Monday, April 8, 2013

Ico (Team Ico, 2001)

Months ago, when I was playing through Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, I heard that it was greatly influenced by a game called Ico. At the time I'd never heard of Ico, so I looked up a couple youtube videos of it, thought it looked pretty cool, and then completely forgot about it. More recently while playing through God of War, I heard that it too was influenced by Ico. This time it really got my attention, so I started looking for more information about it. It turns out that this little game that I'd never heard of had directly influenced a lot of games including one of my all time favorites, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. At this point, I just had to play through it. I started looking online for a copy for PS2 when I found that it was included in a PS3 HD bundle. I had some gift cards left over from the holidays, so I picked up a copy that weekend from a local shop, and as soon as I'd finished God of War, it was time to finally see what all of the fuss was about.

Needless to say, I went into this game with my expectations high. In hindsight, that was probably a bad move, but more on that later. The first thing I have to say is that the PS3 HD release looks great! After just playing through one of the best looking PS2 games ever released, I had the perfect perspective on just how much the additional HD detail added to the look of the game. The game's atmosphere is dark and lonely and goes great with the minimalist story. As soon as I started playing it I could see how it must have influenced so many games that came after it.

After I got used to the atmosphere, the game's puzzles really started to make an impact on me. They were mostly platforming based puzzles, and I can see how they influenced the Prince of Persia games that came after, but there was something off about it. The platforming didn't feel right. I'm not just saying that it wasn't up to Prince of Persia standards because not much is, but something just felt off about it. After just playing through God of War, I was able to overlook the not quite right platforming mechanics because it didn't have the best feeling platforming either. But still, the puzzles in Ico seemed to rely on the platforming a lot more than the puzzles in God of War did. Something just felt a bit off.

The puzzles in this game are devious. They really force you to think, but they also rely on having knowledge that is never presented. In fact, very little knowledge is ever presented in this game. I'd say that this game doesn't involve hand holding except for the fact that the majority of this game is based around hand holding. (more on that later) I'll give an example. There's a section fairly early in the game where it's obvious that you need to get a stone structure to fall, but your only clue on how to do it is that there are candles nearby. The solution is that you need to go into a different room, find a large bomb. The problem is that the rooms all have a lot of vases in them, and the bombs that are in a completely different room all look a lot like vases, and the game has not in any way implied that there are bombs anywhere by this point. This pretty much sets the tone for how a lot of the game felt. It's not that the puzzles are insanely hard, it's just that I felt the game wasn't establishing the rules I was expected to follow.

I mentioned the hand holding earlier. That's because you spend the game dragging a girl named Yorda around a castle while holding her hand. Yes, the entire game is one long escort mission. Yorda doesn't generally follow around you either, you have to take her hand and lead her around behind you while sometimes looking like you're yanking her arm out of her socket. When she's across the room you can call her to come to you, and when she's farther away you can yell for her and she may or may not make her way slowly towards you. If you leave Yorda alone for too long, bad things happen. So, you spend most the game dragging her around behind you.

It's not all puzzle solving and platforming though. What kind of escort mission would it be without something to protect Yorda from? To fill that need, this game has blob monsters. Lots of games have had some form of blob monster. Kingdom Hearts and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes come to mind, possibly also influenced by Ico. The blob monsters here are solid black creatures covered in solid black particle effects. Every so often I could catch glimpses of shape that implied that some artist probably spent a lot of time sculpting these creatures only to have all of that work nullified by the unshaded rendering and over use of particles. What you see on the screen for the most part is a wiggly black blob. They actually look pretty impressive the first time you see them, but since all of the enemies have the same blobby effect on them, they all tend to look alike and the enemy encounters start to get redundant feeling.

But who cares what it looks like, how does it play? To describe Ico's combat in one word, squishy. Every time I fought an enemy, it just felt squishy. Early in the game you use a wooden stick to fight, which later gets replaced by better weapons. No matter what weapon you have, it just doesn't feel right. You have one attack to use against enemies. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just goes right through them. Sometimes they wait on the ground where you can't hit them for no good reason until they finally just decide to pop up. Sometimes they just fly away as soon as you get close enough to hit them and you have to chase them around the room. If you ever get hit, you get knocked to the ground, and it takes way too long before you're able to stand up again. Meanwhile, the blob monsters are constantly trying to grab Yorda and pull her down into the nearest blob hole. If they do, it's game over, so you need to go and pull her back out of the hole so you can drag her around more while trying to swing at the blobs.

The average combat sequence goes something like this. You drag Yorda into a new area. The way is blocked, so you have to climb up some elaborate platforming course to get to a switch or something. Yorda can't climb, so you have to leave her there. You get a little over half way to the switch and the blob monsters show up. You quickly try to make you way back down the elaborate platforming course in order to just barely have time to pull her out of the nearest blob hole and then engage in an extended session of squishy blob monster combat. Once they're all gone, you start over on the elaborate platforming course. The elaborate platforming courses are actually pretty fun to figure out the first time through them, but they are made considerably less fun by having to run through them three times in a row like this.

Making matters worse is the camera system that never quite lets you get a good look at whatever it is you're supposed to see. After how much I enjoyed the automated camera system in God of War, I was surprised by how irritated this one made me. A lot of the puzzles spanned large areas, and it was never possible to get a good look at everything at once to try to figure out a solution without some degree of blind trial and error. The right analog stick lets you see a little more of what's around you, but not how you would expect. How far the stick is pulled from center directly effects how far from its default angle the camera wants to turn, but then it travels to that new position at its own slow pace making it extremely difficult to ever point it where you want. Plus, the camera pivots in place rather than orbiting the player like in most games, so the perspective never changes, making simple tasks like standing in the right spot to jump up and grab a hanging chain into a guessing game.

Then there are the save game couches. There's no other furniture in the entire castle, but whoever built it must have had a thing for couches. In order to save your game, you first have to find a couch, then sit on it, then convince Yorda to eventually also wander over to the couch and sit down next to you. The placement of these couches throughout the game is pretty inconsistent. Sometimes they're at the beginning of a new area, sometimes at the end, and sometimes just randomly in the middle. Sometimes you finish a difficult section, and then don't see another one for half an hour. Sometimes they're in two rooms in a row. The last couch you ever see in the game (and I verified this on a walkthrough) is over two hours from the end of the game. That means if you're the type of gamer who generally only has an hour at a time to play, you will probably never finish this game.

The graphics look sharp and detailed throughout the game, and at any point it generally looks good, but after a while all of the grayish brownish brick textures start to look very similar. There's not a lot of visual variety in this game. I understand that it all takes place in the same castle, but so do most Castlevania games and they still manage to make new areas feel new, even in their 8-bit versions.

I know I've been complaining a lot so far in this review, but I don't want to make it sound like this was a bad game. If I'd played this game before playing all of the games that it influenced I'm sure it would have had a much stronger impression on me. If I hadn't played it right after playing through God of War I might have overlooked a lot of what bugged me about this game. There really was a lot about this game that I enjoyed. The final areas of the game in particular had a much different pace to them as you ventured into new areas. The final boss battle was creatively presented. The overall minimalistic story was well done and kept my interest. In fact, I'd say that Ico's biggest fault was simply in not living up to my expectations. It wasn't my favorite gaming experience, but it's one that I'm glad I had none the less.

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