ICO tells the story of a young boy born with horns, and who is taken to be locked away from his village because of it. As he attempts to escape the castle which he has been confined to, he stumbles upon a mysterious girl in white in a hanging cage. The girl is from another world and is barely able to communicate with Ico apart from simple signals (such as pointing, or a shake of the head) and simple noises in order to catch his attention. As Ico and the girl attempt to escape the castle, dark creatures from another world attempt to grab and take her away from you, and you need to drag her out of the vortexes to the other world (which these creatures spawn from) before she is captured, and before Ico and his world is are turned to stone.
ICO is a puzzle-platformer and is developed by Fumito Ueda's Team Ico. The game's gameplay is based on Ico manoeuvring himself around one section in order to get to the next through a number of different actions, such as climbing, jumping, using switches, and setting off bombs (among other things), but since the girl who he meets - Yorda - is not as agile as Ico you must manoeuvre your surroundings and the environment around you in order to allow her to proceed to gates which only she can open, and to allow the two of you to proceed and continue your escape. The camera in ICO can be a little hit-and-miss at times. It moves its position and focus as you move around the world, and it does allow you to tilt it in certain directions to a certain degree but for the most part (apart from the earliest stages of the game) you have to stick with the camera that the game gives you and the general tightness of it at times can become a bit of a hassle in a few areas. It's nothing major and won't hinder you from getting around (well, it will very rarely hinder you) but it can become a little frustrating in areas where you need to change direction frequently in a short space of time, such as climbing a windmill.
Platforming in general in ICO is pretty good, in fact you may be (as I was) quite surprised at how much interaction with the environment you actually have. You can set your wooden stick on fire in order to light panels or in order to set alight a bomb, you can cut ropes with your sword, you can blow up and destroy columns [better word], and you can move around boxes in order to allow Ico and Yorda to reach higher points; remembering and trying all of these differing possible actions is key to figuring out parts of the puzzling pathways which will lead you to your exit.
You also obviously need to interact with Yorda. One button is all it takes: you can call her to come towards you and the same button will allow you to grab her hand and bring her along with you even faster if you are close enough. If you are on top of a ledge which is too high for her to reach you can lean down and offer her your hand so that you can pull her up, and similarly you can offer her your hand in the case that a jump she needs to make may be just a little too far for her to make herself. The game is focused on you navigating the world with Yorda but since her abilities and movement is limited the puzzling aspect of the game mostly comes from you needing to find the not-so-nimble girl passage through each area. It is a very different type of game to most typical puzzle-platformers but that's part of what makes ICO the unique title that it is, especially in that there are areas where you will simply just have to find your own way across an area, others where you just have to find a path for Yorda, and others where you will need to find a way to navigate both of the main characters through the area. The inclusion of the fiendish enemies too is an extra cause for concern as if you stray too far away from Yorda enemies will appear and try to take her away, so you need to take into account your distance from your amiable friend in addition to the puzzle-platform mechanics already in place. Admittedly this can become a bit of a nuisance in some areas, particularly when in a large area in which vortexes can be located either right next to you or on the other side of the map, but it's part of the experience and a piece of the puzzle, questioning "am I right to leave her here, or there?". "Should I even go here or am I leaving her too much at risk?"
Combat in ICO is fairly simple but has a different style to it than what you would see in most platformers. The enemies that you face are the dark creatures sent (presumably) from another world, and their aim is not to kill you but to catch and stop Yorda from escaping, and so all that they will do to you is knock you over to get you out of the way. These creatures head straight for Yorda to restrain her, and then pull her into a vortex. You need to get back to her in time to pull her out of that vortex and then fight off the creatures with melee attacks. Most of the enemies are winged and so they take the cheeky (and smart) option of teasing you, backing-off until you chase them, and then flying directly over you and swiftly grabbing Yorda while she is vulnerable.
