One of the big issues with modern gaming is whether or not video games should be considered art. Too bad that the word "art" gets thrown around the industry so much these days that it's little more than a buzz word. When the subject does come up, one of the games most ofen associated with the word "art" is Ico. Although I remain undecided on the issue myself, I can say that I don't even want video games to be considered art, if it means more "art" games like this.
The game's story revolves around Ico, a boy born with horns in a town were such people are blamed for any hardships or disasters that befall the village. When he reaches a certain age, he is taken to a nearby ancient castle, and is abandoned as a sacrifice. As Ico, the goal of the game is to escape the castle and reach the outside. Along the way, you meet a mysterious girl named Yorda, and the relationship between Ico and Yorda is the element most often cited as what makes Ico so great.
I will admit that there's a sort of quaint effectiveness to this relationship, largely unspoken and conveyed mostly by the characters' animations. It's a simple way of developing characters, and in this case it actually works pretty well, allowing events late in game to pay off with real emotion. My beef with the story is, however, that it's not really anything that hasn't been done before. It's about as simplistic as a story can be without being "defeat the villain, save the princess." Actually, and this may constitute spoilers, in the end that's really all it is.
The reason why this is supposedly unique and worth calling art is because you control the characters, and therefore have more emotional connection to them. That's not really the case, as one could easily imagine this same story working just as well as a short film, or even a picture book. Even a painting, a single still image, could invoke all of the emotions and developments seen in this game. In fact, such an image exists, as I imagine that just looking at the original Japanese cover art coveys the exact same experience one could have from actually playing the game. (Minus all of the tedious fighting and repetitive puzzles, of course, which I'll get to in a minute.) The minimalist storytelling doesn't help either, as the game goes whole hours without any plot developments at all, which is really saying something when the game is only about 9 hours long.
When you really think about it, the video game format actually decreases the emotional impact of the story. As you watch Ico fall to his death after a fumbled jump, or see Yorda carted off by the bad guys into the darkness, only to be perfectly fine after selecting "continue" from the game over screen, it really starts to diminish the feeling that these two are in any real danger. By the end, you may be too frustrated trying to get Ico to jump at the right angle or getting Yorda to cooperate to even care about them as characters anymore.
If this story is truly art, then it should warrant endless discussion and debate on its underlying themes, character motivations, and further interpretations. However, thanks to the minimalist approach to the story, there's not really much to discuss. There is, however, the ending to take into account. It's a pretty neat sequence, open to various interpretations, and almost worth slogging through the rest of the game to reach. Other than that, the experience of playing Ico probably won't remain in your thoughts much longer than the nine hours it will take you to finish it.
I could end the review there, but the plot and characters are only a small part of the experience. The tip of the ice berg, so to speak.
The bulk of the game is spent solving puzzles to advance further through the castle. Although a handful of these segments are rewarding and legitimately clever, there are only about 2 or 3 really good puzzles in the entire game. The rest of them consist of pushing crates, pulling levers, and standing on switches. Most of the rest of the game is spent jumping around like a spastic monkey, swinging from chains, climbing up ledges and ladders, and shimmying along railings and gutters. Admittedly, these platforming elements are well integrated into the environment, but only about half of the time. There are plenty of item placements that defy logic, like the presence of crates and switches everywhere, or bombs placed right next to the fragile structures you need to destroy with them. Not that Zelda-esque bombs are exactly organic to the setting in the first place.
Speaking of the setting, the castle is often cited as being a work of art in and of itself, but many of the rooms don't seem to have much of a practical purpose, and their placement and sequence seems to have been decided at random. And why, exactly, is there a large metal crane holding an industrial crate standing in the middle of an ancient castle? Luigi's Mansion had a more consistent setting, but I don't see it getting called a work of art anywhere.
In a desperate attempt to inject some action, there are several combat segments, but they feel tacked on, and it's one of the most tedious fighting systems I've ever seen. You don't even take damage when hit, and your enemies can't even kill you. Instead, they attempt to take Yorda away, and you have to whack them with a stick before they take her too far. It's mind numbing and repetitive busywork, amounting to "mash the attack button until they disappear". it's never even a tiny bit challenging, and almost always boring, with the designers deciding that increasing the difficulty meant sending waves after waves of identical enemies. Seriously, the enemy variety is pathetic. There are about 6 different enemy models with differing behaviors and hit points. However, since they're all the same sort of wispy shadow creatures, and the "mash X until dead" method works for practically all of them, it feels like you're fighting the same enemy over, and over, and over again.
During these fight scenes you have to protect Yorda, and she proves to be a real pain to deal with. She'll sometimes try to get away from the monsters, but she's so slow and unresponsive that if you don't completely baby-sit her, she'll get caught. You'll usually have to literally take her by the hand and drag her away from enemies.
You also have to lead her around while exploring the castle, and she's completely incapable of doing even the simplest of tasks without your help. You have to help her up the shortest of ledges, across the smallest of gaps, and forcibly drag her if you need her in a certain spot for a puzzle. Some people like to say that Yorda is retarded. I think it's no joke.
Also while dealing with Yorda, you'll encounter one of the most obnoxious sound effects to ever be featured in a video game. It's not as bad as that "BANG BANG BANG" noise from the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, but it's pretty close. Whenever Yorda is far away from you, and you need her to come closer, you press a button to call out to her. You might expect a whistle or something, but what you get instead is a shrill "HOY! HOY! HOY!" This is the one sound effect you will hear more than any other throughout the game, and it doesn't help that there is very little music.
Under more acute scrutiny, the graphics meet the same judgment as the story, in that they are often praised as being more than they really are. The game is usually said to be visually stunning, with striking contrasts between light and shadow. Yes, the contrast is there, but would it have killed them to inject some color into the proceedings? Although it is nice to see some green. And some of the dark areas and shadows are too dark! Many of the textures, both environmental and on characters, are also blurry, washed-out, or pixelated. Although it was an early PS2 game, the graphics almost look like they belong on the original Playstation.
Although there are things to admire here, there isn't enough to the actual game design to consider Ico true art. With so little substance at its core, it has no business being a video game at all. It's too easy, too simple, too repetitive, and too short. It's like the story and characters are brilliant, lavishly crafted book ends, while the actual books between them are just filler. Then, one takes one of the books off the shelf, only to find that the pages are blank. The stench of mediocrity permeates the whole work, but the praise that's been showered upon it is far more malodorous.
Sorry, Ico, but your princess is in another castle.