(In case anyone was wondering, yes, my review is based on the recent HD re-release of this game, though I honestly don’t suppose that besides minor graphical updates, anything within the game itself was touched… unfortunately).

Games with relatively small cult followings are the ones I end up hearing about the most, which I suppose I should expect, considering the corners of the Internet I hang out at. After being yelled at by several extremely impolite but convincing people to play ICO (developed by Team ICO and starring Ico), I did so, and I’m left wondering how this game can honestly be considered one of the best of all time.

The story is bare-bones: the main character, Ico, is locked in a castle and is supposed to be sacrificed because he has horns sticking out of his head, and the authorities are concerned about him accidently gutting a few suckers while playing basketball or something. Not really, though; we’re never told why having horns is considered a bad thing. Sure, they look stupid, and he’d probably be bullied every day after-school for his entire life, but I don’t think killing the poor bastard is going to improve that situation. While locked in a cell, an earthquake occurs, which busts open the door and allows him to leave. The only way that that could’ve been more contrived and arbitrary was if he secretly had a fairy Godmother all along, but whatever, its plot convenience. While exploring the castle, he sees a girl named Yorda, who should really consider tanning, locked in a cage. He busts her out, but apparently, they don’t speak the same language (for the record, all the languages in this game are made-up, but while Ico’s dialogue is subtitled in English, Yorda’s isn’t). Regardless, he drags her along and tries to escape the castle. After that, the story takes a backseat in the sense that it might as well be stuffed in the trunk. We learn some time in that apparently, Yorda’s mother is the Queen of the castle, and that she wants to use Yorda for something or another, but beyond that, we know nothing and learn nothing throughout the whole game.

Here's your story: GET YOUR ASSES OUT OF THERE!

That sounds incredibly basic, but the one gold star I’ll give this game is that it’s very atmospheric and lets you develop your own bonds with the characters. They never speak, but Ico (you, actually) is always looking after Yorda, making sure she’s able to reach where you are, clutching her hand to make sure she’s safe. While romance may be a strong word here (Ico can’t be more than 10 years old), the trusting bond the two develop is appropriately gradual and meaningful, which is very rare in the gaming industry, whose ordinary approach to romance is to shove it onto the main character to give him an objective when his girlfriend is inevitably kidnapped, and not only is it a very retarded and sexist set-up to being with, but its been done so many times that you simply don’t care. Princess Peach doesn’t even have a bloody personality, so for all we care, Mario might as well be looking for his car keys which he forget at Bower’s place, to cite the most popular example. At least keys are somewhat useful, unless you consider a cake every 5 years to be worth a galaxy-spanning adventure. Yorda herself doesn’t have a character either, but you can attribute that to A) Us not knowing what the hell she’s saying when she does speak and B) She actually doesn’t need one. You’re always looking after her, and you can’t help but care for her as time passes. There is absolutely no other human in the castle, so you’re the only one she can rely on, and it starts to become a big brother instinct to protect her. From a gameplay perspective, you need her to open doors for you, which she does through… magic, or something. That isn’t explained either. While you’ll certainly grow to care for her, though, you’ll also come to want to bloody kill her with the nearest blunt object, but that’s for later.

Its impossible to imagine these two alone, and not holding hands.

The gameplay centers mostly around platforming and puzzle solving to advance through castle, but both are basic to the extreme. The kind of platforming we’re talking about here is the Tomb Raider variety, mostly centering on jumping from ledge to ledge. It’s nothing special, but there’s a few frustrations to be dealt with. It’s often not clear what is a climbable ledge and what isn’t, and it’s hard to register if there is a ledge on a wall because of the damned camera, which is almost never at an optimal view-point and can’t be controlled to any meaningful extent. Sure, you can swerve it around, but that might as be equivalent to trying to remove a dirt patch from your shirt by spitting on it; for all the good you thought it might do, it isn’t going to make much of a difference. Even if the camera respected you, though, the ledges blend in so well with the rest of the wall that they’re still hard to see. I’m not asking for the ledges to be painted hot pink or something, like what Uncharted does, but at least make it obvious that I can climb it. There’s also an issue with Ico’s speed while navigating horizontal ledges: he’s just too bloody slow. I realize he’s a little boy and can’t reasonably be expected to be the equivalent of Lara Croft or Nathan Drake, but sacrificing gameplay to make that sort of statement is the point you’ve become TOO pretentious. Falling off and having to start all over again wouldn’t have been so painful if Ico would hurry his ass up a bit. It’s just bland overall, serving to connect the puzzles.

That's a good way to get yourself killed.

Now, when I say puzzles, don’t go in expecting something particularly challenging, like you might from Zelda. Its block pushing and torch lighting, just like those games, but it always obvious where to push blocks, and you’re never wanting for fire when you need it. The main challenge here is figuring out what does what… sometimes. You push a block onto a panel, a door opens. You pull a lever, and the camera swings to show the effects. Some puzzles are indeed fun and rewarding to accomplish, usually when they’re spread out across a large area, but this rarely occurs. There is one in particular I want to mention, though, because there’s no way the developers could’ve expected us to figure this out without a guide of some sort. It’s completely optional, but extremely worth it to make the combat less horrendous. There’s a point where you walk out of a room and find a tree outside. There’s no indication that its special, but smacking it with your sword causes it to drop a stone ball, and I refuse to believe something that heavy and of that shape can be sitting on a tree branch. You have to carry it into the room you just left, and push a wall that has no indication that it CAN be pushed, causing it to revolve. You carry the ball in and have to throw it into some sort of giant stone basket. You don’t throw often, thankfully, but the throwing mechanics in the game are ridiculously wonky, and thanks to the camera you can’t get a clear shot. After wasting 15 minutes trying to get the damn thing in, I managed to, and a goddamn MACE comes flying through the window and landing in front of me, destroying the immersion the game had created with its beautiful aesthetics and the characters’ relationship. And during a second playthrough, the weapon that flies in is, brace yourselves, A LIGHTSABER. In case the screenshots didn’t tip you off, this is supposed to be a medieval society at most, and in comes a lightsaber. I spent the next 5 minutes smashing my face against a wall. I bring all this up is because it’s the one really memorable puzzle in the entire game, and only then because it’s so damned obtuse.

