Certain developers are known for putting out excellent titles on a regular basis. Team ICO is rather unique in that, in over 10 years, they've only released two games, but both games are considered among the most noteworthy and influential titles ever released. Their games are known for amazing art design, fairy-tale-like atmosphere and unusual storytelling method. Unlike many modern games, the stories are light on cut scenes and exposition; they give you a rough idea of the plot and invite the player to figure out the full story on his own.
However, both of Team ICO's games suffered from some problems. Their first game, Ico, was a rare title. It didn't sell well at first, and eventually copies became difficult to find, doubly so since it was a "blue-bottom" PS2 disc, which many systems had trouble reading after a while. The second, Shadow of the Colossus, strained the PS2's hardware to the point where one was lucky to get a frame rate above the single digits in some of the game's more intense sequences. The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection solves all of these problems while giving gamers a chance to experience both games in one convenient package.
Ico tells the story of a young boy named Ico, who looks like an average young boy except for one mysterious attribute: He has a pair of black horns growing from the side of his head. As the game begins, Ico is being taken to a mysterious castle as a sacrifice. A group of priests locks him in a small chamber and leaves him to die. A chance crack in the floor under the prison allows him a chance to escape, and Ico finds that he is not alone in the castle. A young woman, Yorda, is also there, and he rescues her only to discover that they don't speak the same language. As the only two living things in the castle, they have no choice but to work together to find a way out.
At heart, Ico is a puzzle game. Players are in control of the titular Ico and forced to make their way out of the castle. Ico can climb ledges, push boxes and survive long falls that would kill a regular boy. He doesn't have any particular special abilities — beyond the horns growing from his head — but he's more than capable of surviving the castle's dangers. You'll spend a good chunk of the game trying to figure out where to go next and how to use Ico's collection of abilities to get there. One of the nice things about Ico is that the puzzles feel very naturally integrated. While there are plenty of video-gamey things, such as inexplicable switches and pressure plates, they are balanced by the wonderful art design.
Ico is not alone in his journey. In essence, Yorda is a game-long escort mission partner, although better than most of that type. Unlike Ico, Yorda isn't very athletic: She can't jump very far or climb very high. For some reason, she can open doors that Ico can't, allowing him to access new places. Since Ico is a nice guy and he needs her to escape, he works with Yorda to find a way out of the castle. This adds an extra layer to the game's many puzzles. Ico can reach several areas with ease, but Yorda can't. To finish a section of the castle, Ico has to figure out a way to make a path for Yorda. While Yorda isn't very agile, she can make the occasional jump or climb, especially if Ico is around to give her a hand. It sounds annoying, but the gameplay mechanics work out very well. Yorda can be a tad finicky in places, but rarely will she be a chore to safeguard.
And safeguard her you must. Ico is a combat-light game, but that doesn't mean you won't occasionally encounter enemies. The castle is inhabited by mysterious black shadows that appear from swirling vortexes on the floor. They come in many shapes and sizes, and they all have one goal: Yorda. They're pretty incapable of seriously harming Ico, but the shadows will attempt to abduct Yorda while Ico is busy. If they grab her, they'll carry her back to one of their swirling vortexes. If they get her back, the game is over. Ico isn't a combat master, but he can hold his own pretty well. Early on in the game, you find a hefty piece of wood that you can use to drive away the monsters. There are other weapons available, but don't expect any Devil May Cry combat. Ico's fighting style can be kindly described as "wild flailing," and the challenge is more in keeping monsters away from Yorda than in performing combos or using special moves.
Ico has been given an HD upgrade for the PS3 release, as well as additional content not in the original US release. The additional content is probably going to be more interesting to those who've already played Ico. It contains some surprising new content, including a New Game+ mode that gives you a very different view of the plot. The upgraded visuals certainly look better than their PS2 counterparts, but players should be aware that Ico was an early PS2 title, so even the process of converting the game to HD is going to have a limited influence on the graphics. Luckily, Ico had such fantastic art design that it's easy to overlook areas that appear dated.
Shadow of the Colossus
The second game in the collection, Shadow of the Colossus, tells the story of a young man named Wander. There's very little that can be said about the plot without giving away too much, and much of the story is left up to interpretation. Wander enters a mysterious barren land, accompanied by his faithful horse Argo and the seemingly dead body of a young woman. A mysterious voice offers Wander the chance to bring the woman back to life, but it isn't easy. Sixteen gigantic colossi roam the lands, and he must slay each of them to bring the girl back to life. There's more to the story, but basically, Shadow of the Colossus is a simple story: A boy must go on a quest to rescue a girl.
