Developer: Team Ico/Bluepoint Studios
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
In certain cases, wistful nostalgia can indeed kick you around the room hard once the reality sets in that perhaps things weren’t as great as you recalled. However, both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus have withstood the test of time as two truly memorable game experiences not to be missed. Team Ico with (a solid assist from Bluepoint Games) have polished up both games to a nice HD finish, added Trophy support, optional 3D and a nice set of bonus features for one truly great package (at a mere $40) that’s an absolute must-purchase title (and yet another solid PS3 collection). For those that remember these two classics, replaying them in this collection will offer a few nice surprises along with a few old quirks. For those that have yet to experience these two masterworks (elements of which have turned up in many games over the past decade), expect to be amazed… provided you have the proper perspective.
In ICO, you’re a young boy with horns who’s been entombed in a mysteriously massive shrine as a sacrifice to some nameless being “for the good of the village”. Escaping from your stone coffin thanks to a loose foundation, you explore the shrine only to discover you’re not the only prisoner still living. Coming across a young girl suspended in a spiked cage held by a chain, you manage to free her, only to be attacked by some rather scary creatures seeming made from a black, oily smoke. Fighting them off with a nearby stick, you and the girl (who’s named Yorda) now have to figure a way out of the shrine, solving tricky navigational puzzles in order to proceed and battling more of these dark creatures along the way.
What makes the game work so brilliantly is the combination of art direction, animation sound design and music that bring the world to life. Nothing is explained in any sort of detail, but as you move Ico and Yorda through the different indoor and outdoor areas, your brain will fit together a narrative that may not fill in all the gaps, but adds even more questions that the game doesn’t answer. However, that’s actually a great thing, as you’re pulled along from one place to another, taking in the sights and sounds with a sense that for all the strange environmental puzzles and stranger enemies, you’re in a real world. This is thanks to Fumeto Ueda’s phenomenal game direction and Team Ico’s fantastic hand animation that gives life to both humans and creatures alike. The first time you take Yorda’s hand and in those moments where she’s responding to your calls and gestures is where the game truly shines emotionally.
Although there is combat in the game, it’s not “violent” in any sort of disturbing manner. With one key exception, all the creatures you fight are made from that inky flowing smoke and they expire and fade into nothingness when defeated. Capturing Yorda is their goal – you lose the game if she’s grabbed and pulled into one of the dark vortexes that appear whenever the creatures are in the vicinity. Handling two or three of these monsters is fairly simple stuff early on, but the game soon adds larger packs of these creatures and places a few vortex points around some spots so that protecting Yorda becomes more difficult. Sometimes, Ico is separated from Yorda, so solving a puzzle needs to be done quickly in these cases in order to get back to protect her from being grabbed. You;ll soon see that Yorda is far more important to the plot than just as a potential victim, but I’ll leave that for you to discover her importance and how Ico handles things.
The two characters are certainly an odd couple, another part of the game’s charm. Ico seems to be a boy of about ten to twelve years old; other than the horns protruding from his head, he could be running around a backyard anywhere there’s green grass and fresh air. Yorda is an older, taller rail thin waif with a regal yet shy demeanor. However, she’s far from a lifeless drone. Let her be for a few seconds and she’ll look towards an area where you need to go or sometimes climb up onto an object that needs to be relocated in order to solve a puzzle. Other than a handful of lines of dialog (in a made up language) at the beginning, middle and end of the adventure, everything is conveyed through Ico and Yorda interacting with each other, the enemies and the environment. Saving the game requires the pair finding a stone couch and basically catching a short nap sitting next to each other. It’s a lovely touch and that you need to tap a button to wake up Ico so the pair can get moving again is pretty neat as well.
For those that played the game back on the PS2, one big surprise is this HD version is actually based on the PAL-format UK release which had some puzzles altered from the US NTSC release. This will lead to some tricky new areas where timing is key or enemies seem more numerous when compared to the US version. While the game isn’t extremely lengthy (anywhere from six to nine hours based on your skill level), completing it quickly really depends on how good you are at making your way through a few tricky areas. New players will be stumped without a walk through and careful observation, but even if you’re one of those “speed run” freaks that has played through the game in a blazing two hours, some of the new areas should slow you down a bit. The game ends on an emotional note that’s rewarding and actually encourages a replay (there’s a two-player mode that requires some work to unlock, but is worth the effort). Like any good book, this is a game you’ll complete, tuck away in your collection and go back to again and again because it’s so well done.