If you squint your eyes really hard, you can almost pretend like you're playing No More Heroes... with crappier combat.

The game also has combat sections that occur rather frequently, and rewind 255 words, and you’ll see I described it as ‘horrendous’. You’re pit against about 5-12 shadowy… things at a time and have to vanquish them. What’s unique is that you yourself don’t have any sort of life bar and can’t possibly die during these encounters, but the enemies aren’t concerned about you; they’re after Yorda, and drag her into a dark pit of darkness if they manage to grab her. This does help reinforce that relationship business I was banging on about earlier, but that bit about wanting to kill Yorda yourself partly comes into play here: she refuses to bloody run away or escape. Ok, she can’t defend herself, fine; she looks as though she’s made out of tooth picks and liquid glue anyway. Yes, making her able to run away would make things too easy, but there’s absolutely nothing more frustrating than you dropping Yorda’s hand for a couple of seconds to thwack at a monster only to have her kidnapped by one that was flying overhead that you didn’t see because of the bloody camera. It isn’t too hard to get her back, though; a single attack will cause the monster to drop her, and even if it did manage to get her to the dark pit of darkness, there’s enough time for you to grab her hand before you’re handed a Game Over screen. No, what makes the combat ‘horrendous’ is the fact that it’s boring as hell. Ico can’t do more than swing his weapon for a 3-hit combo; the fanciest you can get in this game is a jump attack. Again, I know he isn’t meant to be a powerhouse, but also again, the moment you drop ‘fun’ to make an artistic statement is the moment you need to be beat with the humility stick  a few times before being dragged to Confucius to be sternly lectured about hubris. The fights are never challenging, since the most anyone can do to you is knock you down for several seconds (which IS incredibly annoying, because that’s their chance to grab Yorda), and you can’t do more than smash the Square button. Attacking them with you’re starting weapon, a stick, is like trying to take out an unmanned tank with a pistol; it can’t do much to you, but it still takes too long, and you’ll probably stop caring halfway through. I wouldn’t mind THAT much if the game didn’t insist on forcing you into combat every 5 minutes, so you’re taking on an ARMY of unmanned tanks with a pistol. You can immediately vaporize all enemies by taking Yorda to a gate, but there aren’t enough opportunities to do this. It got so boring that I actually started to feel dread when I heard the combat chime kick in. The platforming and puzzling are passable, but the combat starts bland, becomes boring, and finally makes you want to pull your teeth out.

Oh, PISSING HELL!!

Finally, there’s Yorda’s AI. I mentioned that she does nothing at all during fights, but that’s the least of the problems you’ll have with her. When you’re not holding her hand, she just wanders about, like a puppy distracted by a butterfly. You can call out for her to join you, but some situations can’t be fixed by this. Sometimes you need her to stand on a switch to keep a door open, but once you drag her to it, she sometimes immediately walks off it, forcing you to go back and forth and pray she sits tight long enough that you can walk through the door. Sometimes you call to her to climb down a ladder, but just as she reaches the ground, she perplexingly starts climbing up again, and won’t stop till she reaches the top. And some of the ladders in this game are bloody tall, which leads to moments of me smashing the R1 button, calling to her to get her stupid ass down. These are minor issues overall, but it really brings me out of the connection I was feeling to the girl.

Which is sad, because I really did grow to care for her...

Heavily criticizing a cult classic is a dangerous job, and I’ve done a thorough enough job ripping this game apart. Before ICO fans try to figure out what weapon would be best suited to caving my head in, though, I’d like to say that regardless of the incredibly average gameplay experience, I still genuinely enjoyed ICO. I’m still not entirely sure what exactly ‘Art’ is when the term is applied to video games and movies, but the closest I’ve gotten to a concrete answer is, “Saying much with little”. ICO certainly does that; for a game with a basic set-up and very few cutscenes, I got so connected to the characters and the setting that I was willing to drag myself through the game just to see Ico and Yorda succeed. I’d be a bloody liar if I said I didn’t well up a bit during the ending, something that has happened about never during my gaming experience. It’s a game I’d recommend getting if you feel like emotionally connecting to a game, something you can actually care about. The interactivity part of video games is what will always put them ahead of movies in terms of immersion, and that immersion has the potential to make you seriously care. A game sacrificing fun for an artistic point is something I will always frown upon, but I really don’t remember much about the bad points of the game when I think about it; I remember protecting Yorda and holding her hand to make sure she was alright. It’s something I’d recommend everyone try; there’s nothing quite like it. As much as I enjoyed it, though, this isn’t the star of the ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection; the latter is where you’re getting your money’s worth here.