It's a world that most will want to revisit and that all should see at least once. ICO is a stunning debut and obviously a labor of love from Fumito Ueda's design team; hopefully, their work won't be lost among the big-budget epics of this year. Painstakingly detailed and achingly beautiful, ICO is a masterpiece and an experience not to be missed.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
Developer Sony Computer Entertainment
Publisher SCEA
Genre Adventure
Medium CD-Rom (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation 2
Release Date  Unknown
Dark Cloud, ICO, and Monster Rancher 3 confirmed for US
462 screenshots
Paper doll sheets / screensaver
Director / Game Design/ Lead Animator Fumito Ueda
Producer Kenji Kaido
Character Animation Atsuko Fukuyama, Takeshi Ambe, Mizuki Muramatsu
Original Score Michiru Ohishima / Pentagon
Full game credits