Game: Shadow of the Colossus
System: PlayStation 2
From the makers of Ico comes Shadow of the Colossus- an action / puzzle-solving hybrid game that is unlike most games to fall under those categories. While a poor technical presentation, unresponsive control scheme and a lack of variety detract from the overall experience, Shadow of the Colossus’ redeeming factors almost make up for them. Its concept is unique, and the artistic merit of its visuals and score are undeniable. Although it probably won’t make the best first impression either, it definitely deserves the attention it does receive.
The premise of the game is intentionally simplistic. You, an unnamed ‘wanderer’, have travelled to a forgotten shrine to beseech the resident spirit/s to cure / revive / resurrect your sick /comatose / dead girlfriend / sister. The details are all deliberately left vague except for the task given to you- you must traverse the abandoned peninsula surrounding the shrine to hunt, and kill, 16 colossi. That is pretty much it. Shadow of the Colossus is, in essence, 16 boss fights. The game consists of finding each boss and then killing it. There is nothing tacked on or pretentious about this setup- there are no monsters, equipment gathering, or puzzles related to anything other than defeating each colossus. To be clear, though, that much is surprisingly satisfying.
It works like this- you have a horse and a magic sword. You raise the sword into the sky and the sun will reflect off of it, pointing in the direction of the colossus you must find. There is not anything intrinsically difficult about this. You don’t have a map per se, but the geography isn’t designed to confuse you or make you get lost. In fact, the only part that is not straightforward is fighting the beast when you find it. Combat consists of locating the enemy’s weak spots, which are marked by a glowing sigil, somehow mounting the creature and finally driving your sword into their vulnerable point. In this manner the colossi can usually be downed by 4 or 5 well placed strikes. However, in case it hasn’t yet been made obvious, these monsters are huge. They may well be the largest bosses around- most even put the Painkiller behemoths to shame. Needless to say, getting on top of one and leisurely sticking your sword in its neck is a complicated matter. Usually it is accomplished be grabbing onto hairy parts of their anatomy and climbing your way up. Oftentimes you will be somehow luring them into a position where you can get a grip- you won’t just be able to walk up to their foot and start climbing away.
That said, fighting a colossus is a mostly trivial challenge. Very rarely, if ever, do the giants adopt an offensive posture, and, even when they do, the damage dealt is never lethal. Although some required stratagems that took a bit longer to put together, only the 10th colossus, Dirge, was actually able to send me to the ‘game over’ screen. Defeating each one is thus highly procedural, and once you have worked out how exactly you are meant to reach the weak spot, or how you are meant to lead the creature to a trap, almost all of the challenge will be lost from the encounter. The subsequently unlocked ‘Hard Mode’ and ‘Time Attack’ features add little to the mix- you might just try to get stepped on a few less times than on normal. Sooner or later, the combat will become mechanical and labourious especially because, even though each creature is breathtaking in its own right, they really do not differ that much from a gameplay standpoint. Variety is something Shadow of the Colossus sorely needed. I cannot help likening the 16 colossi to the 16 angels of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Where, in the latter, each was profoundly different in appearance and capability, requiring unique tactics to be defeated, here they are all similar lumbering titans fought roughly the same way. Sure one might look like a horse and another a turtle, but it comes down to finding and stabbing a glowing spot on the lot of them. By the end, not only are you no longer intimidated by the prospect of engaging a foe maybe 100 times your height, but the whole thing even seems like a joke. Even though there are no mindless enemies or inane plots used to pad out the game’s length, the sheer monotony of its most basic feature makes the already short game (10 hours max) seem too long. Incidentally, this won’t be the first thing you notice wrong about this game.
From a purely technical standpoint, the visuals of Shadow of the Colossus are unacceptable. The developers obviously worked on a very large scale when designing each element of the game from the landscape to the colossi themselves. Now, commendable as this is, it becomes soon apparent that this ambition belies a reckless disregard for the system for which the game was developed. First off the graphics are mostly bland, and yet are very blurry. The oversaturation of everything, obviously a creative choice, should have helped to conceal most of the graphical flaws but doesn’t. Anisotropic filtering would have helped the landscape tremendously, but is unsurprisingly absent considering the most prominent issue is the wildly varying framerate. During some mundane scenes where the camera pans across a wall, 60 or more fps are easily perceivable. Why? Because the rest of the time you’d be lucky to see 10 or more per second and it puts those 60 into sharp relief. The brilliant animation, particularly of the main character and his steed, help bring the shocking framerate into focus. Not only is the game anything but ‘smooth’, but the low fps also makes certain encounters, or situations where the camera jumps about, mind-numbingly frustrating. The camera itself is a joke. By default it finds its own way- the alternatives are to posit it yourself using the right analogue stick or to hold L1 and have it lock onto the nearby colossus. Neither are very effective and since the controls are relative to the camera’s constantly movement (and constantly need to be adjusted). You will effectively be less scared of the colossi in this game and more afraid of the camera switching on you or giving you too dodgy an angle, and the framerate too low to allow for adjustments before you miss the chance to strike or, on rare occasions, get killed as a result. One example of note is the lion colossus, Cenobia. It is constantly charging and knocking down the hero for a recovery of about 10-15 seconds each time, but each time it does, the camera chooses to do its own thing, often landing inside part of the landscape- fighting in a ruined Aztec-esque city means that there are bridges, walls and columns all over the place for the viewpoint to get trapped by. Did I mention there will be a delay of about 1-2 seconds before the camera even starts moving after you tell it to? The time it takes it takes to find an angle where you can actually see the character, combined with the severe choppiness, means that you’ll likely have been knocked over by Cenobia again before getting up. Great fun.
