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Ico | review | game | Lollipop


(SECA for the PS2)
by Eric Johnson

The curved horns growing from Ico's skull have made him the village pariah. He's looked upon as a bad omen and has only been allowed to live because when he reaches adolescence he will be sacrificed. At the age of twelve, he's taken blindfolded to a remote castle, abandoned by the living, where subsequent generations of horned children have been brought to die. Circumstances allow him to escape from the crypt he was sealed in, but getting out of the beautifully-rendered decaying palace is going to be quite difficult. An army of shadows and mind-bending puzzles stand in the way of his freedom. Accompanying him on his escape is the lethargic, ethereal heir to this vast haunted keep, a girl named Yorda who he found suspended in a birdcage high above the floor of an impossibly high tower.

This is a very strange, very unique, very simple and low-key adventure. You are Ico, the girl follows you. You are human, she is not. She can do little more than open major doors, which you cannot. What you can do is climb rocks, run, jump, swim, climb ropes, pull levers, push stones, fight off evil spirits with a stick, and drag Yorda from one end of this dreary place to the other. Finding your way out involves finding paths through rooms of unimaginable scale and confronting a never-ending series of dead-ends that can always be circumvented somehow.

You may find a room in which the floor between you and the exit is bisected by a bottomless pit. Careful examination may reveal a chain to swing across with, a lip of molding to inch along, or a weakened roof beam that can be broken with a bomb or falling chandelier and used as a bridge. Such puzzles start out quite easy and familiarize you with navigating this strange world, but they soon get astonishingly hard.

Occasionally, while you're working your ass off to find a way out of this hellhole, a void will open up in the floor and a squad of shadows will come out to take Yorda back to her mother. If this happens, drop everything and start swinging at them with your trusty block of wood. Most of the time, they can't kill you, and eventually they will stop regenerating. But if they get the girl, you're finished. It would've been nice if the fighting were a little more engaging. As it is, the fighting is not challenging enough to be a major component of the game, but I understand what the designers were getting at. The monsters just give you something else to keep in mind – they allow for moments of tension in an otherwise tranquil adventure.

Ico is an instantly accessible game, very easy to pick up and become lost in. This is not a game to rush through, and although some of the riddles you face are frustrating as hell, there's always a solution. And it will never involve a series of precariously-timed jumps from one crumbling platform to another. This is not that type of game. I know the basic premise of pulling levers and finding your way through elaborate puzzles sounds like the most generic form of video game possible, but this is very different from what you have previously encountered. The pacing, graphics, and sound conspire to lull you into a subdued, inquisitive, patient mindset where careful examination of the dusty, sunbeam-pierced halls and atriums takes place. The developers did a great job of endowing this game with its own unique visual style. Unlike most games from Japan, the characters actually look like young people, which makes the twisted and fantastic architecture seem all the more dreamlike and magical. The characters speak in a completely foreign dialect, and when supernatural creatures speak, strange hieroglyphic subtitles appear at the bottom of the screen. A great deal of labor was poured into this title, and the result deserves recognition. It's not for the impatient. If I hadn't been given a free copy of it, I never would've given it a chance. But once I began playing it, I found it hypnotic and beautiful.

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