Shadow of the Colossus is a 2005 action-adventure game, developed by Team Ico and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. It was originally released for the PS2, but was re-released in 2011 for the PS3 as part of the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection.
The following is a review of the enhanced PS3 version of Shadow of the Colossus, as part of an overarching review of the HD Collection. As such, please note that any comments on the game relate to its present incarnation, and that a review of the original game may occur in the future.
The setting? A world similar to, but distinctly unlike, our own. The place? A forbidden land, upon which no person has stepped for many years. The task? Hunt down and defeat 16 massive, incredibly powerful beasts, each sporting unique characteristics and unnatural powers over nature. The reason? To bring a woman back from death, having been taken from life because she was said to have a cursed fate.
If none of this intrigued you, then you really can’t say you’re into games. This is Shadow of the Colossus, the second of Team Ico’s two works (I hear The Last Guardian is still underway…as usual). Joking aside, the team clearly put everything they had into making Shadow of the Colossus the best reflection of the studio’s own philosophies: the game is atmospheric, minimalistic, and even tragic at times…and now we get to see how this works in their favour.
As alluded to above, the story starts with some standard fantasy tale set-up – an unnamed warrior rides into a mysterious land, seeking out the aid of a spirit, known only as Dormin, to save a woman he carries with him. Not much context is given as to how this man (named by real-life sources as Wander) is connected to the woman, or how he came to learn of Dormin, but it becomes clear that he is completely dedicated to bringing her back to life.
Dormin also realizes this and agrees to Wander’s bargain, though his aid is offered on the condition that Wander carry out the destruction of the Forbidden Land’s 16 colossi, mythological creatures constructed from both organic material and the earth itself. Riding his trusty steed, Agro, and wielding a colossi-killing sword of unknown properties, Wander sets out on his quest, not knowing what will become of him.
You may be wondering why I have done nothing but allude to the actual quest, and there is a reason for that. Shadow of the Colossus‘s story is unique in that it progresses directly through the player’s actions, giving them a sense of pride as they move from battle to battle.
However, the other interesting thing is that the pride a player feels will eventually be replaced by regret – regret at killing these innocent creatures. The colossi rarely instigate fights with Wander, and even then it’s out of fear over the player’s intrusion into their land. When not in battle, the creatures seem docile, resting without fear of violence.
Where, then, would a story go with the underlying ideas of unwarranted violence and the semantics of invasions? While I can’t necessarily comment on that, it can be said that, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, pretty much acts as the game’s mantra. Every blow you strike, every colossi you down, adds to the weight of the task – yet the player is obliged to keep going on this path to damnation, just to see if there’s a silver lining here.
The story’s underlying messages aren’t the only things to watch for. Being a spiritual successor to Ico, the 2001 action-adventure classic, Shadow of the Colossus has some ties to that game. Again, going into details about how it ties into Ico would spoil some of the more intriguing revelations here, but rest assured that discussing the ambiguous nature of certain elements of this game will inevitably occur.
Being a tale of simple execution and not-so-clear morality, Shadow of the Colossus definitely leans on its atmosphere to keep players immersed. Its heavy tone is set with the interpretive dialogue, of which there is little, and every moment feels somber, as though the world becomes much emptier and depressing with each colossi’s death. I’ll go into the presentation aspects of this later, since that clearly has an impact, but suffice to say this game will keep player enthralled until the very end.
Though narrative is key to the game’s appeal, certain steps seem to have been taken to structure the gameplay as a refined, simplified representation of everything important about the action-adventure genre. It definitely supports the plot, but it also serves its own purposes – to give the player an experience very unlike any other.
Shadow of the Colossus‘ structure is built around fighting the colossi – only the colossi. There are no other generic cannon-fodder enemies to fight, no distracting side-quests; there is only the main journey from location to location, linked via the hub-like Shrine of Worship. One could say that the game is part travelling mini-game and part boss-battle bonanza, but that would sell short the level of depth that have been invested in these elements.
Each battle starts with a riddle, some puzzling message that Dormin spouts as a way of hinting at the traits of that particular colossi. From there, Wander must make his way to the colossi’s home, travelling across a wide area that sports mountains, ravines, deserts, forests, and even large bodies of water.
This seemingly impossible quest to find the colossi is lessened by two factors: the ability to ride Agro, the player’s loyal steed, and the ability to reflect light from the sun off Wander’s sword to pinpoint the colossi’s nests. Both of these are well-implemented and come in handy on numerous occasions – Agro can speed up and even lets Wander perform a few player-aiding/-amusing tricks, and the light-reflecting guidance system is simple to use and tends to be quite accurate.
From the moment that Wander leaves the Shrine to his arrival at the colossi’s lair, the action is limited to the journey. No dynamic events occur, and the duo of Wander and Agro are scarcely interrupted unless specific environmental puzzles block Wander’s steed. It’s rare for a game with such a large world to have so little occur at one time, but in this case it adds to the atmospheric nature of the adventure. This time allows for reflection on previous actions, as well as providing an opportunity to prepare for the next encounter.
Also fortunate is that these segments are used in moderation, shifting to a carefully entertaining blend of action, puzzle and platform gameplay – that is to say, things get more interesting and intense during the actual battles. Each of the sixteen colossi has very different physical traits and battle tactics – ranging from simple land-bound giants to large dragon-like beasts roaming the skies – and it is the job of the player to determine their weakness.
The goal of these segments, which can last about half an hour, is to climb on the colossi and stab them at their weakpoints. Key to this are those three styles of gameplay – each colossi’s body has a distinct pattern which must be exploited (puzzle), thereby allowing the player to grab onto distinct parts of its body (platforming) and stab it in iconic glowing points (action). Some fights will take longer than others, but that simply comes with the territory. Everything implemented here just works well – the platforming segments feel tense yet focused, the controls when fighting and moving are solid, and the battles never feel unfair or too easy.
That said, the overall length of the game is going to reach about eight hours, which is standard fare for action games. There are going to be players who are disappointed in the game’s length, but every second of that time is used well and is never dull or meaningless. If people return to Shadow of the Colossus, it may be to unlock some hidden items, replay the colossi battles, or gather some stat-boosting items, but otherwise the game lasts as long as it needs to.
Earlier in the review, I mentioned how the presentation plays a part in capturing a specific tone for this story and I meant it. Though it clearly shows signs of age, the graphical quality is still admirable for being detailed and immersion-inducing.
Environmental details are aided greatly by the terrific lighting and art design, which paint the Forbidden Land as a place of untamed, unhampered beauty that is slowly being devastated. This sense of pain and sorrow, merging with natural beauty, is most evident in the characters and the colossi, the latter of which are varied and truly awe-inspiring.
Sound adds to the immersion factor of gameplay, but it is most evident during encounters with the colossi. The voice acting is fairly standard and nothing to write home about – it fits the desperation of the tale, but it won’t be the thing players remember most about this game. The real breadwinner in this department is the soundtrack, which consists of numerous memorable and intense orchestral pieces that change in the midst of each fight.
Even as it declines into a depressing expression of artistic vision, Shadow of the Colossus is truly a wonderful creation. Its world is rich with detail and emotion that is called upon just often enough without being overwhelming. The gameplay, story and presentation meld together to create an experience that every developer should take note of – and one that every gamer would do well to take part in.
That said, can I safely say that it is a masterpiece? F*CK YES! No game is truly perfect, and pretending that Shadow of the Colossus is perfect would disgrace its values. It is, however, the quintessential action-adventure game and it should damn well be on every self-respecting gamer’s shelf. Go buy this game – don’t second-guess yourself, just buy this game and enjoy every last second of it.