Friday, March 03, 2006

I Don't Speak Crazy Bitch


Cult games very rarely make it over to New Zealand. We're probably never going to see Katamari Damancy here, and there are no doubt plenty of other cool games that I've never even heard of that pass us by because they don't have a popular rapper's name in the title or have a girl in a chainmail bikini on the cover. Nevertheless occasionally something manages to defy the odds and receive an antipodean release, and after hearing about it for years I've finally had a chance to play Ico.

The new game by the team behind Ico (Shadow of the Colossus) has been selling reasonably well (on account of its more mature and violent theme no doubt, but it's still a great game, and I'll have a lot of good things to say when I've finished it) so they've given Ico a re-release.

The game is at its core a 3D platformer, but its unique twist on the genre is best explained by describing the plot. The story is fairly minimal, but I don't mean that in an Unreal Tournament or Tetris kind of way, it has a very 'fairy tale'-like mood, and as all the characters speak a gibberish language, only some of which is subtitled, exposition is kept to a minimum. In recent years I've come to really appreciate this approach to storytelling in games. Games which cram huge elaborate plots with fucking shitloads of cutscenes into themselves sometimes succeed in spite of it (see the Final Fantasy series), very rarely pull it off brilliantly (see Planescape: Torment) and usually turn into an execrable bore-fest (see Xenosaga). By keeping things simple but archetypical the designers are doing themselves a huge favour.

Anyway, our main character is a boy called Ico. Believed to be cursed by his family and their fellow villagers he is imprisoned in a spooky old uninhabited castle and left to die. Fortunately he escapes and finds that the castle is in fact inhabited by nasty shadow demon things. Before long he meets a mysterious ghostly girl named Yorla who is also imprisoned in the castle, and naturally enough it turns out that by working together they may have a chance of escaping.

Throughout the game you control the boy Ico, and you must guide the flaky and helpless Yorla through the castle and its environs, a process involving a moderate amount of bashing baddies with swords and a large amount of switch-pulling, block-pushing and general puzzle solving. Yorla herself is a somewhat frustrating companion as she and Ico lack a common language (communicating through yells and arm waving) and she has an annoying tendency to wander off in unhelpful directions. As usual with game related matters Penny Arcade sum it up pretty well. But despite this one annoyance the game is very good on every level, mostly through plain old level design.

The area that the game covers is very small. The castle isn't an endless labyrinth but instead feels like an actual building with reasonably proportioned and logically connected areas. Clever design enables the creators to extend the game length by reusing areas in different ways. You'll often find yourself in the same place a few different times, only on a higher level, or with the geography rearranged in some way. The puzzles are all well thought out and are very satisfying to complete.

The art direction is pretty nice too. It doesn't leap out at you in the way that some games can, but the old castle has a very memorable and visceral mood that stays with you and evokes a real place, both in the dark, creepy dungeons and the bright sunlit rooftops.

I do have a few more criticisms though. Firstly it was too easy; while no one wants to come across some stupid unintuitive puzzle that requires either days of thought or a walkthrough to complete, it was a bit of a disappointment when I blazed through the second half of the game. I often find that once I have a handle on the designers' mindset the puzzle solutions become universally obvious. A little more variety and sneakiness in the later part of the game would have improved things a lot. Secondly, the graphics weren't so great. Being primarily a PC gamer I am used to feeling like my eyes are being stabbed with needles whenever I turn on a console, but I found this game to have far too much brightness, I often found myself squinting at the screen to see what I was doing. At first I thought this was a deliberate design decision, as light and darkness are two motifs of the story, but Shadow of the Colossus seems to have a similar problem. Combat is a bit annoying too. It's not a combat oriented game but it would have been nice to have less cumbersome feeling to the fighting scenes and it would have been especially nice to see where your character really is in relation to those smoky shadowy beasties instead of having to guess and swing wildly.

Lastly I found the end of the game a bit stupid. The last section is very good, but lacked any save points for almost an hours worth of gameplay, and that shit pisses me off. Console developers often seem not to understand that sometimes I have to get off the computer and do things like eat and go to work. The final battle is damn cool mind you, but again way too easy. Finally, the ending of the plot was far too twee. Yes I know it's a fairy tale but when the bad guy says 'Ha! Even if you kill me, you can't really win!' and then you kill them and everything turns out fine with no explanation, that's a bit stupid.

So while it sounds like I'm bitching quite a bit the truth is that it's a great game that deserves all of its accolades. I guess the good things are just more insubstantial and harder to describe than the bad things, which stick in your mind and are usually easily articulated. If you have a PS2 and have no aversion to platformers (or a mandatory rule of only buying games with hookers and guns in them) then this is easily one of the best games you can get for that console.

A final note on the plot. Normally I'd sneer at something as twee and kiddie friendly as this, but I find that I have a much higher tolerance for such things in games when compared to other media. I think it's the visceral feeling of grabbing Yorla's hand and saving her from the claws of evil with only seconds to spare (and doing it all yourself rather than reading about someone else doing it) that makes it much easier to form an emotional attachment to the story. Perhaps the finest example of this is the ending of Planescape: Torment, when you realise what a total bastard your character was in his previous lives, and are forced to view your relationships with your companions in a completely different light. It's a pity more designers don't utilise this strength of the medium.


Joel said...

Your mentioning of Planescape has given me pangs to play it!

But I can't... since I'm saving all my gaming time for when Oblivion comes out. :)

Jon said...

I know what you mean. Look at my 'now playing' list on the right sidebar and just think how much worse that's going to get once oblivion comes out.

Assuming of course that my creaky old PC will run it that is...

Jungle Rhino said...

Yay Oblivion - such an appropriat title. Only 2 more weeks till release. I am buying a new huss computer so I can pwn all t3h n00bZ!! r0x0r!!

Jon said...

Yeah I'll be getting a new machine sometime soon, but I don't know when I'll be able to afford it.

Of course, I could just get an xbox 360, but I've already decided I'm getting a PS3 and a Nintendo Revolution, and I hear it's a bit too puss to run Oblivion anyway.

fairy princess said...

Sounds like the perfect game for me to play (easy, not too much fighting, hard to get lost in maze etc.)

Jon said...

I think you'd like it. It's a kind of 'everyone' game that's not designed for any particular demographic (i.e. teenage boys).

But bear in mind that a) what's easy for me might not be easy for someone who doesn't play games every day, and b) it's a Playstation only release.

Bob said...

Just saw the Oblivion screenshots.


Ian.Pertuset said...

I played this game nearly ten years ago in the desert. So much time later and I still remember "BahPah" (that's what I think she said in my addled brain) Now I'm going to pick it up (the price sky-rocketed, with some listings of +$100 - Jeesh) and have another go. Maybe this time I'll learn to speak "Crazy Bitch". Ha!

Thanks for keeping this page up.