That input delay is not exclusive to the camera controls, by the way. It goes for everything- jumping, attacking, calling the horse… While it is not always 2-seconds long, it will often provoke multiple presses of a button just to make sure the command got across. For what is essentially an action gameplay experience, Shadow of the Colossus has just plain terrible controls. First off, everything takes a long time to do. If you accidentally press R1 to crouch, you have to wait until the guy crouches and gets back up before you press Triangle to jump- else he will dive instead. As mentioned, the directions are relative to camera position. Thus jumping from hand to hand of the sorcerer colossus, Malus, will be an enormous trial since the angle is constantly in flux. There is no exaggeration in saying the controls are Silent Hill-clunky, which is unforgivable since the combat in the game is resultantly not reflex- or puzzle-based, as it should be, so much as it is a struggle with the controls, the shocking angles and the appalling framerate. It is unfortunate these issues condemn the title when there are so many lesser games that get them right so easily.
It is honestly the art of Shadow of the Colossus that kept me playing. Despite its many faults, the game is gorgeous to look at. The colossi are some of the most creative creature designs I have ever seen and the game maintains a whimsical visual style that suits perfectly its premise, narrative (which does become more prevalent at the end) and its concept. While the giant statues are clearly modelled after individual animals (the minotaur, the bird, the lizard), their design of rock combined with flesh differentiates them from their origins to the point where they all look like monsters. Indeed, even the giants modelled in human form (the knight, the old man, the sorcerer) are far removed from humanity- an odd sensation to be conveyed through last-generation polygons. The enormous detail put into the creatures and their animation demands the huge scope of the game, and, I concede, in some ways necessitates its poor performance. Despite the framerate and lack of image enhancement, the raw assets of this game clearly surpass anything else on the PlayStation 2 by a large margin. There are times, especially during the spectacular final battle, that you can see past the choppiness and low-resolution to a game that is far ahead of its time. I seriously think that if the textures were upscaled, and if some basic image enhancements were added, Shadow of the Colossus, would be a worthy high-definition next-generation title left as-is. Although not an audiophile, the game has an impressive score to back it up. Most of the gameplay is without non-diagetic music, but the battles themselves are accompanied with a frantic piece that mirrors the state of the fight. Special mention goes to the somewhat melancholic theme just before the killing blow is delivered- it is very much characteristic of the sobre mood that the game as a whole develops.
Having completed the game, it warrants an appreciation most of its competition doesn’t. As a whole, again, it can be seen as a self-contained experience, the immersion into which is aided by its unusual narrative structure. Shadow of the Colossus is not the first game to feature a nameless protagonist but it is the first I have played that uses the technique to such great effect. There is an empathetic exchange that extends beyond simple watching and controlling that is fuelled half by not knowing the wanderer’s motivations or intentions and half by his obvious desperation to complete his impossible task. His uncoordinated movement, seeming inexperience at wielding a sword, and tireless efforts make his actions sincere and relatable, if at times frustrating. This is not even considering the moral dilemmas of game- you will no doubt feel sorry for some of the beasts you slay and many times wonder what the real goal of your journey is. Even though there is no substantial plot development during the course, the resolution offered at the end is adequate and satisfying. It is also a shame that beating a colossus isn’t more difficult the second time, since at end game you are free to roam the forgotten land and fight with which each again. While it doesn’t add much replay value, it leaves the game in a complete state, at least, at the end.
In truth Shadow of the Colossus is not a bad game, but despite its extremely strong points is not a great game either. Its gameplay is interesting but unvaried and will inevitably descend into tedium. Aesthetically the game is nigh perfect, with evocative countryside and ruins playing host to battles on a scale that has never been seen before. The colossi are some of the best creature designs, if not the best or most creative challenges. I am, however, compelled to describe the grave technical shortcomings of the game, and have done so before issuing praise so that this review differs from the bulk of others which offer acclaim while playing down these factors. I finish Shadow of the Colossus and end up wanting more- not more of the same, but an experience not tainted by unfortunate technical problems. It is an utter shame that this was released on the PlayStation 2. Unlike most reviews, I do not believe the game’s saving graces succeed in saving it, but I have no doubt that if a sequel were made for next-generation platforms the performance (and likely responsiveness) issues would be solved and that the result would be a game whose ascent to greatness would not be obstructed by the constraints of an aging piece of hardware.
Graphics (Technical): 5/10
Graphics (Artistic): 10/10
Overall Score: 7/10
While I would dearly love to grade this game higher, I cannot. As it is, 7/10 and a B are generous.