Shadow of the Colossus is the more action-oriented of the two games, but its emotional impact is equal, if not superior on a number of levels. Once again, you have a pair of human characters, a massive environment and strange creatures to deal with, but the story here twists a few familiar video game tropes on their heads to a nicely startling effect. Here, you’re a young man tasked with slaying sixteen colossi in order to revive your deceased love. On the surface, it seems like quite the noble cause. However, there’s a distinct undercurrent of something not quite noble in all of this effort. The game slowly peels away its layers as you take down huge, regal yet deadly beasts, offering up very interesting takes on a seemingly simple story.
SoTC outstrips Ico in terms of its sense of scale, the cinematic camera that provides a glorious opening sequence and other shots that rival great film epics in terms of how they bring you and each colossus into the game’s vast landscape. As in ICO, both the game world visual, stellar animation and sound design are prime movers, but here, gameplay is a lot more dependent on you knowing your way around a PS3 controller. This is a game where if you’ve a controller with a wonky button or trigger, you’re in for a really hard to impossible time trying to complete certain tasks. Killing each colossus revolves around locating it using a magic sword, riding your trusty steed towards it, a bit of environmental navigation in some cases to get closer, then the actual battle itself.
Where the majority of ICO’s creatures took a few seconds or so each to defeat, the colossi here can take a very long time to put down.There’s a great contrast at play here: your average-sized character has a tiny life bar, while the colossi have Expect to spend upwards of half an hour to an hour or so on some of these beasts, providing you don’t make too many mistakes. The feeling you get from taking so long to kill one of these creatures is initially thrilling because you’ve worked so hard, yet you may also start to feel that these tremendous beasts may deserve a better fate than you hunting them down and slowly taking their lives. Of course, many people would do anything for love, but the game presents an interesting and compelling reason to forge onward as you head out to track and kill the next huge beast.
Completing SoTC depends on how quickly you can travel to each colossus and defeat it, but I’d say first-timers will be taking upwards of 15-20 hours or so to reach the climax. There are a number of bonuses that make the game extremely replayable as well as an interesting area that’s unlocked upon multiple replays (at least four). Visually, SoTC is even more impressive than the original game thanks to the power of the PS3 and the skill of the two dev teams. The frame rate is more stable than in the PS2 version, the 3D effects range from subtle to amazing and there’s an overall stunning look to sections in both games where you’ll almost think you’re looking at a real location. I noticed that this HD version seemed harder than the original SoTC, but that could be because I’m seven years older or the game has been rebalanced a bit to be more challenging in spots.
As for that “perspective” I mentioned earlier, I can see SOME gamers more used to faster-paced action games wondering what the fuss is all about over two games where mostly languid pacing, scant dialog and emotional moments that aren’t high-five related are core to enjoying each experience. To those folks, I say expand your horizons and see how both games seep into you thanks to their presentation and gameplay that rewards patience and observation.In other words, don’t go in looking for a God of War game and you’ll be a happy camper. Also, if you don’t own a 3D TV and know someone who does, make the effort to play or see both games in 3D at some point. It’s definitely worth it. The game looks great on any TV, but it’s definitely been remastered for HD sets and the 3D doesn’t feel slapped on at all.
In terms of bonus features, there are some great behind the scenes videos featuring Team Ico talking about the games and their development, a great peek at the eagerly awaited PS3 game The Last Guardian (which is looking incredible) and some excellent movies of ICO and SoTC in their early forms. I do wish that there was more original PlayStation footage of the first version of ICO, as I vaguely recall seeing a build at E3 back in 2000 (I so WISH I’d taken photographs of it!). You also get two wallpaper themes for our PS3 dashboard (one for each game on the disc) that are quite cool (and should also be made available for the PSP at some point). Overall, this is a superb value for the money and yet another great HD collection from Sony that’s an absolute must for any PS3 owner looking to experience or revisit two of the best titles in modern gaming history.