Ico, from beginning to end, is a wonderfully concise, deliberate adventure. Stripped of fluff and padding, it was refreshingly brisk back in 2001 and now, ten years later, feels especially so – this is a game that was so well received by critics at the time because it dispensed with everything that got in the way. In the age of side quests, extra pointless game modes and endless dialogue, Ico’s lean, focused plot stands tall and strong, still deftly telling a story that unfolds continously and unidirectionally with a powerful adroitness. Ico might only last eight hours or so, but it’s eight hours of pure, concentrated gameplay.
It’s also brilliant gameplay – simplistic and singular, perhaps, but undeniably brilliant, a subtle mix of platforming and exploration with Ico’s only combat ability an almost playful swing of a wooden stick – at least at first. The eponymous hero is hardly your usual headstrong, armour plated warrior – indeed, his humble range of abilities is part of the game’s charm – and his story is a tragic, moving one rather than the standard ‘save the world’ epic. Born with horns, Ico is cast out by his village and locked away in a castle (the game’s only location), the inhabitants are a ghostly queen and a collection of hauntingly dark wraith-like creatures that emerge from portals in the ground.
Your princess is most definitely not in another castle.
Not that the duo always work perfectly together. Ico’s move range might be simple but he can jump large gaps, climb chains and pull levers, all of which Yorda cannot; and although her pathfinding is generally superb you’ll sometimes need to backtrack a little for her to find her way to you when called. Of course, players familiar with the game will know that you can hold hands – a very intentional, physical bonding that only strengthens the friendship – an option made redundant by the ability to play through a second time with a human controlling Yorda.
It’s difficult to really explain what makes Ico such a mesmerising, enchanting game. Perhaps it’s the clinical design methodology that appeals, or the quiet sense of allegory and purposefully vague conclusion. Most likely, it’s the setting, with the castle’s walls and inhabitants (the truth about the shadow monsters is a scary one) as much main characters as those of Ico and Yordo. Regardless, Ico is a game that – whilst not perfect – should be experienced by everyone, and if this is your first time with it, you’re in for a treat.
Likewise, the game’s other half, Shadow of the Colossus, is a truly beautiful game. Not especially in terms of graphics (it’s true that time hasn’t been particularly generous to either of the games here, animation aside) but in the way that the story unfolds, the fact that this is a third person adventure with nothing but a huge overworld and sixteen enemies, and that you start the game with everything you need to get through to the end without leveling up, seeking out items or even talking to any other character apart from the central mysterious voice. It’s simple, yet cunningly deep.
It's an other-worldly experience.
And whilst Ico was constrained to a castle, the maze of rooms effortlessly leading you back over familiar ground, Shadow presents a huge land to explore, a horse for transport and the guiding light of your sword’s reflection for the rough direction of the next colossus. Clues are sparse, the resulting battles are won not purely by skill but also quick thinking and a certain amount of initiative, each roaming beast effectively a series of platforms and climbing surfaces meaning players must keep an eye on Wander’s grip meter as much as the two life bars.
It’s this sense of discovery that really defines Shadow. Each encounter is markedly different, weak spots left mostly up to the player to discover, and whilst some attack patterns are easily learned and exploited, it’s in finding how to get to a colossus and then how to take it down that provides the biggest challenge, rather than any complex dexterity. Of course, the game gets progressively harder but still manages to offer up a fair, balanced experience even when the odds seem stacked against you.
As the story progresses, and the colossi fall, the plot starts to take hold and another character moves into the forefront. Wander’s destiny appears to be pre-determined, but the path is already laid out and there’s no diversion. As he pales, and Mono looks to be recovering, it’s impossible not to form a similar bond with the protagonists as one does with those in Ico. The two are similar in many ways, and yet on the face of it entirely different games – but Shadow is perhaps the more rounded title in the collection. Not that it’s a choice you have to make, of course.
Both are presented in crystal clear 1080p, and run at thirty frames a second. Compared to the original Ico, the difference is immense, although very few of the assets have been touched which gives the games an almost ’emulator’ look to them. Of course, the art style used in the two is still fantastic, the washed out visuals (the only blacks are reserved for blood and shadow) giving a slightly odd, ethereal look that works better than expected in the middle distance. More impressive is the sound, finally given the chance to excel in surround sound with the haunting ambience a treat.
Other features in the HD remakes are – as you’d expect – Trophies and 3D support. The latter is especially welcome, both games benefit greatly from the technology with Ico’s vertigious drops and Shadow’s great expanses of land never looking better. It’s a shame the UI wasn’t updated, Shadow’s menu system is horrible and Ico’s save pop-ups detract hugely from the atmosphere (as do the Trophy pings, to be fair) but it’s hard to know how much flexibility Bluepoint had with the games in terms of what they could and couldn’t touch.
- Two of last generation’s best games on one disk.
- 3D support is lovely.
- The framerate lock is most welcome.
- The graphics look a little dated.
- These are the raw originals, with no obvious new features.
- Scheduled for release on the 22nd September in Europe.
- Two of the most revered PlayStation2 games for a budget price of £29.99.
- Stellar soundtrack in full surround sound for the first time.