The concept of solitude provokes many different reactions in people. For some, it’s a fearful state to be avoided at all costs. The thought of being alone provokes anxiety for those who draw energy from interacting with others. Yet for some people, such as myself, solitude is actively sought out. The quiet drowns out the chaos of the outside world, allowing for inner reflection and peace. But even for those who enjoy it, too much solitude can drive one mad. Even the most introverted person still requires some social interactions. So what happens when a game tries to instill a sense of solitude into those seeking stimulation?
Shadow of the Colossus was one of those games I’d been hoping they would remake, as while I missed out on it the first time around, I was quite aware of the game and studio’s reputation. In Shadow of the Colossus, we take the role of a young man, not explicitly named during the game but referred to elsewhere was Wander, who enters a forbidden land to make a pact with a disembodied voice to resurrect a dead woman. The voice, an ancient spirit referred to as Dormin, agrees… if Wander can release pieces of its power sealed away inside Colossi scattered about the land. And by release, I mean murder.
Shadow of Colossus can be best described as an adventure/puzzle game, except the puzzles revolve around how to kill the Colossi. These beasts are far too large or dangerous for Wander to take out by normal means, and must instead use his stolen holy sword to find their weak points. But when the beasts are as big as buildings, getting to said weak points proves to be the biggest obstacle.
Narrative: On the surface, Shadow of the Colossus has a pretty bare, straightforward story. Kill colossi, resurrect dead lady. However, it’s surprisingly good at showing or implying details, leaving a lot of things to the player’s imagination. For example, we’re never outright told what happened to Mono, the lady you’re trying to resurrect, or even what Wander’s relationship with her is. Dormin mentions she had a cursed fate, so was she sacrificed? Did she die from the curse? Is she Wander’s partner? Sister? Condemning yourself and going against your clan isn’t something you’d do for just anyone. What happened after the credits end?
A lot is told simply by the action of the story. We see the bond between Wander and his horse, Agro, who for the most part is your only companion during the game. Not just any horse would charge under the feet of a raging giant. At least my impression is that Wander isn’t really a warrior. While good on horseback and with a bow, he’s a bit ungainly with his stolen sword. Not to mention how he flails and trips around… at least when I was playing him. We also see the growing cost of Wander’s deal with Dormin as we proceed, hinting at a sense of dread. Some people might not enjoy this open-ended approach to storytelling, but it’s clear the developers wanted to leave a lot to the player’s interpretation.
Overall, while not the most nuanced story, it frames the actions of the game perfect, giving us all the motivation we need to continue even when we don’t want to.
Mechanics: As with the story, a lot of gameplay is simple. Stripped down. You hunt down your next target, find a way to expose their weak points if necessary, climb on, & hang on for dear life as you stab away. All you have at your disposal is your horse, bow & sword, but that’s all you need. A good chunk of the game is simply riding around the beautiful but empty landscape to reach your next target, which admittedly is quite enjoyable. As mentioned above, it really helps the lonely atmosphere of the game to have this vast, untouched space to move around in. It’s beautiful, but you’re not supposed to be there.
The majority of what could actually be labeled as “gameplay” revolves around slaying the colossi, which is where the puzzle aspect comes in. Ultimately the goal is the same in each fight: stab the glowing glphys to widdle down their health. However, getting on the giant beasts is easier said than done. I appreciated that each colossi had its own strategy for getting to the weak points, starting simple and growing more complicated as the game progresses. For the most part, I liked the progression in difficulty. The colossi begin pretty docile, but become more active in combating the player. Whereas in the beginning it’s just a matter of not getting stepped on & climbing up their leg, toward the end you’re navigating labyrinths of platforms. And for the most part, with some observation and patience, it becomes clear what you need to do, though there were a few times when I was doing the right thing but in the wrong place. I think my favorites were Avion & Cenobia (5th & 14th respectively). While all the flying bosses were fun, Avion had some real speed, & was quite the adrenaline rush as I tried to hold on while it’s going upside-down, & while Cenobia is one of the smaller colossi, I liked having to lead it along a path in a game of The-Floor’s-Lava.
