System: Ps2,PS3/Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment/Developer: Team ICO/Players: 1/Initial Release Date: 10-18-05
Over time, you see something in videogame development that turns the tide. Suddenly everyone wants to ride that wave. Then we get used to it, almost to the point of conditioning. Everyone expects a game to have a feature. Think two genres, the Hack n Slash, and the Platformer. In the hack n slash, you expect huge waves of enemies, crazy combos, and some riddles you might solve. Now think about platformers. You expect crazy level design, tricky jumps, and a spin attack. These have become essentials to their respective genres. And then Shadow of the Colossus comes in and dares us to change our perception of these genres. Defying the usual conventions of game design, it dared to do away with a few essentials to drive forth its minimalist approach and to engage the player in a way that hasn’t been since in a long time. How did it work out?
Story And Concept
You start off the story knowing almost nothing about the characters. You are Wander, a warrior who recently lost his beloved, Mono, and isn’t willing to cope with her passing. He brings her to The Shrine of Worship, a place located in a forbidden part of the world. Upon placing Mono on the pedestal, several shadows appear, which then dissipate when Wander takes out the ancient sword and shines a light on them. Noticing this, a god named Dormin begins speaking to Wander, impressed that he has this sword. Wander asks Dormin if Mono could be brought back to life, telling Them (yes Them) that she was sacrificed for supposedly having a cursed fate. Dormin reminds him that the law of mortals dictates that the dead cannot be brought back; to disturb this natural order would have its consequences. Wander doesn’t care, he just wants Mono back and would do anything for it.
So Dormin tasks him to destroy the idols that line the walls leading up to the pedestals. But to do that, he has to kill the Colossi the idols represent. After this, the story unravels slowly. The setup is simple, but its execution is almost masterful. Each colossus has their own story behind them, but not much is known purposefully. The player is tasked to fill in the blanks, adding in their own interpretation of what these Colossi were, if this land was once not-so-forbidden, if they served a purpose. I won’t spoil anymore here, but let’s just say that the build-up and conclusion is so monumental that it deserves its own article. It’s something that outright turns what you expect over its head and is, at the same time, both karmic and beautiful. I highly recommend playing this to the end, and you’ll see what I mean. The story could be interpreted in many ways from player to player, it almost beckons them to give life to this empty stretch of land, much like Wander wants to give life to Mono. Grade: 95/100
Graphics and Presentation
Like ICO, Shadow of the Colossus exhibits a minimalist tone in its design. The Forbidden Land is barren of any life, save for birds, lizards, and the colossi themselves. While there isn’t much to talk about when it comes to environmental variety, it is interesting to see how exactly some of land transitions into another type of setting, like going from plains to desert, or forest to lake bed. What’s more fascinating is the sort of visual stories some of the colossi arenas tell. “What was the purpose of this shrine which this colossus guards? What was that platform above the lake for? Did people live in this citadel?” Of course, none of these questions are really answered.
The real technical marvels are the Colossi themselves. While enemies this large appeared in other games before this one, none were as interactive or involved as the ones here. While they are the only enemies in the game, you’ll face each one long enough to sort of appreciate their craft and scale. Looking back at this game, it’s amazing when you remember this game came out in 2005.
Of course, being a 2005 game, some things are a little rough around the edges. You’ll see some textures load to more detailed ones when you get closer. You’ll also see some faraway environmental features pop into existence. This remains true for the PS3 version as well. Speaking of which, the frame-rate of the game has some inconsistencies. While the game might feel more cinematic with its slowed framerate during battles, its smoother when you travel across the land outside of these skirmishes. This is completely alleviated in the PS3 version as the framerate stays at a steady 30fps. As a side note, at first I thought Wander was poorly modeled when I got the camera close to him. In actuality, it was normal. I won’t explain why though for spoiler reasons. Grade: 90/100
Sound and Music
Music in this game is used sparingly, left only for colossi fights and cutscenes. In between these, all you’ll hear are howling winds, the galloping of your horse, Wander as he whips the reigns, rushing water, and hawks flying by. All this together really immerses you into this empty world. It’s almost jarring to hear such silence, but only furthers the mystery of what the Forbidden Land hides.
