Are video games art? Those who doubt the ability of games to create an experience that is immersive, forcing players to feel and contemplate their own motivations, should play the two games made by the supremely talented Team ICO, and lay the question to rest.
ICO and Shadow of the Colossus were originally developed in 2001 and 2005 respectively, for the Playstation 2. This new release packages them together in a HD renovation for a new generation of gamers who missed the first outing.
ICO has you play as a 12 year-old boy condemned to be entombed alive in an abandoned castle. His sacrifice shall save the village, his captors tell us.
The boy is able to break free from his sacrophagus, and soon frees Yardo, a mysterious girl. Though they don't share a language, together they must escape this gigantic foreboding castle, and it is in this co-operation that the game shines. Yardo is not nimble like our hero, so not only do you have to navigate the levels, you must clear a separate path for Yardo while protecting her from vengeful shadow spirits, the only other inhabitants of the castle.
Where the game becomes genius is how you lead your delicate companion, often by simply holding her hand and other times by calling out to her. This taps into a subconscious protective instinct, making for great emotional connect.
Combat is simple and almost perfunctory, enemies don't present a conventional challenge. Level navigation is intuitive, and later puzzles get difficult but never obtuse.
Shadow of the Colossus has you play as Wander, a warrior travelling to the forbidden world, searching for a way to bring his lover back to life. He finds this power, a god/demon Dormin who promises to help, but in return Wander must slay 16 giant beings, some of whom are the size of skyscrapers.
Finding, and then defeating each successive colossus forms the bulk of the game. There are few weapons, mostly the sword and bow you start with. Your only aid is your horse Agro.
Each battle is tough, requiring all your wits and skill to scale their mountainous body. As each finally falls, your moment of triumph is tinged with sadness. There is a great psychological weight to killing these grand, noble, creatures. Many are peaceful and don't attack you till you initiate combat.
The graphics clearly belong to an earlier generation (SotC has aged better than ICO). However, the ethereal visual design is second to none. Both games have superlative soundtracks.
These games are not for everyone. There are no tutorials, no arrows pointing to the next objective, no markers on a game map. There are extended periods with deliberate pacing where you are forced to absorb a dream-like world. This is very different from what modern gamers are used to, with campaigns being mere conveyor belts of awe-inspiring set pieces.
Team ICO is a believer in the 'Less is More' philosophy. The worlds and the circumstances of the characters are mysterious and dark, like a twisted fairy tale, with evocative endings that will remain with you long after you are done playing.
Graphics: Ageing, but with great design
Worth it: Yes
Final Rating: 4 / 5