Stu: ICO - PlayStation 2

I loved a lot of games in the last generation – Burnout 2, Psychonauts, Halo, Resident Evil 4, Silent Hill 2, God of War, GT3 and GTA: Vice City all stand out to me as classic titles. However, it’s ICO that I think will stay with me longest. Now, I can understand why some people think it’s over-rated: it is fairly short, it doesn’t hold much replay value, and it has perhaps become too much of a poster child for the ‘games as art’ brigade. However, it shows so much imagination and vision and – when it call comes down to it – soul, that I just don’t think these objections hold much water.

Of course it’s the artistic style that gets your attention first of all. Technically, there are better games on the PS2, but there’s something about ICO’s impressionist hazy lighting and folk-myth design that resists side-by-side comparisons. The characters are beautifully realised, and the gothic citadel in which the game takes place is a masterpiece of games architecture. You don’t really realise how oppressive its gloomy vaults and cathedral-like spaces are until you make it outside into the sunshine. And once there, you’re confronted by a tour de force of pools, waterfalls, strange outcroppings and vertiginous walkways. Even now it looks beautiful.

It’s on this, and on the superb way in which the game builds up a relationship between young Ico and his fragile, ghostly companion, Yorda, that the game’s reputation rests – and rightly so. Few moments in gaming have twisted knots in my stomach like Yorda’s desperate lunge for your hand as you pull her across a gaping chasm, or those scenes where you’re stuck in one section of the room pulling levers when the shadows appear to drag Yorda back into their realm.

However, we shouldn’t forget the little things – like the complex, interleaving puzzles, or the way in which the game does everything to avoid punishing you for a slip of the pad. Unless you’re really careless, you’ll always find yourself dangling from the missed ledge instead of plunging into the abyss. And I think it has possibly the best last few hours of any game ever, with a sudden, gruesome, pull-the-rug-out plot turn, followed by a wave of frantic platforming, followed by a dramatic, final showdown and a strange, ambiguous ending. Yes, Ico is short, but it’s also damn near perfect. How many other games can you say that about?

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