Ten years, two games: Team Ico knows how to leave you wanting more. While it has been fun to replay God of War and Sly Cooper, few series are more deserving of a re-release in HD than ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. Maybe you were never able to snag one of the relatively rare copies of ICO, maybe your PS2 struggled with framerate during SotC, whether this is your first experience with ICO and SotC or you're returning to well for more awesome you won't be disappointed. It's hard to believe the games were made a generation ago, they're just so stinking good - and good-looking.
The fairy-tale worlds of ICO and SotC suspend disbelief and are the two finest examples of gameplay centered storytelling. With relatively few cutscenes and even less dialog/voiceover, this is a story you play through, and the experience is richer for it. If you've already played Ico and SotC, this next time with Ico is that much more poignant. Ico is young boy with a pair of horns, and a sacrifice. Locked in a chamber by a group of men and left in the strange castle, he escapes his stone prison and in trying to leave finds and frees a young girl, Yorda, from a cage. They may not speak the same language, but they're the only living thing they've seen (aside from some wily pigeons) and that makes for a strong bond.
As you direct Ico and Yorda through the puzzle-riddled castle, you will notice something strange: Team Ico has made an entire game around everyone's least favorite mission type. Yes, a game - an exceptional game - that boils down to an escort mission stretched over a framework of really cool puzzles and platforming. Yorda needs help up ledges, across chasms, and most of all protection from shadow creatures. As Ico, you don't have much in your arsenal: jumping, pulling, pushing and whacking the shadows with a big stick (later, a sword) are your staple moves. The puzzles are very integrated, with ledges, ladders, doorways, and relatively few traditional Zelda-like moments of pressure plates and switches. Occasionally Yorda pulls her own weight by opening Idol Doors, and when you rest on a couch together you get to save your game. The rest of the time she tries to be as helpful as possible, sticking by your side and eschewing the traditional damsel role of wandering off with the words "kidnap me, shadow monsters" stamped on her forehead.
There isn't a lot of direct confrontation in ICO, it all comes down to those persistent shadows as they spill up out of swirling smoke-monster blackness at the most inopportune times. Some can walk, some can fly, and some can only scuttle across the ground, and they all want to drag Yorda into an inky black pit. Only able to knock Ico back, if they successfully pull Yorda down with them it's Game Over. There are no combos, special moves or advanced weaponry, you are a little boy with a stick and you wield it accordingly: in desperate, flailing motions. At some point you realize you're rescuing Yorda not as a mission-objective or game chore, but because your heart is beating in your throat while the shadow monsters try to take her away, your Yorda. At some point you realize that you care.
Similarly themed, in Shadow of the Colossus you play as a young man named Wander who must slay sixteen colossi to rescue a girl. A barren, open world, this is not a game for agoraphobes. Wander is alone with his horse (and some lizards and birds), as he seeks out the colossi which are, tautological as it may be, enormous. These are the bosses of all other bosses, and the experience of SotC is searching the world for epic boss battles - truly "epic": each colossi is so massive, so powerful, and each battle so challenging that they're the stuff poems are sung about, Homer style.
Wander must find ways to scale each colossus and seek out weaknesses in their hard skin (marked by sigils) that his sword can pierce. Oftentimes you will have to find a spot low on the body to stun the colossus, giving you time to scramble to a better spot - and scramble you will. Like Ico, Wander isn't really anything other than determined. He doesn't free-run up a colossus, he doesn't leap nimbly from point to point, he climbs slowly - sometimes painfully so - as the colossus shakes him loose. His grip depletes, he can't hang on forever, so latching on and scaling the monster forthwith is not an option. No, this is a measured attack of finding places to balance, regain stamina, and progress. The colossus isn't going to just let you climb up and start stabbing him, either, and it will try to dislodge you throughout your attempt; you are little more than a tiny buzzing bee with little jabs of your eensy sword. As frantic as a colossus battle can be, it's equal parts patience and puzzle solving as you navigate their unique architecture and the world below you gets further and further away.
Fortunately, Wander has his trusty steed that always comes when you whistle and is helpful in catching speedy colossi - and getting away from others. Then there's that pointy sword that's good for, well, swording and reflecting the sun's light to point you toward the next colossus, and their vulnerable point. Also, there's a bow, which is best for shooting lizards. OK, it has infinite ammo and can stun a colossus if you hit them on a raw patch, but otherwise it's like throwing feathers at a wall. When going up against things called "colossi" it's not much, and you will feel very, very, very small - and even more alone. With each majestic colossus you slay you'll wonder, "Why?".
But that's all pretty much the same, so what's new? Both games are re-mastered at HD resolution, with anti-aliased graphics, 30 frames per second, and the option of stereoscopic 3D. Updated visuals and 30 fps really mean just that, and the games are lovely. Textures are re-worked, particle effects are added, ICO runs in 16:9 - this is love in 7.1 surround sound. There will still be moments when the games show their age: save slots, or when scrambling through a window the game "loads". "Loads", because yes, there is a very 2001 load, but it loads so quickly you barely have time to think the words, "How quaint", and it's over. In both ICO and SotC the art design is brought into focus, the worlds become more impressively beautiful. Yes, these are PS2 games, with PS2 graphics, but their design is magnificent.
The Trophies are not of the shoe-horned in, easy to achieve variety, either, and add real value for the serious ICO & SotC fan looking to prolong their game experience (finish ICO in under two hours? Four, okay but TWO?). There are other little extras in the games best left unspoken - though like the first time around you will want to wait until after the credits roll, and if you finish ICO before firing up SotC Agro will have a blaze! Additionally, after completion there are English translations for Yorda and unlockable two-player mode.
Controls are as unique as ever - Triangle is jump, X is drop down, O is interact and R1 grabs. It's easier to see in practice, but this means that when running with Yorda or clutching a fistful of colossus your hand is effectively clawed into a hand-holding position. Just try telling me that isn't thoughtful game design. Then there are those small moments, like when having Ico turn a giant crank you notice he has an easier time pushing from the outer edge than the inner, or that when he swims he holds the sword up above the water. Games of scale, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus are fairytale worlds built of careful attention.
ICO & Shadow of the Colossus collection is available Tuesday, September 27, 2011 for $40. Get it.