The game is played in almost complete silence apart from the noise of the boy's footsteps, birds flying overhead, the rushing of water, and other features of the world around you, and this silence is part of what makes the world of ICO so beautiful. The game is so wonderfully aesthetically pleasing despite displaying fairly similar surroundings for the majority of the game. There is a certain absence of enemies in the game too. When they come they can really comes in drones at times, but they're never they're sitting waiting for you, and even in combat there is a general feeling of melancholy and solitude. You can almost feel the struggle of Yorda to break free from these dark minions who try to take her away, just as you can almost feel the strain in Ico as he tries to stave away these creatures and drag Yorda out of the depths. One of the nicest touches of the game for me was the very light but consistent vibration felt when Ico holds his hand out for Yorda and pulls her along. It is such a simple thing and something that may go unnoticed by many players, but the gentleness of the feeling in your hands almost perfectly captures what you'd expect the light-stepping Yorda's clasp feels like as she is almost helplessly directed along, it is such a wonderful touch to the game, as is the cuteness of the boy and girl waking up from a sleep on the save-game couch after you load up a save. They are only kids after all and they need their rest!
ICO is extremely light on narrative and dialogue too. As Yorda and ICO speak different languages they can only interact through physical movements like signals or calling the other person's attention. If you become unstuck in certain areas and you are close to solving the next puzzle Yorda will often give you a hint and point towards an area to aid you. This is all part of what Ueda called the "subtracting design" which formed the basis for ICO and how it told its narrative and set the dominating atmosphere of the game. Very few cutscenes, very few enemies to face, little dialogue, a muted world, and the physical bond of the boy's hand gripping the girl's changing to an emotional bond as the close of their journey and their escape comes ever closer - these are the things Ueda and Kenji Kaido wanted to focus on in order to make ICO as simple as possible and in order to create the world of immersion in ICO. "Less elements, but more care to each that remain", as Ueda said at his presentation at GDC in 2002.
One of the notable things about ICO's world and gameplay style is how influential it seems to have been. You can look at a number of different titles released since the game (not to mention the acclaim the title and Team ICO have received for it) which seem to take a lot of inspiration from the game world design and system. The 2008 Prince of Persia reboot has its focus on a similar gameplay style to that of ICO with two characters travelling together in order to help one another navigate the world. A quick look at another Ubisoft series, Assassin's Creed, seems to take some architectural and platforming inspiration from ICO. Just last year Phil Fish, designer at Polytron of Xbox Live indie title Fez, said that Ueda's game design philosophy behind ICO inspired the title, as did the theme and feeling of "lonely isolation". But one of the latest titles out which seems to have taken a great influence from ICO is Japanese developer From Software's Dark Souls. The second title in the Souls series has a number of very similar-styled locations and architecture (particularly in the early part of the game in the Undead Asylum area, which as the name tells you is based on a high, towering sanctuary) , and has a large but interconnected world which brings you back to the same areas time and time again but at different times and for differing reasons. Despite the game being based on its difficulty in encountering enemies there is always a feeling of and a focus on your character's isolation in Lordran: you very rarely come across other humans in the world and even in the online sphere of the game you will only come into contact with phantoms of other characters, not their real selves. There is also a real lack of dialogue and narrative in Dark Souls: an introductory cutscene briefly explaining the area of Lordran and the reason why it receives few visitors and the ending are the only real cutscenes in the game, and your own character never speaks apart from answering 'yes' or 'no' to proposals from some of the people you meet. ICO wasn't a critical hit when it first landed in stores in 2001 but its influence through its art, narrative, gameplay style on the industry and on so many titles since its release is clear to see when you take a deeper look.
For a game with such little dialogue and such few cutscenes ICO tells a wonderful, engaging tale. The desolation and sweet yet almost-silent ambience sets the tone for the game and helps tell the story to you. The dearth of enemies in the world (and that gasp of Yorda's when she sees them, which in the oh-so quiet style of the world can send a strike of shock right through your body, and ever so swiftly) emphasises how lonely and isolated the two main characters of this world really are, and perhaps how far away from freedom they are. Platforming in ICO is solid and the 'puzzle' part of the puzzle-plaformer genre the game falls into becomes even more important because there are so many different ways in which you can interact with your environment which requires you to always keep your thinking cap on. ICO may be a relatively short and simple title when you get down to the bare-bones of it but a simple yet high-quality title is what Team Ico aimed for, and what ICO does it does brilliantly and beautifully.