While Shadow of the Colossus is set in a large open world, most of the world is empty. Aside from a few harmless animals that show up from time to time, Wander is almost completely alone. The exception comes in the form of the colossi, which are gigantic boss-like creatures who you must battle. Effectively, the game is nothing but boss battles. There are no other enemies, no massive dungeons to explore and no leveling up. It's just a boy and 16 of the most massive enemies ever seen in a game.
Six years after the game's initial release, the colossus battles remain some of the most impressive and stunning boss battles you'll ever see. Each colossus is a unique and intimidating beast, and each must be defeated in its own way. Each is too large and powerful to defeat in a single battle because Wander is no Kratos or Dante. The colossus is many times his size, and no blade or weapon can pierce its hard skin. The only way to harm the creature is to find a glowing sigil located somewhere on its body, but rarely is this sigil easy to access. It's usually located high up on the creature's body, such as the head or somewhere similar. Sometimes the sigil even moves around. The only way to reach it is to scale the giant monster's body like a tower. Wander is agile, but he's surprisingly normal for a video game protagonist. He climbs slowly, can't survive much damage, and will gradually grow tired as he climbs higher. You have to balance climbing, recovering your stamina and finding safe areas to scale a colossus — and you must do this while the giant beast attempts to throw you off.
If you're forced to slay giant monsters, you've got to have some pretty good weapons on your side, right? What makes Shadow of the Colossus so interesting is that you don't. You've only got three assets. The first is your loyal horse Argo. Wander can ride her to get from colossus to colossus, but she is also an important part of several battles. You can use her to catch up to fast-moving beasts or to outrun one that's chasing you; she is your constant ally.
The second is your sword. For all intents and purposes, the sword is just a sword. It's small and sturdy, but it has only one unique attribute. By holding up the sword to the sun, you can reflect the light, which forms a beam that shows you the direction of the next colossus. When used near a colossus, it points out the beast's weak spot. Your sword's primary purpose is to stab the glowing sigil located somewhere on the colossus; it's the only way for Wander to do significant damage to the monsters.
Your final weapon is a bow. You have infinite arrows and can use the bow anywhere, but as a weapon, it is staggeringly ineffective. Most of the time, you leave arrows sticking uselessly from the rock-hard skin of the colossi. The bow's primary purpose is stunning a colossus. Like Smaug from The Hobbit, many of the beasts have a bare patch somewhere on their skin that's vulnerable to a bow shot. You can rarely damage them significantly this way, but you can force them to stagger or slow down, at which point Wander can climb onto them.
In a way, Shadow of the Colossus is as much a puzzle game as an action game. Using only your bow, horse and sword, you must find a way to slay a monster that, at the lower end, is roughly 20 times larger than your character. This requires you to figure out the colossus' weak points, how to expose them, how to climb up on them, and how to navigate the strange architecture of the colossus' body to reach those weak areas. You must manage your stamina so you don't fall off, and you must figure out when and where you can stand and run and where you have to climb and shimmy along the fur-covered bodies of the monsters. There is nothing else like it in video gaming history, and even massive battles like God of War 3's Chronos fight can't compare to the simple but intense fight with a colossus.
The HD upgrade is a massive improvement to Shadow of the Colossus. In many ways, it's like playing an entirely new game. The title has always looked good, but it was plagued by immense slowdown and some blurry visuals. Shadow of the Colossus HD, on the other hand, suffers none of these issues. The frame rate is butter-smooth, and the updated visuals remain absolutely lovely due to immensely strong art design. The colossus battles are amazing to watch, more so than they've ever been, and it helps drive home how impressive these battles are. Games like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow may have copied the basic idea behind Shadow of the Colossus, but none have quite managed to capture the feeling of immensity that the enemies have in this game. The art design remains phenomenal, and with the upgrade to HD, you can see all the details that were easy to miss on the PS2.
The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection is shaping up to be an absolute steal. At $20 apiece, both games are more than worth their cost, even if you ignore the HD visual updates or the new features available in Ico. Anyone who has already played the games doesn't need to hear anything more than the titles to know that this collection is a must-have. If you've never played either game before, there's no better way to experience them than with the buttery-smooth frame rate and HD visuals of The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection. The collection is due for release this September exclusively for the PlayStation 3.
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