Secondly, you should realise I’m a big fan of the original Ico and will therefore be biased – even when I think I’m trying not to be.
So, the game. From what I’ve now seen and played of it I can say that it delivered on pretty much all counts. I think there’s room for improvement with the way camera control is handled and also player control. Everything else is just stunning.
The game opens in much the same way as the original Ico did. An engine-based custscene takes it’s time conveying the hero traversing wilds and forest on horseback. A delicate theme plays throughout. The touches that elevated Ico’s look and sense of reality are evident at this stage too. The hero comes to a small chasm so he manoeuvres his horse around until a confident run and jump can be performed. Elsewhere there is a close up of a forest scene with moisture dripping onto plant leaves, the leaves give way to the impact of the droplets as they fall. A remarkable amount of care and attention to a synthetic world. The intro ends as the hero comes to a mighty bridge, hundreds of feet long, that leads into a large temple-like structure. As the camera pulls away to a distance so far that we can no longer make out the hero or his horse the legend “Press Start” delicately fades in.
You start the in what I presume is the other end of the temple. Your mysterious significant other laid on the altar and your horse idly standing nearby. If you’re anything like me, you won’t be dashing straight into looking for goals and objectives. I’ve looked forward to getting the chance to savour what these people have produced and I intend to take my time and soak it up. You have control over the camera and I decided to get a good look at our hero. The hero doesn’t appear typically heroic. The hero posesses a genteel posture and less than rugged frame and has an almost androgynous appearance. Moving the camera rapidly invokes a motion-blur effect on the environment that also affects the frame rate. The hero is not affected by this motion blur and stays crisply portrayed throughout.
Time to push some buttons. Triangle makes you jump, no great shakes there. Square unleashes an attack. D-pad left and right swaps your weapons between bow and arrow and your sword. Pressing X calls your steed and reminds you instantly of calling Yorda in Ico. Holding the circle button raises your sword to the skies. In well lit areas the light will bounce off your sword and then give a kind of starburst effect off the blade. Moving the camera whilst the sword is held aloft affects how this starburst appears. The beams of the starburst contract and expand as your focus moves and they will eventually contract to a single, wide beam when you’re facing in the direction you need to proceed in. Whilst a compass with a marker or a column of light might serve the same purpose I have to admire how this information is all conveyed within the context of the game. No need for arbitrary maps with icons overlayed on them here! Subtle but effective.
Your horse is your companion, as Yorda was in Ico or as Epona was in Zelda: Ocarina of Time (to which endless comparisons will undoubtedly be made). I really can’t convey just how succesfully the team behind this game have made this entity seem like a living, independent being. Save for a few sharp angles and a slightly thining mane, this is a real horse. I won’t attempt to say any more on the matter as I don’t think anything I can say will do it justice. Pressing the jump button near the horse will allow you to mount it. Once atop the horse left and right pulls on the respective reign and allows you to influence the horses direction of travel. Pushing up will dig your heels in and pulling down will pull on the reigns giving the instruction to halt. The game clearly wants you to feel like you are controlling your hero, not your horse, when you are sat on it. The horse takes just a moment to react to the instructions given by the hero and retains it’s sense of being an independant creature and not something that you directly control.
It’s time to leave the temple. As you travel under the archway leading to the outside world you are greeted to an expansive plain. Here is where you can play giddy-up and learn how to focus on making sense of using the light to find your goals and get a better feel for riding and controlling your horse.
Sooner or later you’ll end up at the base of a largish rock wall. This is an excersise in training you the way to control your hero and getting him to jump, grip and climb walls and ledges. Importantly it shows how you can traverse moss-covered surfaces and walls. Once you’ve scaled this wall you’ll meet your first Colossus. He’s one of the guys you’ve seen in the pictures and videos of game footage and makes a fairly modest appearance – which I was quite surprised at. I really expected that the unveiling of your first nemesis would be quite a theatrical affair but it’s done with little fanfare other than the plodding of his feet and a camera-pan up to his head.
And now the game begins in earnest. Shining the sword is meant to help reveal the weak spot(s) of the Colossus but I found this had no discernable effect. I spent a good five minutes running away, getting the sword out, aiming the camera to see nothing change at all. Every now and again the beast would take an almighty swipe at me with his club – making the entire ground shake and debris fly. This also has the effect of unbalancing the hero and throwing him onto his back a few feet away. The hero receives damage (clearly depicted in a smallish status panel in the bottom right of the screen) that regenerates over time when this can happen. Other errors such as long drops or being trodden on won’t help your in your efforts either!
