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Capsule Review - ICO

Title ICO
Developer SCEI
Year 2002
Platform PS2
Capsule Rating
Capsule Review: ICO is a marvel, an idea brilliant in its simplicity. It is an inkling of what video games could be if they weren't filled with frankly banal nonsense so much of the time. Unlike the best RPGs, it's not the game's plot that makes it stand out. The story seems rather threadbare when described in words - you are the title character, a little boy with horns, and because you have horns the people in your village are scared of you, lock you up in an abandoned castle, and leave you there to die. But you break out, and you find a fellow captive - an ethereal young princess who doesn't speak your language and is completely helpless. You have to cooperate with her to get out of the castle.

Sounds unimaginative, right? After all, you spend most of the game in a castle, there's no character development as we commonly think of it, and the gameplay is simple; it's mostly based on getting across gaps and chasms, and what little combat there is is fought with a simple wooden stick. And most of the criticism levelled at this game harps upon these things to no end. But the critics miss the point. The designers of ICO put a tremendous amount of effort into the tiny, almost imperceptible details. For instance, body language. Take careful note of how the princess moves, how unfamiliar with the world she obviously is, of her helplessness, of the trusting way in which she lets the boy lead her by the hand. Look at how she shields her eyes from the sun. Have your heart leap into your mouth when you hear that faint scream indicating that she's about to be carried away by some mysterious shadow demons, which are frightening because of their odd silence.

There may be no complicated flashbacks and dialogue in this game, but you don't need that to have real, compelling people - all you need is genuine emotion, genuine fortitude and genuine vulnerability. The boy and the princess are such. The game is necessarily short; it is of the perfect length for such a bizarre, dreamlike adventure, never letting anything drag, but not afraid to stay focused on one thing without straying. It is, perhaps, an achievement that could only be made by a game - a book would require more detail, a movie would require more action, but a game compensates for both with more active involvement - hinting at the possibilities that games might unlock if their makers only tried to. The world of ICO is simple, and beautiful, as you'll see when you step into the sunlight in it. That is its great strength.

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