Retrospective: Ico

Before I started Ico, all I knew about it was that it was one of those games that people always mention when arguing that video games are art. With that being all I knew, I was pretty excited for whatever Ico was going to be. Sadly that would prove to be the only time I was ever excited about anything to do with Ico.

Ico Retrospective

Developer: Team Ico
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 2
Players: Single-Player, Co-op
Genre: Action-Adventure
Release: (NA) September 24th 2001, (JP) December 6th 2001, (EU) March 22nd 2002

What’s It About?

You are Ico, a young boy who has just been banished from his village and imprisoned in an ancient castle. In this castle he meets Yorda, a young girl who has also been imprisoned. As Ico, your mission is to explore the castle with Yorda and find a means of escape.

You explore areas of the castle and solve puzzles (often involving blocks) to open up new paths for yourself and Yorda. Every now and then shadowy creatures will appear to capture Yorda and you fight them off; if she gets taken you lose. Mechanically it’s a very simple game, which is fine because they are trying to accomplish something beyond mechanics. Something which that makes Yorda the most important part of this game.

Yorda.

Look, I understand what they were trying to do with Yorda in this game. I understand that they were trying to create an NPC character that you the player could form an emotional connection with over the course of the game. I’ve played Fable 2, I’ve played BioShock Infinite. I’ve played games where the developer has tried to make me feel a connection for NPCs and sometimes I do make those connections. I love that dog from Fable II, I think Elizabeth is a top notch gal. But there is a very important attribute that those two characters have that Yorda sadly lacks, and that attribute is that neither are frustrating.

There are two big reasons that Yorda fails as a character for me to care about.

Ico Retrospective

Reason number one: Yorda is slow.

For some reason Yorda has been programmed to run at about three quarters of the speed that the player runs at. This is an obvious problem in a game built around exploring together. Unless you want to spend a lot of time standing around waiting for her to slowly jog over to where you are, you’re going to need to hold her hand the entire time you play. Except you aren’t really holding her hand while you both run together. You’re more dragging her along behind you while she moves jerkily, caught between the speed that Ico runs and the speed that she runs.

“Hey James,” you might be asking yourself, “does this make it constantly look like Ico is trying to abduct Yorda from a supermarket or something?” Yes, I would respond.

“Hey James,” you might further ask, “does it seem a bit iffy that this game is largely about a kid that looks like he’s twelve forcibly dragging a girl who is definitely older than he is around? Aren’t games like that the reason that things like Tropes Vs Video Games were made?” Pretty much, I would respond.

Yorda’s slowness doesn’t just apply to her running, it applies to everything she does. Climbing ledges? Slow. Opening doors? Slow. Climbing ladders? This one time I waited a full thirty seconds for her to climb up a ladder only to have her A.I. glitch at the top so she climbed all the way back down and then all the way back up again. So yeah, she climbs ladders pretty slowly. None of this is helped by pathfinding that frequently has her doing things like climbing (slowly) onto boxes and then dropping off the side of them instead of just walking around them.

Ico Retrospective

Reason number two: Yorda has no personality, urgency or sense of self-preservation.

Yorda is completely absent of personality. She is absent to the point where she doesn’t even have dialogue. She speaks in a language which Ico (and the player) do not understand. She is kind of like a baby duck that has imprinted on you and is just following you around, which would be kind of endearing if it weren’t for the already mentioned speed and pathfinding problems.

Worse than her lack of personality is the fact that Yorda will not do anything by herself. She will stand in one place unless called or dragged away. She can’t climb a ledge or make a jump without you to help her. If enemies come after her, she will just stand there until she is either captured or you save her. She is one of the most passive women I have ever seen in a game and maybe that was fine in the distant past of 2001, but this is 2014 and I am sick of playing games full of useless, passive women. At least she isn’t needlessly sexualised. At least there is that one, bare minimum thing about her.

Visuals

When it comes to reviewing old games it’s always difficult to know how lenient to be with how they look. Ico is over a decade old at this point so graphically I really wasn’t expecting it to set my world on fire or anything. Of course, that’s why this section is called Visuals and not Graphics because, ultimately, it’s not how many polygons you can crank out but what you’re doing with them that matters.

On that note…man, there sure is a lot of browns and greys in this game. A big brown and grey castle filled with lots of brown and grey rooms. Sometimes you get to go outside where there is lots of rich, green grass and (cloudy) blue skies and the game momentarily becomes nice to look at. But then you are quickly ushered back indoors to look at more stone floors and stone walls.

