Video Game Review from the Vault: Shadow of the Colossus

(Posted to my Facebook page on September 4, 2015)

 

I don’t get to go back and play old games as often as I’d like due to limitations to how many game consoles I have, the availability of the game, and other stuff. Still, I recently got a PS2 with a handful of games and thought I’d check out one of the grand daddies. A game supposed to be one of the best games ever made. A game that I’ve always wanted to play but never had the chance and kind of spoiled for myself by watching a let’s play of it some years ago. A game by legendary development company Team Ico who made… two games. Cough. Anyways, I just played Shadow of the Colossus, and this is what I thought.

First, I would like to make a statement about the expected quality of this game and my opinion. Scoring this thing is going to be very difficult because if I give it a perfect score some people will say “Oh, he’s just saying that because everyone else said it!” and if I give it anything less someone people will say “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” or “He’s just trying to be different!” Let me just say this plainly now: I’m judging this game solely on my experience and opinion. I didn’t have any trouble tearing apart a game lots of people liked (Oblivion) and I’m also perfectly willing to admit when a popular thing is worth the hype despite my prior disposition (Skyrim). With that being said, let’s begin.

The game doesn’t actually give us a lot to work with in terms of story. There’s very little dialogue (Other than in the cutscenes at the very beginning, a short one in the middle, and a few at the very end of the game, you only get a little dialogue from one character), which is an interesting choice for such an artistic game but helps add to the mystery. However, thanks to Google, I have managed to fill in a few blanks. You play as Wander, a warrior from the land of (ERROR NAME NOT FOUND). He has traveled with his horse Agro and the body of a young girl (Whose name Google informed me was Mono) to a forbidden land in hopes of finding a way to revive Mono. Mono it seems was sacrificed because she was destined to live a cursed life and that’s actually all we know about her. Seriously, we don’t know if she’s Wander’s sister, friend, lover… backgammon partner, nothing. Anyways, Wander reaches a temple at the center of the Forbidden Land and encounters the voice of a god named Dormin who has the ability to revive the dead. After learning that Wander carries a special magic sword, Dormin agrees to revive Mono provided that Wander destroys sixteen colossi that are roaming the land. Wander agrees and, until the last cutscene, that’s about it. The story does a decent job of giving the player motivation to hunt down the colossus and goes with a “Less telling, more showing” idea of storytelling that Team Ico is famous for, and it fits well here. More dialogue would have just weighed everything down and overcomplicated things, so the game knows what to keep and what to toss. The ending is interesting and thought provoking because it doesn’t try to really jump the shark. There’s something of a plot twist for sure, but it’s still completely reasonable. It doesn’t spell everything out for you but also doesn’t leave you completely in the dark, which is an important balance that seems to be lost in many stories now a day. It’s simple, has depth, and most importantly, it doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay.

The gameplay is… well, it’s not terribly uncommon now that a game is entirely focused on boss fights, but that’s because those games are trying to copy Shadow of the Colossus. In the Forbidden Land, there are no common enemies. No spoopy skeletons, no bandits looking to carve you up, no cave bats, nothing. There’re just sixteen colossi and a few animals farting around doing nothing. So, what exactly do you do other than fight colossi? You travel to the fights! No, seriously, those are pretty much the two things you do in the game. You go to a colossus, kill it, go to the next one, kill it, rinse, repeat, ect. So now you think “So… that’s ALL you do?” And… yeah, that’s it. There’s a side-activity where you hunt White-Tailed Lizards to increase your grip gauge, but that’s all. In that respect, the game seems rather bare bones, and it kind of is. It took me about eight hours to complete the game (I had a fair amount of prior knowledge about the colossi going in, but I still got stuck for a while on the last two, so I’d guess that’s about average, but I have no trouble believing that someone could blaze through this game in five hours or less), and other than the story, there are time trials, New Game+, and Hard Modes to tackle with a handful of items to unlock, but exploration and colossi battles are really all this game has. So why is this game so well regarded then? Because it does those two things so well that it doesn’t matter that it’s all it has.
While the world seems empty and uninteresting at a glance, the sheer scale and variety that this world has to offer is what makes it so interesting. Riding to a colossus battle doesn’t feel tedious, but instead instills general tension and giddiness as you imagine what type of colossus you might be fighting next through the journey. It doesn’t take so long to find the battle that it becomes generally irritating, and that’s thanks in part to a rather genius way to find the next colossus. Rather than simply marking it on your map, your sword will guide you to it. Lifting your sword above your head while in the sunlight will focus the light and point towards your next destination. The world is designed very well and finding these battles often isn’t too difficult, thankfully. As I also said, there’s a great variety in this world. Scorched plains, deserts, abandoned cities, lakes, caves, and even battles in the sky. While large parts of the world don’t have a lot in them, it adds to certain eeriness that this “Forbidden Land” should have. Exploring this land is somehow more exciting and tense than, say, Oblivion, which has monsters hiding under every rock because Shadow of the Colossus knows exactly how to pace itself.

