Shadow of the Colossus
Finally. Finally, us Europeans get to play the spiritual heir to ICO, the legendary classic that focused on the epic, against-all-odds escape of two young and vulnerable characters. The warmth and love of the two leads left nobody emotionally indifferent and the incredible art design awed everyone. The only catch was that no-one really bought the little gem. Luckily, with the release of Shadow of the Colossus and the re-release of ICO, gamers are getting a second chance to get the experience of a lifetime. A chance that shouldn’t be missed.
The opening sequence of Shadow of the Colossus leaves you with a lot of questions. You (an unknown warrior) start out with the lifeless body of a young girl in your arms. When you lay down the girl on the altar of a deserted castle, a god-like voice tells you that she can only be revived by collecting the souls of the sixteen colossi that roam the deserted lands. Without any thought or hesitation, you embark upon your quest to bring down the towering beasts and to get some answers. Who is that girl? Is she somehow related to you? What happened to her? Why are you so dedicated to bring her back to life?
Unlike any other game, Shadow of the Colossus is basically a succession of bossfights, with no other enemies that stand in between. “Where’s the excitement in that?”, one might ask and I suppose that’s a legitimate question. The truth is that you don’t really feel the need to fight smaller foes, since battling against the colossi is an incredible experience, that would only be marred by spending time disposing less impressive enemies. The time between colossi fights is spent by crossing the vast landscape on the back of your trusted horse, Argo.
Since the location of the colossi isn’t marked on your map, you need to resort to your sword to guide you. When you hold it up, a ray of light will show you the way to the next colossus. You’ll travel through huge, deserted plains, sunlit deserts, narrow canyons, dense forests and boggy swamps. The variety in environments is incredible and by the end of the game, you’ll have seen them all. The world you’re in is a deserted place (aside from some birds and lizards here and there) and you’ll often experience a feeling of gnawing solitude.
Then you’ll face a colossus. Most of these giant creatures are easily twenty times your size and one thousand times your weight. They are by and large the most impressive adversaries you’ll ever have encountered in a videogame. Each of these creatures is unique. Some soar gracefully through the sky, others lurk in the depths of a lake, others thread the earth, trembling the earth as they go. Your first glimpse of your adversary immediately fills your heart with fear and respect. When you think the first colossus is already way out of your league because of its massive dimensions, be warned, “cuz’ you ain’t seen nothing yet”.
Still, you have to take them down. To do that, you’ll first to get onto him, which will ofttimes be mind-boggling. The first few colossi are kind of straightforward. You just grab hold of their fur, hang on and slowly climb towards their weak spot and strike your sword in it. Later colossi will take a lot more time to figure out. Most of them will demand you to make good use of your environment. Some will test your horseriding skills or will require you to make good use of your trusted bow and arrow. No two colossi are ever the same, in both design and behaviour.
Though the basics of the game seem simple enough (find the colossus, get onto him, attack his weak spot or spots), there is more to it. SotC uses a ingenious stamina system. Grabbing hold of ledges or fur depletes your stamina. When fully depleted, you fall off of whatever you were holding on to. The colossi know when you’re hanging onto them and always try to shake you off. The feeling you get when you’re hanging onto a small patch of fur, 50 feet above the ground, while a gigantic colossus is trying to get rid of you, is undescribable. You literally need to see it to believe it. Luckily, all of the colossi have stone bulges on which you can rest and regain your stamina.
The art direction of Shadow of the Colossus is simply unmatched, with only ICO coming close to its unique and breathtaking atmosphere. The colossi are huge (and I really mean HUGE) and will amaze you time and time again. This is the kind of game that simply begs for a widescreen television. SotC’s epic scale is virtually unrivalled by any game thusfar. Every encounter with a colossus makes you wonder whether this is still simply a game or a work of art. Though its textures, level of detail and framerate (generally smooth, but with hick-ups) aren’t the best we’ve seen on the PlayStation 2, the game’s incredible art design and especially its animation more than make up for it. I even dare say if 80 ton colossi existed, this is how they would move. You really get a feeling of the incredible mass these creatures have to move around and the inertia that results from it. The colossi’s movements are so realistic, it’s frightening.
The only minor flaw about Shadow of the Colossus is its camera and control system. The game constantly chooses the most cinematic camera angles -which provides for an even more breathtaking experience-, but by doing so, it can hamper gameplay at times, for it can lead to badly timed jumps or loss of orientation. Nonetheless, the camera is manually adjustable, which should solve most problems. The controls take some time to get used to. For instance the horseriding controls are stubborn at first, but after a while, you’ll appreciate the realism that stems from it. You basically steer Argo’s head, not his body.
SotC’s audio delivers a knock-out blow. The symphonic, orchestral score is one of the most beautiful ever to grace a gaming system. The music comes darn close to perfection. During the heart-pounding battles, it provides the perfect adrenalin rush and in the more quiet parts, it strengthens the alienating feeling. There aren’t a lot of sound effects in the game, but the ones that are, are well executed. The roar of a colossus will send a chill down everyone’s spine.
With a length of around 9 hours, Shadow of the Colossus is a relatively short-lived experience. Nontheless, those 9 hours are of otherworldly class and magnificence. When you finish the game (and see its gripping finale), you unlock a Hard Mode and Time Attack mode, in which you can earn new weapons and items. Rest assured, you will want to play this game a second time.
What Sony has done with Shadow of the Colossus deserves recognition. The game excels in so many ways, especially in its phenomenal audio and art design. Shadow of the Colossus is unlike anything you’ve ever played before and therefore shouldn’t be missed by anyone. With the PlayStation 2 approaching the end of its life cycle, we can only hope to see games like this emerge on the PlayStation 3. By all means: buy it, and grab a copy of ICO while you’re at it.