Controls

You know how sometimes you play a game and the controls are like a fluid ballet of movement where you get this almost magical connection with your character, and every action is exactly what you want to happen? This is not one of those games.

There is just something frustratingly clunky about how Ico moves. There is no smooth acceleration into a run or swift turns, there is just awkward staggered movements and somehow the jumping is even worse. To be blunt about it, the jump controls in this game are bad and this is a problem in a game with as much platform jumping as this one has.

Ico Retrospective

This is also a game that makes the unfortunate choice to use fixed camera angles. If I was a developer that put a lot of time and effort into my environments I would think giving the player control of the camera would be a neat way for them to further explore those environments, but I guess Team ICO thought differently. Controlling the camera would also have made it a lot easier to line up jumps but I guess that’s not what they decided to do.

I guess someone at Team ICO thought it would be a really cool idea to have fixed camera angles for all the jumps. Maybe they wanted to make things unnecessarily difficult? I guess that’s why there are also some jumps where the fixed camera will change positions just as you’re about to hit the jump button after getting a run up. I guess someone on the development team figured it would be fun and challenging to have to suddenly re-angle your jump halfway through, so you fall to your death and have to go back ten minutes to the last save point.

Combat

You know that bit I just wrote about the controls not being very fluid? You better believe that applies to the combat. Combat is simple enough in theory; you press a button and Ico swings his stick (later a sword) and that’s pretty much it. But the frustration lies in how slow and clumsy those swings are (And if you want Ico to, say, turn around while he’s attacking? You better clear your schedule is all I’m saying).

Maybe Team ICO was going for the feeling of being this normal kid with no fighting experience suddenly having to fight to save someone else’s life but, lets be honest, that never works in games. Making a game that controls badly so you feel like the character feels would be like making a movie out of focus so you get to experience what your near-sighted protagonist sees. It is just an extra barrier between the player and control of the character they are trying to inhabit.

Ico Retrospective

Controls aside the other issue I had with combat was that, and this might just have been me, I didn’t figure out until over halfway through the game that enemies can actually be killed. See, the way combat generally works is that you enter a room with some sort of puzzle that needs to be solved and a couple of portals open up, and enemies start popping up. You hit enemies with your stick until they fall down and dissolve but then new enemies immediately spawn out of the portal. There is zero indication that these portals will not just spawn enemies forever. Consequently I spent a lot of time running back and forth between whatever block puzzle I was working on and saving Yorda (why I can’t just give Yorda one of these spare sticks and let her defend herself, I have no idea). But again, maybe that’s just me, maybe I’m just super dumb and this particular problem isn’t the games fault.

Exploration

Exploration is the one part of this game I actually enjoyed. Wandering through this enormous castle, solving puzzles, opening up new paths for more exploration. Fun times.

Well, it would be fun times if you didn’t have to drag Yorda around with you because if you get too far away from her enemies will capture her and then it’s straight back to your last save point. Unless it’s one of those areas where you’re supposed to go exploring and leave her own her own while you open a passage for her. It sure is fun working out when the game wants you to leave her behind and when the game will punish you for leaving her behind.

Ico Retrospective

Also, when I say I enjoyed the exploration I mean I enjoyed the exploration compared to the rest of the game. The problem with this castle is that it is a) enormous and b) empty which means exploring lots of large empty areas. Again, maybe this is meant to invoke a feeling of loneliness in the player but for me, it just invoked feelings of “Oh gee, another empty brown and grey area. How different”. There is also no music in this game, there is just wind and your echoing footsteps as your run around this giant castle. It gets old real fast.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t play this game when it came out back in 2001. I was too busy playing Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Max Payne, and not actually owning a Playstation. Maybe when this game hit it was a huge deal. Maybe Yorda was revolutionary in terms of NPCs that follow you around in a game.(It has not escaped my notice that the dog from Fable II, my personal benchmark for attachment to NPCs, came out seven years after Ico did). Maybe it was a huge deal in 2001 but this isn’t 2001, this is 2014 and this is a review of the game based solely on it’s own merits and not what it may or may not have meant for the industry at the time.

Bottom line: it’s neat that they were trying to make a game where the player forms an emotional attachment to an NPC but the technology for that NPC’s A.I. is nowhere near where it needs to be, and the whole game suffers from awkward controls and bland visual design. Play this game if you are interested in the historical development of NPCs but otherwise give it a miss.

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