And then… the Colossi. Team Ico really outdid themselves with these creations. 16 behemoths and most of them look amazing, unique, and are really fun to fight. You’ll use your sword’s light to identify weak points before climbing all over their bodies to stab their weak points. Some of these fights will play out like puzzles where you’ll need to find how exactly to expose of make it to the monster’s weak points, others will be more action based, and some will require you to use the environment to your advantage. The variety here is really staggering; from the expected man-shaped creates (Like the one on the cover) to a bunch that I just don’t want to spoil. They’re interesting, exciting, and unlike anything that I’ve ever played. There are certainly a few head-scratching puzzles and a few frustrating bits, but they’re few and far between. Most of the time it’s very reasonable and satisfying to figure it out and slay the beast. My only real complaint with the colossi rests with two of them: the two little ones. When you hear the word “colossus” you expect giant monsters that make you feel like a mouse. Most of these monsters fall into that category, but two of them are about the size of an SUV, which is pretty disappointing. One of the fights is really fun and interesting but the other is a really weak fight. Not to mention that these small and quick colossi smack Wander around a ton, and Wander has this stupid habit of staying down for a solid five seconds after a hit, which just adds to the frustration. This is really just a small complaint though, the fights are the main attraction and they do a damn good job of holding the weight of this game.

The graphics are utterly gorgeous for the PS2. Agro looks and moves like a horse, Wander’s cloak flutters in the wind, the landscape seems dead—but only because the designers wanted it to look like that. You really get the feeling that long ago this land was something great, but something terrible just sucked all of the life out of it. The colossi… oh man, imaginative and how wonderful to fight if only to look at them up close. They look so great… almost too great, actually. These colossi are very intensive on the game and during some fights I found that the framerate would start to chug a bit. It never got to the point where it got unplayable (Though in the final fight a few tricky jumps became more problematic than they needed to be), but certainly noticeable. Actually, this problem might not be a problem if Sony would pull their heads out of their asses and make a digital re-release of this for the PS4. There’s a Shadow of the Colossus/Ico bundle on the PS3, but no PS4 release for some reason, and since, of course, you can’t play PS3 games on the PS4, I’m a little screwed in that regard. Still, like I said, it never got unplayable, just a tad bit annoying.

The sound design… I mean hell, I was a fan of this game’s soundtrack before I even played it. Some of the most beautiful tracks ever composed for a game are here. The game knows when to make you feel awe, when to be excited, and when to just drink in the atmosphere and the soundtrack is one of the main reasons that the environment works so well.

The controls are fairly simple and work pretty well with only a few minor complaints. The camera can be a bit of a pain in the ass to get to work properly while you’re scaling a colossus and sometimes can get you turned around and waste grip, which can be an utter death sentence at the wrong time. An option to zoom the camera out a little bit would have been appreciated for sure. The camera also doesn’t seem like it knows what the hell to do when you’re riding Agro and takes a low angle which is great for admiring the scenery, but not so great for seeing where you’re going. If Agro didn’t automatically stop short of cliffs, I would have had quite a few more deaths underneath my belt. There’s also a little confusion with some of the attacks. With a bow and arrow, you hold the button down to draw the bow and release the button to shoot, but with your sword you press it once to begin winding up your strike and press it again to stab. It’s not unintuitive; it’s just that it seems to contradict itself at times, which is confusing and slightly annoying.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I went into this with a strange perspective. I had seen a Lets Play of this some years ago so I had some expectations there, but mainly I was something like “Okay Best Game EVAR, let’s see what you’ve got!” And show me it did. This is one of the most unique gaming experiences I’ve ever had. The lonely yet calming atmosphere, the beautiful music direction, the simple story, the amazing battles, the creative Colossi, this has earned its classic medal in spades. My few complaints are really nothing more than nit-picks. This really is an incredible game worth of a play from just about everyone.

I give Shadow of the Colossus a 5 out of 5.

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