This is a video game review.
Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 2
If someone told you that a game with no music, only one overall area, only one type of enemy, only three weapons, and none of this leveling or micromanagement nonesense were to be released for the PS2 this year, you'd probably be somewhat confused. Isn't it missing that which makes it a video game in the first place?
But simplicity and innovation are where Ico excels. There are exactly two characters: Ico, the game's namesake, is a boy with horns whose village considers him an evil omen. On his 12th birthday, he is taken to a deserted, haunted castle to be left alone to die in sacrifice. Of course, being the ingenious young man he is, he escapes from his crypt. Before long, he stumbles on a pale, frail, young girl named Yorda suspeded from the ceiling in a cage. Once the cage is lowered, Ico and Yorda begin their collabortive effort to escape the castle.
The Ico development team had a novel idea: Ico doesn't speak English. Or Japanese. He speaks a fictional language. His speech is subtitled in English (or Japanese, I suppose, or whatever the vernacular is where the game is released). As one would imagine, Yorda does not speak the same language as Ico. Her speech is subtitled in bizarre hieroglyphics. So, in effect, we have no idea at all what Yorda is saying. But she speaks very infrequently, and when she does, it's hardly more than what could be considered a sentence. Thus, the relationship between Ico and Yorda is non-verbal. It's a primal one, based on their seemingly common goal: escape. The castle is presided over by a rather malicious queen who wants to see to it that Yorda does not leave. Apparently, she cares not about Ico, but I'll bet he wants to leave, too.
The actual gameplay is rather well done, as well. There is, as mentioned, only one type of enemy. The shadowy, whispy apparitions that emerge from black portals and try to capture Yorda. Armed either a stick, a sword, or a mace, Ico must bludegon the spirits to death (or whatever they happen to experience in its place) in order to protect Yorda. The whole concept of the game is kind of like Myst meets The Legend of Zelda in deftly executed 3D. The puzzles are not difficult, really, but they're not a walk in the park either. The game is simple, but there is depth within its simplicity. Very well done.
Most of the game is silent. What music there is generally a nice interlude, and it is given out judiciously enough that it really enhances the mood when it shows up. There is no ambient music at all in Ico, though. That basically follows in the tradition of Myst. There are ambient sound effects such as wind or water lapping. Graphically, Ico is quite a sight. Lighting and mist effects are used very well, and do not affect the framerate at all. The symbolic use of light/dark is also very potent in the portrayal of this game.
Ico is unfortunately short; 8 to 10 hours of play, for most people. Should you fork over the $50 for this game? That depends. You can probably rent it and beat it in a weekend, if that's your thing. There are those who will want to own this game, though, just because it's such a well-executed piece of work. All in all, I think Square and company would really do well to take a lesson on subtlety from this game.