That silence also aids in the sort of impact the music has when it does play out during the fights as they are grand, boisterous, and proud. The music during these fights come in two forms: when a colossus is not aware you’re there or unprovoked, and when you’re actually on it. While many throw around epic for everything they hear, not many are truly deserving of such a title. The colossi fights are one such compositions that very much deserve the title of “epic.” Greater still is when the music serves not just for setting, but function when the music switches up for when you actually climb a colossus and changes back when off it. This holds true for the one of the aquatic colossi that will swim too low for you to continue, and the music changes indicating that you can’t attack it in this state. As for the more calmer music, they are finely crafted with that same kind of foreign composition heard in ICO, with each of these adorned with acoustic strings and flutes reminiscent of the golden age of RPGs. They’re calm, they’re emotional, and give personality to the ICO lore. Grade: 95/100
Gameplay and Ease of Control
This is one part the game that could be either love or hate for any reason. Those looking for something to fight in between the colossi fights won’t be fighting anything else be these. Sure you can hunt those shining lizards for more grip strength, but that’s about it. I never really found a problem with this, especially considering that you’ll be fighting the colossi for upwards to 15 minutes to a full hour.The first part of the colossi slaying is actually finding one. You’ll be told by Dormin who “Thy next foe is” and where it’s located. You then have to raise the sword and go to where the lights all converge via horseback. Controlling your horse is like controlling a car, you hold down one button and press left for left, right for right, and back to stop. It can become somewhat of a pain to get Agro, your horse, out of a corner, which is further exacerbated in more scrunched areas like some narrow pathways and wooded areas. Thankfully Agro goes into a sort of auto-pilot when crossing bridges (you still have to hold down the X button though).
My only gripe with the traveling to a Colossus happens with the 12 Colossus. Along the way you cross a bridge into a somewhat dark wooded area. Of course when you’re in the dark you can’t gather light around your sword to pinpoint where this colossus is, save for one small spot. I gather light from there, and it told me to keep going forward. However there is a large impassable gap preventing my progress. Thinking that this isn’t the way to get there, I gallop around the whole damn formation and come up empty. About 15 minutes later I come back to this wooded area and look everywhere I possibly could for a way to get there. Many moons later, I notice that there’s actually an exit to the left of the entrance. But because of how similar both looked, I just kept thinking “agh that’s not it. I came form there.”
On the colossus fighting side, the Grip Mechanic is your bread and butter to climbing a colossus and staying on it. If something is furry or has a ledge to it, you can grab it. The grip mechanic most certainly adds challenge as you’ll be planning out your path and where you might be able to restore more grip strength while on a colossus. The colossi will make every effort to get you off them, whether it’s by shaking themselves, flying upside down, or swimming lower underwater. No matter how violently they maneuver, if you have grip strength left, you’ll hold on. Rest assured, you will be frustrated when fighting a colossus, You’ll be ready for a stab, only to be shaken out of position and wait them to stop so you can start again. However, the frustration only adds to the satisfaction of taking down something that’s big enough to be a skyscraper.
Some of the colossi designs in terms of gameplay are pretty damn genius. While some are a little more deliberately designed, like the 1st one with the platforms on its back, some are more naturally designed like the flying colossi or the quadrupedal ones. From far away, you look in awe at the sheer size of some of these things and wonder how the hell you get on them. And so you come up with an idea to get their attention, mostly involving shooting your arrows at them or whistling. Quite a few colossi though have a sort of “trick” to it, a means to make the colossus vulnerable enough to start the climb, whether it’s with geysers, platforms, hiding, or deception. Once you begin the climbing portion, it’s amazing how much things begin looking almost like a living level, especially for the quadrupedal colossi. Ledges, gaps, and places to hold on to become something of a natural instinct to the player. As you down each colossi, that feeling of satisfaction slowly turns to grief as you realize that some of these colossi are rather peaceful and only attack if you instigate them. Rest assured, each sad moment of a fallen colossus is setting up something, and it may not be what you’d expect. It’s beautiful, but in a way that comes out of nowhere. Grade: 93/100
Breaking the trend of usual game design, Team Ico tried something that no one thought would be possible, and was probably only a norm in those multi-limb boss fights in RPGs. A little man toppling titans, a constant David and Goliath moment, all as a means to defy the natural order of man to revive a fallen loved one. The environment is barren of life, but heightens the sense of mystery of what the Forbidden Land may have had eons ago. The music is only heightens the feeling of awe as silence accompanies your trek to the next fight, and opens with a thunderous torrent of percussion and sweeping strings. This synergy of silence and action continues with the gameplay as calmly mare your way to the next arena tense up with each fight. The daunting task of felling a giant begins to unravel as you discover its weakness and begin the ascension for its decension. Shadow of the Colossus is an artfully crafted experience that shatters what “good art” is in videogames. It’s a masterpiece.