The encounter with the Colossus was accompanied throughout by a dramatic score. On the whole there’s a far greater audio presence in this game than in their last one. But then, the tone of the game is far more dramatic and grand. The audio is ideal – I couldn’t really say that there was anything I noticed in a positive or negative way other than the footsteps of the Colossus didn’t resonate as deeply or loudly as I might have expected. Whether this is them or the bass settings on my TV audio I don’t know yet. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s me, not them.
So, I spent some time dashing around the big guy and, for kicks, walked between his feet and ended up behind him. Swivelling the camera round I saw a weak spot! His shire-horse-like hairy shins had a blue area on it. I had to get to it now. Timing my jump with his footsteps I attached myself to his ankles and clambered up. The Colossus was walking all the time and the hero was flung wildly around as the monster took his strides. A grip meter is an integral game mechanic and portrayed by a diminishing disc near your health gauge. You can hold on for as long as you have the ability to do so (and holding down R1 too). When you run out of grip or release the R1 button you’ll drop off whatever it was you were attached to. Your grip meter takes about 15 / 20 seconds to return to maximum. So there’s the primary mechanic – travel from safe spot to safe spot before your grip runs out. I climbed up his ankle and hairy shin and prepared to attack the weak spot. Attacking whilst holding on involves holding down the square button to draw your sword and charge, you then execute an attack by releasing the button. As you would expect, the hero is depicted holding on to the shin by one hand, his legs supporting him and his other arm raised about to strike – all the time whilst your entire world is lumbering around creating chaos all about you.
Striking the spot creates a reaction from the Co
lossus, a scream and a pause as he lowers to one knee. Your environment has changed! You’re no longer clinging onto a hairy wall but crouching on a hairy platform as the creature kneels. Quickly, there’s time to release from the shin, run along to the back of the knee then jump onto a monstrous thigh. The beast is up again. The hero is climbing the back of his leg and onto it’s waist. No further progress upwards can be made from this point so the hero clambers hand-over-hand along to a large spinal plate sticking out the small of the creature’s back. It’s safe to stand unaided on this area and recover grip but the movement of the creature still forces the hero to lose balance constantly. Looking up, the rest of the journey is obvious. A mane of hair covers the head, shoulders and central back of the Coloussus. Climbing is straightforward and feels epic as you, like an ant, climb this monster. At the top of his head, another weak spot. Hold, release, STRIKE! Jets of black blood are released and the creature wails and shakes. The hero is thrown but his grip is secure. Another strike, more jet black liquid erupts and more of the creature’s health is lost. A simple horizontal bar across the top of the screen indicates half my job is done. But the hero has no more grip and is flung to the floor.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
The creature falls, devastating the land around him and as he lays still, the dust still to settle around him, black streams of energy snake around the air, swirling around it and making their way to the hero’s sword where they are absorbed fully.
And with that, the gameplay ends. A short movie plays showcasing more footage from the game. The end.
On the whole, I’m totally satisfied with what I’ve seen and heard. As I stated earlier, the camera controls need a little work. Holding L1 fixes the camera in such a way so as to keep the hero and the Colossus on screen at once and can prove to be cause difficulties because, due to the sense of scale, you’ll see more a lot of chin, nostril and sky and not be able to determine where you are in your environment too well. Or maybe I just suck.
Another concern is what I saw of having to repeat the ascent of the colossus because the game design won’t allow you to stay at the crucial weak spot due to your grip running out. I don’t know whether this mechanic will be repeated for every giant but I can imagine it taking away a chunk of fun from the game if you end up having to repeat things too much. Perhaps later giants will change their stance and structure after your initial attack and create a need for a new path to be found as you head to it’s weak spot in future attempts.
The only other criticism I have is that the hardware of the PS2 may not be up to the vision of the game design. Certain events cause a noticable drop in frame rate (such as swinging the camera across an open plain invoking the motion blur effect or when huge chunks of dust and debris are created when a creature lands the swing of their club). These aren’t fatal by any means but they do serve to break that wonderful suspension of disbelief that the rest of the design works so incredibly hard to convey.
I remain thrilled and full of anticipation for the rest of the game and to see how cunning the design of the later encounters will be. I think the idea of having ‘living’ levels is a fabulous idea and a logistical and design nightmare. I’m convinced that I’ll be seeing some new styles of platfoming and cerebral challenges in the game and it’s that, as much as it’s stunning appearance that maintains my excitement.
Thanks for reading this far – I’ve deliberately made this as detailed an account as I can muster whilst working from memory. If you have any questions that I might be able to answer, feel free to ask. So long as they’re not begging for the game demo that is!