That being said, Shadow of the Colossus is not a perfect game, & I feel like most of the problems I had with it came down to control issues. Even when the bosses were at their most frustrating, I feel it always came down to just a few issues that should’ve been tweaked in this remake. Firstly, Wander needs some more weight to him. I get that he’s supposed to be this little guy who’s not really a warrior, & he’s holding onto the back of giants, but he shouldn’t flail as much as he does when they start thrashing. It doesn’t matter how big or small the colossus is, once they start shaking his legs go flying & you can’t move. I can’t say I have experience riding something trying to throw me off, but can’t I have a button to make Wander dig in his heels or something?
Secondly, it can be oddly hard to move around just normally when holding on to the colossus. I recall that in the original version, each bit of fur on them was essentially its own ledge, & while I don’t know if they carried that over with the remake, it certainly feels that way. Wander doesn’t always move the way you want him to & sometimes has a hard time grabbing the correct limb.
I also have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Agro. On the one hand, I liked that once you get him up to speed, you don’t have to control him. Just point him in a direction & he’ll keep running. I also liked that he won’t run off cliffs. But it would’ve been nice if he’d also turn away from running into walls, especially in the one fight in a cave. He also has the annoying habit of slowing from his run if you turn him, meaning that on some of the fights when you’re trying to keep up with the colossus, you basically have to hold his run key, the left stick, the button to stay focused on the colossus, & the fire key. This might not have been so much an issue if the camera wasn’t complete crap most of the time, which appears to be a problem carried over from the original version. Like Wander, the camera’s too “light”, & unless you’re holding the stick down, will automatically begin recentering itself. You can’t look around, which is bad when you’re trying to find where to go during a boss fight. Why can’t the camera stay where I put it? The addition of a button that focuses on the colossus is helpful, but as I mentioned, it’s hard to hold that & all the other buttons at the same time.
So overall, while the adventuring and fighting with big monsters is a uniquely thrilling experience, the little but persistent frustrations with the controls keep it from being a perfect experience.
Aesthetics: Rather than simply being an up-res, the remake’s assets were built from the ground up, & the hard work is clearly on display. This is a beautiful game in all respects. I’m not usually one to take screenshots on a console, but I made good use of the feature while traveling around the valley. The land teems with picturesque plains, artistically lit caves & dense, misty forests. Even when I accidentally took the long way around to reach the next colossus, I never minded because I was too busy gawking at the scenery. And given that half the game is riding around, that’s a good thing. Even the areas you can’t reach only add to the ambiance. The colossi are similarly stunning in their own right, really creating a massive scale. While we’re never told their exact origin (did they always exist or came about from the spirits inside them) they appear molded from the very rocks, soil & grass around them. And I enjoyed that each had their own unique design, which also hints at how to defeat them.
The sound design matches the gameplay, varying from quiet ambiance to pulse-pounding scores. When you’re simply riding around, there’s no music, only the sounds of nature & Agro’s hoofsteps. But the music kicks in when the colossi appear, the beautiful orchestral tones setting the mood perfectly. It really fits clinging for your life on the back of a massive beast. The dialogue is all in Ico-brand gibberish, but for what little there is, it does its job of telling the story. Though I do particularly like how Dormin’s voice is composed of multiple voices, both male & female, adding to it inhuman nature.
Replay Value: Moderately high. Depending on how quickly you defeat each colossus, conceivably you could complete the game in a day. But there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had through multiple playthroughs, with New Game+ letting you carry over upgrades you’ve earned, & Time Attack challenges that unlock new gear. While sadly you can’t change the outcome of the story, it’s still work revisiting & enjoying multiple times.
Overall Score: 4
Final Word: I was not disappointed when I finally got to play this classic game. It’s well worth any gamer’s time, even if there are a few persistent problems that hold it down from perfection. While I never played the original, I feel confident that this is a great remake, as well as just a great game in its own right & a must have for all gamers.
Title: Shadow of the Colossus
Console: PS2 (original), PS4
Developers: Team Ico & Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan Studio (original), Bluepoint Games
Publishers: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: October 18, 2005 (original), February 6, 2018